College libraries brought to book

August 6, 1999

In the fifth of our surveys on student life, Alan Thomson finds that students are disenchanted with poor computer facilities and inadequate libraries.

If there was one thing that annoyed the majority of our student interviewees, it was university library facilities. Books were variously unavailable, available for a few hours at a time, out of date, or falling apart.

Computer access also proved problematic. Universities take note: there is no pulling the wool over the eyes of today's IT-generation students. They came from schools with computers in every classroom, have computers at home and can spot an old (slow) computer a mile away.

The Goldsmiths students agreed that library facilities were "appalling". Siobhan, English and history, said: "There aren't enough books. When you go to get anything there are a hundred people before you on the list. I ordered a book on the reading list before Christmas for an essay and it arrived in February."

Siobhan also complained about the level of fines for late returns. She said:

"I've got a fine for Pounds 18 at the moment. Yes I was late, but Pounds 18? I said to the librarian, 'I'm a student and I can't afford these kinds of fines' and she said, 'Well, it isn't only students that use this library'. That just sums it up really."

The group thought that computer facilities should be open far later in the evening and even round the clock. Lawrence, art and design, said: "A lot of students are nocturnal so it would be good to go in and get started on an essay at 2am or something - especially if it had to be in the same day."

Peter, history, thought that universities were charging fees by the back door. He said: "It's a bit like what Siobhan was saying about library fines. The universities are getting us to pay not only through tuition fees but through the hidden extras like having to pay 5p for each sheet you print out, or 4p for photocopying. I mean, how can they justify that?"

The Lancaster group were not quite so appalled but had their share of complaints. Pete, philosophy, said: "Badly funded. There's quite a lot of books but the newer stuff isn't there."

Ronan, combined science, chipped in: "And they've got this short-loans facility, which can annoy you if you've got an essay to write and you're only allowed it out for a number of hours. Mind you it's good because it means you can always get hold of a book within three or four hours."

The group was unimpressed by the computer facilities. Jamie, history, politics and law, said that there was "no chance" of getting on a computer in the library between 10am and 5pm. They were hopeful that the university would put a computer access point in every student room so that they could use their own hardware.

The Plymouth group complained the most. Andy, underwater science, laughed when asked about facilities. He joked: "Are there facilities here? I've spent Pounds 280 on books so far this year because the library has only one copy of some of the books I need for my course. As for getting hold of good IT support, it's an absolute nightmare."

Fiona, foundation engineering, said: "It seems as if resources are going down and student numbers are going up, they don't go together." Sara, human biology, seemed resigned. She produced a library book with pages missing and ring bound because the spine had disintegrated. "And I was lucky to find this," she quipped.

At Strathclyde there seemed to be too few copies of some high-demand books. Jennifer, politics, said: "I've spent Pounds 220 on books so far this term and without a job it's quite a lot for me, especially as I don't know if I'll be able to sell them on in my second year."

There was less pessimism about the university's IT facilities. Even Carl, English, who was the only one in the group not to have his own computer, was more or less satisfied. He said: "I'd like to see the uni mainframe extended elsewhere off campus as it means I have to walk all the way into university to type an essay. But when you get there they're okay. You may have to wait a little while but you can always get on one."

Sharee, law, thought the IT facilities were good although she felt that she could have done with more training. She said: "In law it can be very hard trying to find individual cases. I would like training on internet searching."

Cardiff students had some of the same complaints about the quantity of books available in the library. But it did not seem to worry Emily, biochemistry, too much. She said: "Especially in the first year, as long as you buy one book, you don't really need to buy another. Basically, they're all telling you the same thing."

And Doug, communication studies, seemed pretty content. He said: "I was a bit skint this term so I couldn't really afford to buy all the set texts but in the social science libraries they've got a lot of short loans and if you're lucky you can get one for a day."

Where Cardiff fell down was on its computer facilities. Areej, banking and finance, seemed too depressed to string a sentence together. She said: "IT facilities are slow, very slow, really, really old computers."

Emailers seemed to be the bane of Emily's life. She said: "You're supposed to be allowed to tell them 'get off' if they're just sending emails on the library computers, but I don't think I could do that."

Cambridge's collegiate system appeared to make a significant difference in terms of the availability of library books. The group thought that there were fewer people vying for books. This may be due to the way courses are structured so that people doing the same subject are not necessarily at the same point in the course. However, there were differences between colleges. For instance Trinity, a well-off college, has a lot of stock.

But our group thought the colleges were stuck in the Dark Ages when it came to computers. Rowena, studying English at Queen's, said: "When I first arrived I thought the college IT facilities were appalling. My school facilities were a hundred times better."

Others in the group gave examples of the dearth of computers in their colleges, though Maggie, languages Trinity, astounded them when she revealed that her college could afford new I-Macs.

As part of the survey we also asked our groups what they thought of the catering on campus. Curiously, students at different universities thought that the standard of food had declined since they started university. Maybe, they thought, caterers allowed freshers a honeymoon period.

The groups were also appreciative of other important university services such as welfare, careers and accommodation services. At Cardiff Emily went to see the counsellors when she first arrived because she had cold feet about her course in biochemistry. She found them very helpful. Areej also had a positive experience when she arrived as an overseas student. She said: "When I got here they picked us up from the airport and answered all our questions. So when I got here I didn't feel lost and if I had any questions I knew where to go."

All thought Strathclyde had advertised the services available, though only one, Sharee, had used them. She used the accommodation office to help her find a privately rented flat.

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