Hogmanay tactics

December 24, 1999

Universities have prepared for the millennium with military rigour. Olga Wojtas and Claire Sanders report.

Richard Field's father organised emergency planning operations for civil defence during the war. More than half a century on, Dr Field, vice-principal of Edinburgh University, is planning to wear his father's tin hat and battle jacket to see in 2000.

Dr Field and university secretary Martin Lowe will not be joining the city's Hogmanay street party, but manning the university's central control room, prepared for all eventualities. There are telephone links to all sites, with staff in the control room advising the director of estates and buildings on potential hot spots should there be problems. Emergency generators have been installed not only for heat and light, but to maintain laboratory deep freezes at the necessary -800C temperature.

Edinburgh is also part of an international early warning system through the worldwide network of Universitas 21. Sister universities in the Antipodes will alert Edinburgh to any millennial crises, with Edinburgh then set to pass on advice to Canada. The control room will be resolutely dry, although one wag has suggested having a bottle of whisky behind glass with the message "Break open in case of emergency".

For many universities Christmas and the millennium will pass quietly.

"We will just have security and maintenance people in to check all is well," said a spokesman for the University of Ulster.

"By Sunday afternoon we will be able to say what is working and what isn't. We'll make a decision then about whether to go to the media or not with details about which parts of the campus are functioning as normal."

Other universities are going to town. "We thought it would be crass to let the millennium pass without doing anything at all," said Mervyn Farrell, programme coordinator at Queen's Belfast. "We are running a series of events under the banner 'Queen's 2000'. During the year we will run a drama event and in science week we expect between 3,000 and 4,000 school pupils to attend interactive science workshops. And we are planning a series of celebrity graduate lectures in which politics will be discussed."

Cambridge University has donated money to Cambridge City Council to support celebrations and it has produced a booklet highlighting lectures, concerts and continuing education courses. The university has also signed up for Children's Promise, a national campaign to encourage people to donate their last hour's salary of the millennium to charity.

Janet Sprent, former deputy principal at Dundee University and coordinator of its Y2K arrangements, is facing a 15-hour shift. The university had an inadvertent rehearsal last month when there were local power failures. "It was very salutary. We had a lot of trouble with the telephone lines, interestingly. We've now got as many kinds of telephone as we can get, radio phones and mobiles, because we have a rather spread-out campus."

Security and IT staff who have volunteered to work over the millennium changeover are being paid premium rates, generally triple time. But campuses will be ghost towns, with most institutions operating strict exclusion zones. Special arrangements are being made for students staying in residences. Those at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen may end up eating better than they do the rest of the year. The school of food nutrition is issuing diet sheets for cold foods in case of power cuts, urging students to stock up on longlife produce and has even drawn up five sample menus.

A torch is the must-have student accessory this Hogmanay, according to university advice packs, and is even being issued as a free gift by Heriot-Watt University. Margaret Dane, Heriot-Watt's Y2K coordinator, said:

"We have an emergency evacuation plan from the residences to our conference centre, which will have a generator for heat and light. We're laying in stocks of prepacked foods and asking students in the residences to have a bag ready with warm clothing and essentials such as medicines."

Edinburgh University is unusual in letting accommodation to visitors over new year. Terry Coles, accommodation services director, expects them to be partying in the city centre, giving the university "a couple of hours" should there be any disruption. He anticipates the holiday lets will pay well. The proceeds will be invested in student accommodation.

Douglas Anderson, RGU's Y2K coordinator, said: "Most universities would agree that Y2K has been a chance to spring-clean, look at systems and upgrade them. If nothing happens, I'll be delighted, but if it does, I think we're ready."

A number of universities are taking "generation photographs" to record the millennium. In November, Hull University attempted to get as many of its staff and students into one photo as possible. Queen's will do the same in late March.

Hull is also concerned for its international students. International student adviser James Richardson has organised a meeting to ensure that they know what is open and what is not. And along with many other universities it has produced information on what to do if electricity or heating fails. The university's report centre will be open 24 hours a day and will help students with urgent immigration, legal, housing or personal issues - as well as a burst pipe.

Debora Green, international student officer at Sheffield University, said:

"We are not organising parties as we have had poor attendance in previous years. Students tend to make their own arrangments." As is Robert Bachmann, a German student studying for an MSC in energy and environmental engineering. He intends to travel to Scotland with a housemate and friends from Germany. "We are going to celebrate the millennium in Glasgow, but up to now we have no accommodation as the youth hostels are almost all booked out for months," he said.

Yumie Aoki, a Japanese mature student studying nursing at Sheffield, will be travelling to London over the holidays with friends.

For many overseas students January exams loom. Alison Barty, overseas student counsellor at South Bank University, said: "We have many Chinese students for whom the new year is not so important. Many will stay here and study." London students can also visit International Student House, which always has a busy schedule of events this time of year.

Enterprise, page 11

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