It's last orders at Aberdeen

March 26, 2004

Is time being called on that traditional hub of student life, the union bar?

On Saturday, the doors of Aberdeen University student union will close for the last time as a result of plummeting bar takings.

Instead, the union will be ploughing funds into student support such as training for Scotland's innovative quality-enhancement system.

The closure signals a new trend among student unions, which are diversifying their activities in the face of dwindling revenues from drinking on campus.

Nick Emms, marketing manager of NUS Services Ltd, said that while times were tough for everyone linked to the licensed trade, the problems were compounded in student unions by falling numbers of the type of student "who spends all their time in the bar".

While he was not aware of any institution planning as drastic a step as Aberdeen, he said that unions were seeking new ways to respond to what students wanted.

NUS Services was increasingly involved in offering "mix-and-match meal deals" along the lines of the offers made by high-street chemists Boots, he said.

"A few years ago, you might have seen people hanging round the bar for a pint at lunchtime. That is non-existent now. The biggest growth area is on-the-go-type food."

Rami Okasha, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said that recent Glasgow University research showed that students drank less than non-students of the same age.

Jenny Duncan, Aberdeen's student president, said there had been a significant downturn in recent years. This academic year, the union's bar sales during freshers' week, traditionally the most lucrative period, dropped by 20 per cent compared with the previous year.

Since December, the bar has opened only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, when it has done 80 per cent of its business, but the continuing downward spiral has led to the decision to close it completely.

Ms Duncan said that in the past students might have gone to the union four or five times a week for a couple of pints, but those working part time and mature students with domestic responsibilities had little opportunity to go out drinking. And when they did, they wanted more salubrious surroundings.

"We don't have the money to refurbish, and some clubs in town have spent millions," Ms Duncan said.

But Leeds University Union, the largest in the country with a £7 million turnover, recently invested £5 million in a new extension housing a nightclub and a supermarket.

Tom Wong the Communications officer, said that the university was not facing the same pressures as smaller unions, but everywhere was experiencing a downturn. For example, Leeds bar takings were increasing by about 1 per cent a year, which was a decrease in real terms.

The University of London Union has built a health club, which, according to Nick Berg, the general manager, has proved successful.

He said: "There has been a quite catastrophic decline in bar sales (everywhere) over the past five years or so. Unions were not set up to run bars. Everybody, I think, is looking at 'let's get back to basics'."

Mr Okasha said unions wanted to spend more money on providing student advice and support services.

Plans are under way for a one-stop shop round Aberdeen's central refectory, which is likely to host social events as well as housing student welfare and support services.

"This is where people go and have a cup of coffee or lunch. There won't be a stigma about seeking student support because you are not going to a specific support building," Ms Duncan said.

"Freeing income from commercial activities will allow us to focus on student development and representation," she added.

Scottish students play an integral part in internal and external quality checks in institutions, with training made available through the Student Participation in Quality Scotland scheme (Sparqs).

Ms Duncan said that she had held discussions with Sparqs about training students to take part in internal teaching reviews.

Mr Okasha said: "There is a realisation that when it comes to quality assurance, students are the best people to know what is of good quality or not.

"It's important that they are trained to take part in this process."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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