You want to go to the library at 3am? Britain's the place

A quarter of UK universities offer round-the-clock opening for flexible study. Matthew Reisz reports

An international survey of universities has revealed a striking difference between the library services offered by British institutions and those in the rest of the world.

Although it remains unusual, a far greater proportion of British universities now keep their libraries open 24 hours a day than their counterparts elsewhere, the poll suggests.

The findings stem from data gathered as part of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings project.

In the list of just over 400 institutions from which the top 200 will be determined, about 8.5 per cent give students access to their libraries 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Yet for the British universities among them, the figure is about 24 per cent.

The findings come at a time when UK universities are under growing pressure to prove to students that they are providing value for money, with scrutiny likely to increase if, as is likely, tuition fees rise.

The University of Bath pioneered all-day opening during term-time when its library was refurbished in 1996.

Gavin Rea, the deputy librarian, said that for the past two years "it has been open 24 hours a day for 365 days a year, as many overseas students are unable to go home for Christmas".

Since the library security desk doubles as the university reception, and there is sometimes only a single member of staff on duty, the extra expense comes to less than £20 an hour at night-time, he added.

Although he admitted that late-night occupancy can be "very low", or dominated by overseas students using computer facilities to contact home, Mr Rea stressed the "unbelievable flexibility" that the policy offers students. They can "spontaneously turn up and do a couple of hours' work when the mood takes them".

Any worries that 24-hour opening might lead to student burnout have proved unfounded.

The University of Salford is about to go down the same route, having trialled 24-hour opening successfully last year for 11 weeks around the main assessment periods. Usage was so high that plans - enthusiastically supported by a students' union Facebook campaign - have been approved for a pilot extension to all 31 weeks of term-time.

Julie Berry, the library's acting director, said that the self-service facility would not represent a significant additional burden but "a cost-effective way of maximising the usage of the very extensive resources we are buying".

Since the university already provides open-access PC suites, they will want to ensure that "night owls" come to the library to make use of other resources.

Yet Ms Berry said that Salford's goal remains one that all universities should aspire to: "allowing students to work when they want to".

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