Student centre in name only


Luke Brown reports on the newly announced investment on campus

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Image by ADP & O'Donnell + Tuomey

By Luke Brown

The University's plans for a new student centre have faced widespread criticism from students.

The proposed student centre, which will be located between Greg’s Place and the JB Morrell Library, is one the University’s key ‘transformational projects’ in its Strategy 2030 plan.

Architectural firms ADP and O’Donnell + Tuomey were chosen to design the new centre, with preliminary designs published on 25 May portraying a modernist, anvil-shaped building.

Tracy Lightfoot, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Teaching, Learning and Students, said that the new student centre will be a “front door to the University and a gateway to the city.”

The University has said that the new centre will include YUSU offices, event spaces, society spaces, a rooftop garden and “chill out areas”. The exact space allocation inside the centre is yet to be decided. The project will cost around £60 million, with the new student centre itself opening in 2024.

However, many students have complained to Nouse that the University has failed to adequately engage with students on the new centre.

The University consulted 35 individuals and three organisations, only four of whom were students or student-led: Patrick O’Donnell (YUSU President), Viviane Cao (Graduate Students’ Association President), the Student Expert Panel (a University of York student focus group set up to comment on the plans) and All Saints Roman Catholic School (a York secondary school and Sixth Form). The overwhelming majority of those consulted were University staff.

Sophie Kelly, YUSU’s Activities Officer, told Nouse : “The initial meeting with the University about the new centre was rushed through and there was little time to prepare.”

“They gave us less than five days notice,” Sophie said. “What is concerning is that only a very small number of students have been consulted so far.”

Rohan Ashar, the incoming YUSU Activities Officer, shared these concerns: “The biggest frustration is that, even though the project is in its early stages, everything that has been decided so far is with next to no input from students.

“The University provided a very limited opportunity for us to share our thoughts last term, in the form of a short meeting that they gave me less than a week’s notice for, and some of the concerns raised by numerous people about the exact design that they have gone for were seemingly ignored.”

Despite this, the University has opened a dedicated online portal to allow York students to access information on the new centre and to offer suggestions on the design and use of the building.

But Sophie Kelly complained that “it is very difficult to use this student feedback portal if you try to use it. Many students have told me how difficult it is to actually use it.”

“It is very out of touch with what students actually want,” she added.

Rohan Ashar acknowledged this online portal, but was concerned by some of the details “that the University are suggesting in the plans”.

“Students want much-needed specific spaces for media, performance, socials and nightlife,” he said. “Offices and a rooftop garden feel quite redundant and far away from the potential that this building has for students.”

“They might as well call it ‘Centre’ because they’re yet to add the student part to it,” he added.

However, in both of the University’s proposals for the centre’s space allocation, staff space will take up only 501m². Office space will use 296m² under Option 1 or 326m² under Option 2.

Student activity space, by contrast, would take 1,037m² under Option 1 and 1,582m² under Option 2. This means that there will be more student activity space than staff and office space under either Option.

But the University is planning to install a shared media studio in the new centre, with YSTV, URY, Nouse, York Vision and all other University student media in the same space. This media space will be 72m² under both Option 1 and 2.

Sophie Kelly expressed her serious concerns about the shared media studio: “Based on the current plans, it’ll be smaller than the current YSTV studio alone. This building needs to be designed with students’ needs in mind. Giving clubs and societies the space they need to grow is the key.

“What the University is saying is contradictory. They’re saying that it’s still early stages but all these detailed plans have already been drawn up.

“There’s still time to change, but I would like the University to commit to designing this building with students’ and societies’ needs in mind. At this point, there has been nothing made public to indicate that.”

John Tuomey, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Design Director for the new centre, told students at YUSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 8 June that the whole project is “framed in the context of the student experience.” “

There will be multi-use spaces,” he said. “A possible space for a student nightclub could also be used as a student media space in the day.”

Jon Roylance, ADP’s Higher Education Director, told students that he envisions a student centre which is like a “beehive that anyone can fly in and out of.”

Roylance stressed that “openness is a central theme of our design.”

“This is a new kind of building,” he added. “We’ve never built a building like this anywhere else before.”

ADP and O’Donnell + Tuomey have designed the new centre with the architecture of York in mind.

“The new student centre will be at the civic heart of the University,” Roylance told students at YUSU’s AGM. “As such, there will be a geometrical connection between the intricate triangular features of York Minster, the grassy mounds along the City Walls and the prefabricated, concrete repetition that characterises the University of York.”

Patrick O’Donnell, President of YUSU, welcomed the plans for the new student centre: “When you visit Leeds University or the University of Sheffield, they have great, recognisable student centre buildings. The University of York currently has a fairly rubbish converted squash club for a student centre. This new centre will enhance what we already have”.

Tracy Lightfoot echoed this, stressing that “we are only at the start of this journey."

"Everyone wants a piece of the new centre,” she said. “But not everyone can get what they want.”

After meeting University staff leading the student centre project, Sophie Kelly told Nouse: “I feel reassured that there will be plenty of opportunities for students to offer further suggestions and ideas about what spaces should be inside the new building.

“At this point in time, the project is still at an early stage, and although a design has been commissioned, the internal spaces have not yet been decided. This was poorly communicated to students in the initial announcement, and I have asked them to provide clarity with this. I look forward to working with the University as the project progresses, to make sure that clubs and societies have the spaces that they need.”

Viviane Yuxin Cao, President of the Graduate Students Association (GSA), also welcomed the announcement of the new student centre: “A purpose-built student building where we can all work together for the benefit of all of our students will be a fantastic addition to our already vibrant campus. GSA have been actively involved since the start as part of the project board and we are keen that our students get involved too.”

A University of York spokesperson told Nouse: “We want to hear from students, and they can continue to get involved through our feedback portal. All students can provide their views on this project, and our consultant with our student community will continue through the build of the Centre.

“Representatives of the student unions are on the Project Board and formed part of the judging panel. As part of the initial round of stakeholder consultations, student union representatives were consulted and views sought from clubs and societies, and this engagement will of course continue."