By Pete Hodson, News Editor, @PeteHodson
Students at Ulster University’s Belfast campus are in the midst of a protracted campaign to pressure University management into providing an on-site café, a facility available at Jordanstown, Coleraine and Magee but denied to students attending the small (but rapidly expanding) Belfast site. Around 15,000 students are expected to attend the Belfast campus by 2018, the completion date for work to expand and upgrade the current amenities.
UU Belfast is currently without a dedicated social space where students can convene, the SU bar having closed down a number of years ago owning to a lack of funding. In the interim period the student body has been far from quiescent, establishing a café manned by student volunteers in an abandoned section of the main building. Initially conceived as a one-week pop-up venture, the student-run café has been in daily term-time operation since January 2014. The café has proved a success, generating a previously markedly absent sense of student communality. Known as the Bronze since last September, the café offers basic catering and social space facilities at student-friendly rates and depends entirely on the voluntary labour of the student community.
Reflecting on the first anniversary of the Bronze, art student Rosanna McKenna (one of the founding café volunteers) expressed her frustration at the perceived ambivalence of UU management regarding the provision of a permanent social space. The Bronze has developed into a thriving student meeting place and a crucible of student activism. The radical surroundings provide the ideal environment, in the words of Ms McKenna, “to meet, to chat; [enjoy] cheap food, company and freedom of thought”. UU’s Belfast campus is rapidly gaining a reputation for student protest, embracing an activist spirit and airing grievances in a more robust and creative manner than has been the case for several years.
A feeling of neglect by UU authorities has been extant among students at the Belfast campus for several years. The café has become located at the heart of an array of grassroots student protest movements. According to the café’s Facebook page (Student-run café), the ethos of the Bronze encourages UU Belfast students to “claim their space back and make a stand against the lack of consideration given to them by their University”. Protestation has had minimal impact on UU policy thus far. UU directors remain largely silent on the issue, serving only to embolden the small but spirited team behind the café’s operation. A sense of unease has, however, overshadowed the regeneration project currently underway at UU Belfast, with student volunteers fearing the thriving social hub and all it has come to represent will be swept away resulting in the erosion of the collectivist spirit fostered by the café.
UU Students’ Union VP for the Belfast campus, Sarah Gordon, has pledged her wholehearted support for the initiative. Ms Gordon spoke of a “feeling of collective anger at decisions made [by UU management] which Belfast students feel very much exclude them. As a sabbatical officer I regularly talk to students about what the plans are for the Greater Belfast development and I always here the same thing back, a sense of injustice and annoyance at what has been allocated to the Students’ Union”. Reflecting on the perilous funding situation facing the education sector, Ms Gordon stated “the institution simply must address the stark imbalance now forming surrounding financial investment. Professor Paddy Nixon will be paid £250,000 plus benefits when he succeeds [the incumbent Vice-Chancellor] Richard Barnett”.
On his appointment in March, Professor Nixon will rank as Northern Ireland’s highest-paid public sector employee, a position previously held by QUB’s Vice-Chancellor Patrick Johnston who is on a wage of £249,000. A UU spokesperson commented that “As for your query, a student/social space is already available on the Belfast campus. There is regular engagement with students and the University takes the needs of students very seriously”