Gráinne Ní Ghréachaín, Editor.
Queen’s University and Queen’s Students’ Union have announced their decision to build a World Class Student Centre on the existing site of the current union. This development will include a Students’ Union facility. The Gown Newspaper initially broke the news of this development following a Freedom of Information Request last year.
The decision was approved by ‘‘Student councillors on SU Council who voted overwhelmingly to approve the business case in February 2017 and also University Senate in June 2017.’’
Queen’s University have issued that the enlargement will ‘‘enhance the student experience and help support the growth of the knowledge economy in Northern Ireland.’’
This conversion is one of the many expansions Queen’s have invested in recent years, this includes ‘‘the development of the McClay Library, the Graduate School, the Law School building, a new Computer Science Building’’ as well as ‘‘ongoing work on a new School of Biological Sciences and two student accommodation blocks in Belfast City Centre.’’ The development on the Students’ Union will be ‘‘a multi-million pound project that is part of the University’s fully-costed Capital Development Plan and will be part-funded through philanthropic gifts.’’
The plans are set to go underway in 2019 with the new building announced to open for students in September 2021. Queen’s University have stated that all student services will be ‘‘under one roof’’ and will support ‘‘student wellbeing, development, entrepreneurship and employment opportunities.’’ Therefore, the Students’ Union will be temporarily moving to the ‘‘revamped Elmwood Learning and Teaching Centre (ELTC), on Elmwood Avenue (just behind the Union) in the summer of 2018, until September 2021.’’ During this period, ‘‘the SU will continue to provide a full range of SU services including a student bar, SU shop, social spaces and areas for clubs & societies.’’
Professor James McElany, the acting President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, stated ‘‘our vision is that this project will bring the University and the community it serves closer together in line with our Social Charter.’’
‘‘The new Student Centre underlines the University’s commitment to further invest in our students to enhance their experience and create world class facilities. In Northern Ireland, our people are our greatest resource and this project underlines the commitment of Queen’s to invest in our future leaders and to strengthen the region’s developing knowledge-based economy in line with The Programme for Government aspirations.’’
Queen’s Students’ Union President, Stephen McCrystall, stated ‘‘We all have very fond memories of the Students’ Union, however the existing building, which has served us well, is now 50 years old and was designed for a student population of 5,000. It is now ill-equipped to address the diverse needs of today’s 24,000 students or our future student body.’’
While the news has been met with excitement, confusion arose as students wondered how Elmwood will temporarily home the Students’ Union, and if there will be enough rooms for clubs and societies as well as bars and a concert venue like Mandela Hall, an SU shop and Blackwell’s, considering it will be a temporary accommodation for three years.
Students wondered what is to happen to the many employees currently hired at the Union, as their businesses will be temporarily moving to a smaller facility. The Students’ Union stated ”the temporary decant has been planned to ensure that there is a minimal disruption to staffs and students.”
As well as this, there was widespread criticism from the community at the news of Mandela Hall being demolished; a venue frequently used for concert venues and student discos. Despite a petition on change.org for Mandela Hall not to be demolished, and signed by over 8,000 people, little difference was made.
While Queen’s have stated that the new establishment will have ‘‘a Mandela Hall entertainment venue’’ only time will tell if this progression will be anything like the previous space, which held a capacity of 1,000 people standing and provided live music such as Bastille and Jake Bugg.
When addressed with issues regarding the imminent rebuild, Students’ Union President Stephen McCrystall stated,
‘‘The new facility will provide Queen’s students with a wide range of student facing University services as well as an enhanced Students’ Union. We are bringing together this range of student services to improve accessibility and student interaction in the heart of the Campus. This will provide an unrivalled student experience for future students and support the delivery of both the SU Strategic Plan and Vision 2020.’’
‘‘The new Students’ Union will include vibrant social and commercial spaces such as the SU shop, the SU Bar, a Mandela Hall entertainment venue, and state of the art facilities for our clubs and societies.Supporting and developing our students will remain a key priority and the new facility will provide further opportunities for students to engage with and benefit from our representation, advice, student volunteering and entrepreneurship services.’’
‘‘Detailed consideration has also been given to the student experience during the 3 year construction period to ensuring that the essential range of student services will continue to be provided in the temporary revamped Students’ Union, in the Elmwood Learning and Teaching Centre.’’
In relation to what will happen to the many features the previous Students’ Union had, such as student bars, shops and a bank, he remarked that,
‘‘There will be a bars’ provision for students during the decant period. And going forward there will be a consultation with Students on what they would like to see in the new Students’ Union facility and as Students’ Union President, I would like to encourage you to get involved in this consultation, which will start in September 2017. We want your input and views, so please make your voice heard.’’