Keep cam­pus doors open to the pub­lic, says Les Back

Re­strict­ing pub­lic ac­cess to cam­puses is a sorry symp­tom of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion that ill serves stu­dents, laments Les Back

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Les Back is pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Gold­smiths, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don.

The en­trance to a uni­ver­sity of­ten hints at the kind of ed­u­ca­tion it of­fers. In his me­moir, Imag­ined Life, Richard Hog­gart de­scribed how “good­will breathed from the bricks” of the bustling main lobby of Gold­smiths, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. It was, he said, a place where “in­tense vi­tal­ity [was] felt the mo­ment you crossed the thresh­old in the crowd, saw the tat­tered linoleum, smelled cheap but largely unattrac­tive food and heard the gab­ble”.

I am not sure what he would make of what is now known as the Richard Hog­gart Build­ing. The linoleum has been re­placed by tiled floors, the can­teen odour of boiled veg­eta­bles by the aroma of Costa cof­fee. The en­trance is dec­o­rated by uni­ver­sity brand­ing and plasma screens. But at least it has re­mained an open cam­pus, with no se­cu­rity checks

(at least at its main en­trance).

That is now unique among Lon­don cam­puses, as con­cern about se­cu­rity be­comes ever more acute. It feels like it would be eas­ier to break into a bank than gain ac­cess to some of the cap­i­tal’s in­sti­tu­tions. But lan­yards and se­cu­rity passes des­ig­nate uni­ver­sity es­tates as places of work, rather than places of so­cial gath­er­ing. They separate stu­dents – who are, in ef­fect, pay­ing for en­try – from un­tenured cit­i­zens de­nied the priv­i­leges of uni­ver­sity ad­mis­sion. This fil­ter­ing by race and class re­mains, of course, un­spo­ken.

It is hard enough for aca­demic vis­i­tors to gain ac­cess to some uni­ver­si­ties. On Twit­ter, I re­cently com­mented on my trou­bles get­ting past se­cu­rity at one of the UK’s more pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tions – de­spite hav­ing been in­vited there. “Too right,” replied one col­league. “Even my post­grads aren’t al­lowed a swipe card to get to my of­fice.” She blamed the lack of a re­cep­tion desk in the vicin­ity: “They have to phone me and get me to col­lect them. That’s the real Rus­sell Group ‘ex­pe­ri­ence’.”

I don’t want to min­imise the im­por­tance of safety on cam­pus for stu­dents or staff. There have been in­stances, al­beit rarely, when the ev­ery­day so­cial dam­age and vi­o­lence of di­vided cities has ar­rived on cam­pus. In the US, these are most ev­i­dent in the shoot­ing sprees blight­ing col­lege cam­puses with de­press­ing reg­u­lar­ity. But some in­sti­tu­tions seem far more com­mit­ted to their role as meet­ing places, while oth­ers are hap­pier to be­come gated com­mu­ni­ties.

It is of­ten the se­cu­rity guards and re­cep­tion­ists who have the dif­fi­cult work of manag­ing the ten­sions of a space that is both pub­lic and pri­vate. These un­cel­e­brated col­leagues be­come the pub­lic faces of uni­ver­si­ties, and they don’t al­ways get it right.

The urge to shut out peo­ple who are not stu­dents or staff is surely linked to the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of UK higher ed­u­ca­tion – which has, in turn, fi­nanced mul­ti­mil­lion­pound projects to ren­o­vate cam­puses. But the re­sults can change how we feel about places of work and learn­ing. One aca­demic told me that she of­ten finds her­self reach­ing for her bank debit card to swipe into her de­part­ment – a slip high­light­ing the “pay as you go” na­ture of con­tem­po­rary uni­ver­si­ties.

It isn’t all one-way traf­fic, though. In 2012, the Uni­ver­sity of Worces­ter opened the coun­try’s first joint uni­ver­sity and pub­lic li­brary, while ex­pen­sive new cam­puses for the Uni­ver­sity of Northamp­ton and Ul­ster Uni­ver­sity have been de­lib­er­ately built closer to the city cen­tre to at­tract more non-stu­dents.

That ap­proach has also been suc­cess­ful in con­ti­nen­tal Europe, where li­braries, lec­ture halls and sem­i­nar rooms are open to the pub­lic as much as cof­fee shops are. And one Cana­dian aca­demic I know re­calls that in her days as a stu­dent at Si­mon Fraser Uni­ver­sity in British Columbia, it was ru­moured that home­less peo­ple would sit in on lec­tures to keep warm.

I re­ally got a sense of that kind of pub­lic ethos dur­ing a re­cent teach­ing stint at Brazil’s Fed­eral Uni­ver­sity of São Car­los: a pub­lic uni­ver­sity, where higher ed­u­ca­tion is mostly free. Uni­ver­sity brand­ing was min­i­mal, and teach­ing was rem­i­nis­cent of the in­spir­ing chaos that char­ac­terised British lec­tur­ing be­fore tu­ition fees, the Na­tional Stu­dent Sur­vey and uni­ver­sity league ta­bles.

This ec­cen­tric home­li­ness is en­cap­su­lated in the tale of Po­drão (lit­er­ally, “dirty” or “ripe-smelling”), the uni­ver­sity’s much-missed schol­arly dog. Po­drão had an un­canny ca­pac­ity to find where lec­tures in so­ci­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy were be­ing taught on cam­pus, and would at­tend them reg­u­larly. Open­ing the door with his un­kempt snout, he would sneak into the back, much to the de­light of the stu­dents. In­deed, he acted so much like one of them that a leg­end started to cir­cu­late that he was a hu­man in dog form. Graf­fiti ap­peared on the cam­pus at­test­ing to the fact.

Mod­ern British cam­puses have be­come some­what no­to­ri­ous in cer­tain cir­cles for of­fer­ing ses­sions for stu­dents to al­le­vi­ate exam stress by cud­dling and pet­ting “ther­apy dogs”, but dogs are def­i­nitely not per­mit­ted to roam freely on cam­pus. Yet un­ex­pected en­coun­ters – ca­nine or oth­er­wise – are not al­ways un­pleas­ant, and min­imis­ing their pos­si­bil­ity makes us all poorer.

As our new stu­dents en­joy their first days at uni­ver­sity, it is a good mo­ment for us to ask what the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment of our re­spec­tive cam­puses com­mu­ni­cates to them – and to the peo­ple whose com­mu­ni­ties they have moved into. Are they build­ings that breathe good­will? Or do they ad­ver­tise a dif­fer­ent mes­sage about the na­ture of mod­ern uni­ver­si­ties?

Re­strict­ing cam­pus ac­cess may spare the linoleum, but it also risks block­ing out some of the per­spec­tives that higher ed­u­ca­tion is sup­posed to open up.

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