Mary Dejevsky: Don't close campuses just because school's out for summer

Any new structure should have to earn its keep right around the year

Related Topics

The British summer has finally arrived: the temperature has reached 29 degrees; winter coats are on the rails at M&S, and the schools have closed for the long holidays. The universities were vacated weeks ago.

How empty an out-of-term university can be I discovered again recently, wandering the echoing corridors of what used to be Queen Mary College and now styles itself Queen Mary, University of London. The lights were on; the lifts worked; there was a porter who told me where to go. But it was as though he was amazed to be stirred. A few students, or so they seemed, sat outside a café that wasn't working.

My destination was a room in just one of many buildings, old, new, and under construction, that crowd on to this site in east London, not a million miles from the Olympic Park. Outside the perimeter, the streets thronged with people purposefully going about their business; inside all was calm – eerily so around the old Jewish cemetery in the centre of the campus that QM wants to redevelop. Staff and students, it transpired, were either coming in just for exams or had already dispersed for the long vacation.

It hardly needs to be said that they can't take their campus with them. But to describe the halls of residence, academic blocks, lecture theatres and sports halls as under-occupied is to flatter them. I have no doubt that, come mid-September, the campus will be teeming again, and managers will be planning more fund-raising to pay for yet more buildings to feature in even glossier brochures and house yet more students – all justified by the twin diktats of expansion and overcrowding.

It is not fair, of course, to single out Queen Mary University for riding this particular carousel of property development. A huge number of educational institutions are engaged in essentially the same enterprise: buying up adjacent sites, commissioning architects, importing cranes, and build-build-building.

A venerable red-brick university I visited earlier this year resembled London Docklands in its earliest phase of construction. Everyone apologised for the mess. But, they explained, universities had to convince future students (and their parents) that they were getting something in return for the new fees. Yet these buildings, I wanted to scream, will be empty, or at best only partly used, for about a third of every year.

While the downtime is less, something similar applies to schools, whose ambitious construction programmes were only curtailed when the then new Education Secretary, Michael Gove, found out how much money was already committed. Yes, there are schools whose buildings are badly substandard, and some 400 children in London still have no primary-school place for next term. But the schools I pass every day are currently idle and locked to the world – like their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

Oxbridge colleges, along with the more exclusive public schools, have courted the conference and summer school business with some success. The architecture and atmospherics are their own selling points. Some well-placed city halls of residence have acquired a second life as cheap hotels during the vacations – good for them. And some public schools (which have charitable status, remember) deign to allow locals to use their gyms, playing fields or swimming pools at times during the summer. But this is granted as a favour, not a right.

The mismatch remains striking. While the privileged see the vacation income rolling in, the rest cut their losses with a seasonal shutdown, even as young people complain they have nothing to do, parents cox and box work because of inadequate childcare, and primary schools prepared to bargain up the price of Portakabins.

There are solutions: schools and colleges that double as community facilities; a requirement that favoured schools share their pools and grounds as a precondition for their tax breaks; a five-term or rolling academic year, and a stipulation that no one gets permission for a new building without explaining how it will earn its keep for more than 36 weeks a year.

So next time a vice-chancellor comes soliciting funds for a fancy new building or a teacher complains of overcrowded classrooms, ask how many days a year their existing buildings are empty – and keep your wallet shut until they offer a convincing answer.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living