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

Share
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

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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links