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A union for the 21st-century student

Tuesday 01-11-2011 - 00:00

Situated at the heart of the campus, Newcastle University Students’ Union has always been iconic to the student experience here. However, iconic doesn’t always coincide with good. It was iconic in that it was useful for cheap pizza, an occasional pint and a place to keep out of the harsh north eastern winds, but was lacking clarity and purpose. Change was needed – and boy, have things changed! It may have taken a two-year strategic plan, ten months of closed doors and an £8m grant from the university, but it’s finally happened. The redesigned interior has truly become worthy of the beauty of the 1924 redbrick grade two listed building that encases it. 

The overall focus of the project was engagement; how to create a space that caters for every element of the student experience. The old, beaten beige floors and ceilings are now crisp white with splashes of bright red, lime green, orange, turquoise and any other hue found on the Skittles rainbow to co-ordinate with different services and floor plans.

It is simply a place that students now want to be. The whole building is encapsulated in the iconic-meets-contemporary design, and Simon Gerry, the union’s Chief Executive, said: “For me it was always about how the students felt when they walked into the building; it had to be somewhere they felt comfortable and wanted to be. The whole building is now a bright and vibrant space, somewhere that will inspire our students to go on to great things.”

A number of surveys in the build-up to the project produced a ‘most wanted’ list from Newcastle students. The request that topped the list was the introduction of social learning facilities and IT access, which the building now boasts in high supply.

The old Global Café on the top floor has been transformed into an aptly named ‘Hub’ of student working life. It caters for every need, from blinkered study booths and soundproof pods for group work to cosy sofas on which to take a break while sipping on lattés from the Starbucks in the corner.

This collaboration of work stations, dual access computer desks and open-plan access areas were the end result of consultation with students, architects and an expert on the development of social spaces from Melbourne University. Concepts on how best to manage space were even taken from the likes of McDonald’s – breakfast bar style rather than grouped tables to maximise every chair. Wifi, naturally, is available throughout the building.

Situated to the left of the main entrance, the visibility of the sabbatical officers allows them to complete their roles as student representatives to the highest level. Just alongside them is the student advice centre, with private ‘pod’ meeting areas having already proved extremely practical; these provide much-needed breakout areas where officers and staff can hold small meetings.

Upstairs, no longer does walking along the second floor feel like you’ve wandered into the administrative offices of your local bank. The open-plan design of the activities centre provides a welcoming accessibility to students in sports clubs, societies and volunteering, as well as other involvement initiatives offered at Newcastle such as Scan (Student Action Community Newcastle) and our newly introduced international volunteering service ‘MaDventure’. The Courier, our student newspaper, has also had a makeover with a new bigger office and the introduction of a new suite of iMacs, as has Newcastle Student radio, which also has a new office and recording booth.

New NUSU branding

The new NUSU branding that runs through the whole building is simple yet effective, bringing a welcome burst of class and professionalism to artwork that was looking dated to say the least. Posters are a thing of the past; 96 digital screens are dotted throughout the building instead, changed frequently to promote various services, offers and events. 

Other facilities that have been introduced by way of new third-party partnerships include Sploshh printing services, Centurion IT repair service, Subway for that grab-and-go sandwich, and even a Santander bank. The union shop continues to offer everything we can think the students might want from a convenience store, but has moved from its dingy sub-surface location to a new light front-of-house space.

No students’ union would be complete without a venue, and student feedback was strongly in support of providing activity space for our 200 clubs and societies. The bottom floor has been transformed into a multifunctional space with easily moveable walls adaptable to suit any event, from Zumba and Pilates to comedy shows, theatre productions and, of course, club nights.

The contemporary design is such a workable space it also promises to be the ideal location for other, more ‘sophisticated’ awards ceremonies and functions, making the old sticky floor and dull lighting a distant memory. However, we must not forget the actual ‘Venue’ bar. Officially longer than the city centre’s ‘Long Bar’, the 50m island bar is iconically designed, can serve 88 pints in 15 seconds and the venue comes complete with state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems as well as a moveable stage for flexibility. You will not see another bar like it in Europe!

The much-missed Mens Bar has been retained after much student consultation, but has moved location. Despite a renaming referendum, the nostalgia for the original name – derived from ‘mens agitat molem’ which means ‘the mind is stirred by the masses’ – was eminent.   

Fit for purpose

Perfection is an impossibility and practicalities may have been overlooked in some areas, but the building is not without its quirks either. Not-so-purposely known as the ‘upside down lampshades’, there will be constant competition to snag these glorified soft furnished seating areas. Then there’s the ‘bum seats’ and the ‘bum’ lights. Moulded into the shape of, well, backsides, they offer something a bit fun and different – and with both male and female rear ends on offer, no-one will feel left out.

After increasing our election turnout to 23 per cent, introducing over 800 course reps in the last two years, and increasing our society and club participation to over 11,000 members, we now also have facilities that are fit for purpose. There has never been a better time to be a student at Newcastle. The union has become a place to be proud of, to take advantage of and, most importantly, to enhance the student experience.

The visibility of the sabbatical officers allows them to complete their roles as student representatives to the highest level.

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