The campus experience

When I was a student I became slightly acquainted with another student who was, as I might put it, slightly unusual. He was very respectable. I mean, he was 18 but he turned up every day wearing a tie, and trousers you wouldn’t want to touch in case the closely ironed crease cut your hand. His hair was neatly trimmed, his shoes polished so perfectly that you would be blinded by the sun’s reflection it you looked at them. When he was not at a lecture you would find him sitting somewhere with his flask of tea and his leather briefcase and his hardback notebook; unless it was after the last lecture, in which case you wouldn’t find him at all because he would have headed off for home, somewhere (if I recall correctly) in South Dublin. We became, as I said, slightly acquainted, because he was the brother of a girl I was ‘seeing’, as they say, for a short while.

One day I asked him whether he was had ever tried to get into college accommodation. He shuddered visibly at the thought – maybe not entirely unreasonably, if you take into account my own residential experiences. Anyway, his response was that he had everything he needed at his parents’ home, and the idea of leaving all that convenience behind in order to seek out a shared apartment with someone else who might have a doubtful hygiene record was simply bizarre. I had nowhere else to go with this conversation and so I dropped it, but I have often wondered whether at least some period in a campus residence should be seen as an important ingredient in the student experience. If you think of the university as a learning community, then you might expect that living together for some time might be helpful, or possibly even necessary.

These days more students than ever before can, in Ireland’s universities, live in on-campus accommodation. No doubt the quality varies, and maybe some will be run in a more congenial way than others; but the opportunity to experience this is there for all students at some point. Those who don’t live on the campus will either be at home (as my friend was), or in private rented accommodation; some of the latter will also have student community elements, on a larger or smaller scale.

Of course student numbers have grown so much that we have long passed the point at which we could even contemplate providing accommodation for all students, assuming that they would take it anyway. But in some universities elsewhere in the world this facility does exist. In some countries universities offer dormitory accommodation for every student, and may even require them to take it. In others there are universities that have sufficient residential facilities to allow a large proportion of students to stay there. Living in such accommodation does not just put students into a community occupying bedrooms and apartments, it keeps them on the campus in the evenings and allows them easier access to social activities there, and to the events put on by clubs and societies.

Of course as the demographic make-up of the student community changes, and as a larger proportion is made up of mature students, or those who juggle their studies with employment, the campus residential experience is not attractive to everyone. Furthermore, new learning methods may in future keep some students away from the campus altogether. This may require us to ask how important campus accommodation really now is, and whether it is becoming an old-fashioned idea that new learning methods and new forms of educational engagement make impractical. I don’t think that this is something we have considered enough, and we need to do so as part of our strategic planning for the future.

I recently came across my friend again. He came up to me and spoke to me in Dublin’s city centre; and it is as well that he did so, as I would never have recognised him. He was wearing jeans, and his slightly thinning hair was now long. Funnily enough, he was still carrying the same leather briefcase, but it was now battered and worn. He is involved, I understand, with the management of a performing arts group. As we chatted for a moment, he said in relation to his student days that his major regret was that he never managed to become a real member of the wider student body. And so, whatever significance we might attach to student accommodation, I still believe that those facilities that help to build up the community are of value. But we need to find out how we can maintain that in our changing university world.

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13 Comments on “The campus experience”

  1. Wendy Says:

    I agree that there are a lot of benefits to living on campus, or at least in a student community. Unfortunately, under the old local authority grants system (and I’m not sure how much of this is still in place), this aspect of the student experience wasn’t encouraged. If there happened to be a university in your home county, you got a grant based on living in your parents’ home. A student resident in County Dublin would only get a grant for living away from home if the chosen programme of study was one not offered in one of the Dublin universities.

    In other contexts – the UK, after the removal of student grants, and north America, where student funding is less certain – most students need to work part-time to supplement their tuition and living expenses, which again takes away from the student experience, unless we now consider the student experience to include employment! Many universities over here incorporate it officially through operating ‘work-study’ programmes for the financially needy: work in campus restaurants and bars, and sometimes also as research assistants for academic staff.

    Like small-group teaching, however, in current financial climates living away from home may be a luxury too few students will be able to afford.

  2. Vincent Says:

    My first instinct on this would be that the University attempt to have all in their own housing. And granted this might not be ‘do’able with the numbers. But then this view depends very much that the Accommodation Office is not waiting with that toe tapping impatience of a Australian shearing specialist.
    It may be an idea to examine how much -if any- influence the block of direct accommodation has on the open sector, both with price and quality. There may well be a mean point where you have an optimum level of overall control without having as much directly owned property.
    And it might be little harm to survey the employed members of university, there may well be nasty scummy conflicts of interest.

    • I agree with your general point, Vincent – but it is made difficult by the fact that in order to make student accommodation pay you have to hire it out as hotel accommodation in the summer. And there just isn’t enough of a market there to warrant having thousands of apartments!

  3. A student working in the USA part-time usually does so via a work grant funded by the university or the government. They typically work on campus at the library, the bookstore, the computer store, etc. In doing so they contribute to the campus community, gain work experience, and use their paycheck to help defray the costs of going to university, as typically the entire paycheck goes to housing, food, and textbooks.

    In Ireland, the student working part-time, in my experience, is helping defray the costs of their Thursday-Saturday nights out.

    Having gone to university in the USA and having been part of an on-campus community for years, I cannot imagine attending college any other way. Living at home while attending college is like continuing to go to high school and be under your mother’s thumb.

    Of course, it seems most students in Ireland love that thumb, but that’s another matter…

  4. Iainmacl Says:

    There’s a lot of research in the US on ‘learning communities’ and the many variants of such which span residential to ‘commuter students’ and it is fascinating to consider to what extent some of these ideas have merit in the Irish context. There are also strong advocates of the collegiate system to be found there ( eg Of course working in NUIG it is also fascinating to speculate on how the Queen’s Colleges might have grown had they not just been content with the single college quad but spawned more such colleges as the numbers increased. Some architects designing new buildings try to argue that their designs echo these ideas in ‘contemporary form’ (ie glass and concrete), but that misses the point by simply considering the buildings as the university, rather than the communities that those buildings were meant to support.

  5. I can’t fathom why people want to live at home while they’re at University, unless it’s purely for financial reasons.

    University isn’t just about academic learning, but about transitioning to independence and adulthood. Part of this is through learning how to deal with people whose behaviour you don’t like, learning how to cook, clean, repair and deal with bills and everything else that graduates will need to handle when they live independently. By living at home, I suspect that a lot of these skills would be handled by parents, preventing students from learning valuable lessons for later in life.

    • Jilly Says:

      I entirely agree – although I will confess that the only specific skill I remember learning during my year of living in halls-of-residence was how to open a bottle of wine with a biro, because none of us had a corkscrew. Sadly, since I bought my first corkscrew, that particular trick has become redundant. But as someone who left my parents’ home (for good) at 18, I do sometimes wonder about the general adult survival skills of students who graduate without leaving their parents’ home…

      • Don’t be so modest, Jilly. I absolutely could not open a bottle of wine with a corkscrew, and if I could it would have helped me on a few recent occasions. A bottle of beer, that’s another matter. You could maybe instruct me some time.

  6. barratree Says:

    Definitely agree. I’m living on campus in Trinity this year and it really expands the experience.

    The college authorities seem determined to deter this though: they’ve jacked up the price for next year such that applications fell drastically, so much so that they had to extend the application period for a few more weeks. But god forbid they might cut the price. I think it is almost certainly the most expensive in Dublin for cramped conditions.

  7. […] Diary of a University President – The Campus Experience […]

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