The long-awaited Forum project receives the Harry McCarthy treatment
I suppose I have always had an irrational hatred for the Forum.
Ever since my first day of lectures back in October 2011, when I quickly learned that the simplest of journeys from one building to another were virtually impossible thanks to the seemingly endless construction work, I have constantly found myself a victim of the University’s investment programme and Sir Robert McAlpine Architects.
Need a quiet place to finish that essay due in this afternoon? Sorry, we’re drilling through the wall right next to the Silent Study Area.
In a rush to get from Queens to Streatham Court? Not a problem, just wait there while these twenty trucks loaded with glass panelling reverse up the drive, and we’ll have you right on your way.
Assumed the book you wanted would be in the library? Don’t be silly – it’s been moved to a dusty rolling stack in the catacombs of the Research Commons while we paint Level 0 yellow.
See what I mean?
Irrespective of my frustrations, I still cannot deny that all of the renovations that have taken place at the University over the last couple of years are way beyond impressive.
The Forum, the £48million centrepiece to the £350million programme, is certainly no exception; its gleaming glass frontage, architecturally impressive ‘wave’ roof, and pretty landscaped piazza are unlike anything seen by any other University in Britain, if not the world. When Her Majesty officially opens it on the 2nd May, it will undoubtedly be lauded over by students and staff alike, most likely propelling Exeter yet further up the league tables.
But in spite of all of this, and the countless emails from Duncan Sandes, I’m still not entirely sure what the point of it is.
Right down to its very name, the concept of the Forum is undeniably baffling. I understand the University’s need for more learning space, catering outlets and student services. But why, exactly, does it have to cost £48million? Why is the Sanctuary not a spa, but a study area? Do the seats in the new ‘panoramic view’ lecture theatre not match on purpose? And what’s a ‘panoramic view’ when it’s at home, anyway?
These, among hundreds of others, are questions to which I have yet to find an answer. Even the five hours of compulsory training that I undertook in order to become a Student Ambassador (and we all know how that turned out) could not provide me with the answer that I needed when prospective students and their parents pointed to the giant greenhouse and asked me ‘so what is it, exactly?’
But then, perhaps its uniqueness cannot be described in simple terms. Perhaps it is meant to remain a mystery, even to those who use it.
I am, of course, prepared to withhold judgement until I’ve actually been inside it. For all I know (and I certainly hope this is the case), each and every Exeter student will benefit immensely from the Forum’s hallowed facilities. I’m certainly looking forward to the dry cleaning service. But as with every new innovation and development, one has a right to question just whose interests the Forum is taking care of. After all, we aren’t all going to be able to be taught in the new lecture theatre or seminar rooms. We still might not find a sear in the new study spaces. And we certainly won’t all get the chance to have a go on the multi-touch ‘surface tables’.
Could it possibly be that the main purpose of the Project is not to enhance student experience, but to enhance the University’s reputation?
This is not a question that I am prepared, or indeed equipped, to answer fully. Not until I’ve actually had a taste of what the Forum has to offer, anyway. But if there’s one thing that is certain, it’s that the development, however groundbreaking, is very, very expensive.
While one must accept that everything comes at a price, it is worth bearing in mind that for the same amount of money, the University could pay the annual salaries of an additional 1,000 senior lecturers. It could buy around 4million more books for the Library, which still does not carry more than one copy of an unforgivable number of key texts.
Or perhaps most mind-bogglingly of all, it could buy 20million pints of Carlsberg in the Ram.
When you put it like that, you can’t help but wonder whether the long-overdue glass atrium is really the best use of £48million. Once Her Majesty has cut the ribbon, I for one am certainly going to take some convincing.