It was announced recently that management of popular Lincoln venue, the Engine Shed, and its neighbouring Tower Bar were being transferred from the University of Lincoln to the Students’ Union.
This may have come as a shock to some students, because, according to their own research, 38% of students thought the Students’ Union already ran the venue. The same survey revealed that 53% of students thought the Students’ Union, out of three options, would be the best institution to run the venues, “because that’s the model they’re used to from speaking to friends at other universities,” outgoing SU President Dan Sam hypothesises.
Despite this, the takeover was fraught with controversy when it was reported that locals and guests would have to be signed into the Tower Bar by students. Almost immediately, there was talk on social media of a locals’ boycott of the venue.
However, in an exclusive interview with The Linc, SU representatives expressed their frustration with the report, claiming that the plans, based on models used in other student union bars across the country, had not yet been finalised or approved and were announced prematurely. They claimed that much of the resultant backlash had then come from “a small handful of people causing the most fuss”.
A tweet from the Students’ Union, claiming that such a rule would not apply to employers of partner agencies of the Students’ Union and the University (which include Siemens, Hubren, The Lincolnite, Lincolnshire Echo, and Santander), was also part of “detail that’s not been decided yet”.
Other concerns, including rumours that Tower Bar was loss-making, where the profits will go, and what effect the takeover will have on staff are also dealt with in the full interview below. They even attempted to answer the age-old question, ‘what does the Students’ Union know about running a bar?’
Speaking exclusively to The Linc were Students’ Union CEO James Brooks, outgoing president Dan Sam, SU Welfare & Community representative and president-elect Brian Alcorn, and Ian Richards from the University of Lincoln.
How exactly did the takeover happen? Presumably the university doesn’t just ring you up and ask if you’d like to have a bar?
Dan: “Well, it wasn’t a day thing, it wasn’t a month thing, it was potentially over a couple of years – before my time, even. When I started university, I started with our activities officer talking to all the students at the pep rally, which was a sports event, asking us to ‘join in the campaign! Potentially, we want to lobby the university for the Engine Shed’. That was the first time I’d ever experienced it, and that was in 2009.
“I guess in the last few years that momentum has built, with students having a larger say, with our representation structures growing immensely, and the student voice becoming more and more important to the university. So it was probably five, six, seven years of lobbying about how a union could take over the operation and how students could get more involved in the venue and use it more effectively.”
When it was announced the SU were to take over Tower Bar, there were rumours and speculation on social media that the venue was losing money. Is any of that verifiable, and if not, where did that rumour come from?
James: “You can’t look at Tower Bar without looking at the Engine Shed, because the university have run the accounts together. But they’re not loss-making, they make a small surplus. In the past, I believe they have made substantial losses, but that’s just hearsay. I know over the last few years that they’ve made a small surplus.”
This year, the Students’ Union has taken over the Shed, which has been a success, as well as the Engine Shed and Tower Bar. Where is the money that you’re making from this going to be spent?
Brian: “We keep saying that it’s going back into the ‘student experience’, but what does that actually mean? It goes back to our strategy and the independent market research that took place to formulate that strategy, where students told us what they wanted us to prioritise. Part of that was events and activities, part of that was academic representation, part of that was independent advice. A lot of these things we do already, so the money that’s generated can help to grow that and develop that further.
“But there are things that we don’t do that students have asked for, such as an advice service, which would be independent and work alongside the university’s existing advice service (we don’t want to make a competing thing, of course). But potentially, the money could go towards making that a reality as well. So if you have a look at our strategy, you’ll see what our key aims and objectives are until 2016, and any surplus generated will go back into those services.”
But what if they start to make a loss? How will that affect the work of the Students’ Union?
Brian: “The Shed, Tower Bar, and the Engine Shed will be part of our trading company, which is a separate company from the Students’ Union itself, which is a charity, in order to protect the stuff that we do already – if, heaven forbid, they all collapse and implode and make huge losses, it won’t affect the services that we deliver to students, because that’s done through the charity itself.
“We don’t anticipate that’s going to happen, at any time in the near future or beyond, but it’s a safeguarding thing – you don’t know what’s going to happen ten years down the line.”
How quickly do you expect students will see the benefits from these new sources of money?
Brian: “I’d like to think it would be immediate, but things do take time. I think if we use the Shed as a real-life case study, we’ve seen how it’s changed in the last six months since we took it on. You can see that it’s busier, there’s more people in it; students are happy from the feedback we’re getting; they asked for WiFi, they got WiFi; they asked for new furniture, they got new furniture; they’ve asked for cheaper drinks, they’ve got cheaper drinks. Again, we’ll have a consultation process, asking students what they want from these venues, take that feedback on board and act upon it.”
James: “I think the Engine Shed and Tower Bar will be slightly more complicated than the Shed, because the company that was running the Shed before us was going bankrupt, so any existing contract was null and void, whereas part of our agreement with the university was that we’ll honour any existing contracts. The process of making it exactly what students want and exactly what the student officers want it to be might take up to two years because we have to see those contracts through until they expire. But as Brian said, I don’t see why students shouldn’t see the benefits of having their own space on campus straight away.”
Going back to the Shed, then, will the Shed and Tower Bar remain two distinct, very different venues, or will they merge slightly?
James: “What we’ve got now is a big asset to the university, because students have now got a pub, which will have all the values of a pub, we’ve got a bar, which will operate like a bar, and then we’ve got the Engine Shed, which is a venue. They are three different types of operation and they’ll provide three different types of service. They’ll all be complementing each other rather than competing.”
Brian: “I think people like different things. I personally prefer a pub to a bar. For students, it’ll be the same thing. Some people don’t like to go to pubs or bars, they just like to go to a concert or a club night or whatever, while others prefer a bar atmosphere than a smaller, social pub. I think what we’re trying to achieve is getting something for everyone.”
Ian: “It also gives a bit more versatility for the venues as well, in terms of if there’s a club or society that wants to do something big, there’s not as much limitation on where they’re going to do it. You can go to the SU and there’ll be some incredible facilities. Obviously, there’ll be a timetable and a schedule, but it’ll make things like that more feasible.”
Brian: “Yeah, we’ll be giving students priority wherever possible.”
What financial impact will this have on the university, then, given that they’re effectively losing a bar and a venue?
Ian: “This is a difficult question to answer. I think the important thing to remember from the perspective of the university is to ask ‘what is the university’s core business?’ Of course, the university’s core business is students, their education and the support services that surround that. Universities don’t run pubs and they don’t run bars – that’s not what brings in the revenue for a university.
“The overriding concern for the university is ensuring that the needs of students are met, and of course the SU is a really powerful voice that represents the needs of students… So from the university’s perspective, if it improves the student experience and if students really take ownership of the venue and say ‘this is a place for us’, then that is what the university wants to see. The commercial considerations are overridden by the benefits it has a potential to bring for students.”
James: “I don’t really want to go into the financial details, but I know that the vice-chancellor has made a very substantial contribution to the running costs of the Engine Shed and Tower Bar to enable us to direct it towards the student experience.
“For example, at the moment, the drama society and all the performing arts societies that we have try to rent the LPAC [Lincoln Performing Arts Centre], but they get charged an absolute fortune. Now, we’ve got a stage, seating, and lighting, so we’re going to be able to allow students to use the Engine Shed as a performance area, at a much lower cost than the LPAC, if not for free – we’re still looking at covering the costs.
“The same goes for sports facilities. There are some sports that just need an open floor area, and we’re looking to make it so we can accommodate those sports in the Engine Shed during the day. Before it would never have been considered because they wanted to make money by renting it out to the local community, but what we’re going to do is put students first.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing live music, gigs, etc., because that’s what that venue is for; it just means that when those gigs aren’t taking place, we’re going to make that space usable for students, as cheaply as possible. If they wanted to use it, they would just go into the SU or go online, book it, and that’s their right as a student.”
Are there or will there be plans to take over other venues, such as the LPAC?
Dan: “No. The LPAC is a part of the College of Arts, which is a function of the University. Just as the SU wouldn’t take over the School of Business; it’s the same principle.”
The acquisition of the Engine Shed, Tower Bar, and the Shed has all happened fairly recently. Why hasn’t this happened sooner?
Dan: “I can’t speak on behalf of the university, but I think the university want to be sure that students actually want them to go in a certain direction, and seeing how valid our argument is. What’s critical to that is after our  strategic review, looking at the organisation and asking students what direction we want to be moving in, that gave us the leverage to say that students wanted something. It’s also the university placing their trust in us, because with the Shed going really well, we now trust you to go and do this.
“We also have something here called Student as Producer, which is all about students researching, coming up with ideas, and creating these fantastic projects, then developing them with staff. You could say this is sort of a Student as Producer concept, because students have said ‘we’ve got this idea’, and the university have gone, ‘okay, let’s see how we can make this happen’, and this is the reality of that partnership model… That’s why we’re seeing satisfaction levels continue to increase, because the university is listening to its students.”
So, although you’ve had this long campaign for the Engine Shed and Tower Bar, you’re saying that having the Shed helped you with this acquisition?
James: “There were a lot of comments put out at our AGM [Annual General Meeting], asking, ‘what does the Students’ Union know about running a bar?’ But with the Engine Shed, all the permanent staff on a management level are all going to be retained by the Students’ Union, because we’ve made the commitment to no redundancies. So it’s not about being able to run a bar, it’s about us as an organisation being strong enough to absorb things like the Shed and the Engine Shed and use the staff who are already there to be part of a bigger organisation that works in the interests of students.”
Dan: “That’s the operational side, then there’s the political side, which is: record turnout at the AGM, because students wanted to find out what was happening with the Shed, and we delivered on that. If anything, the message is: turn up to student councils, turn up to the AGM, scrutinise your representatives, make sure that what you want appears in their plan – basically, make sure you’re part of the union. This is another element of wanting to widen participation in what we do. Push yourself.”
Brian: “And vote!”
For everyone outside of management, this seemed to be quite a sudden acquisition. How much warning did the current staff at the Engine Shed and Tower Bar have of this takeover?
James: “They didn’t know until the Monday it was announced.”
Ian: “I think it was announced to staff a little earlier, and then communications were sent to all staff and students by email.”
James: “Obviously, these are people’s jobs and livelihoods. I can’t speak on behalf of the university, but from an SU perspective, we didn’t want to do anything that was going to put them in any form of worry or stress about their jobs, so what was happening was kept extremely confidential. The final decision for this to happen occurred about two and a half weeks before the staff were told. The reason for that delay was because the university’s human resources department and I were very keen to make sure that we thought of every single member of staff and contract that would be affected, so there was a two week due diligence process to make sure the information we’re giving was right.”
Ian: “Of course, with changes like this there are transitional periods – this change doesn’t happen until 1st August – and in those transitional periods, it can be a little bit restrictive in terms of what you can and can’t say at certain times. Sometimes there’s a desire to get the answer to every single question, but until the change actually happens, there are certain questions that can’t be answered. It’s been a key concern of the University and the SU to ensure the staff were treated fairly and with respect and given as much information as possible in due time.”
Obviously, it was big news in local media that there were plans to make non-students sign in to Tower Bar. How do you think the atmosphere will change? Do you think students like having the public around?
Brian: “From my experience, based on anecdotal feedback, students were avoiding Tower Bar and didn’t want to go there. They liked bars, but they’d go elsewhere in town – partly because they didn’t have that sense of ownership. But a lot of students, particularly first years and female students, felt uncomfortable. That’s just anecdotal, having spoken to some students, though, I can’t give you statistics.
“They’d go in with some friends, arriving in Freshers’ Week, thinking ‘hey, this is our campus, look at this great venue we have!’, and they’ll go in, and it’s full of football fans watching their sports on TV – which is a great facility to have – but benefiting from the cheap beer, and getting a bit rowdy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a surprise for students who thought it was a campus bar.
“This isn’t to say ‘right, no football fans are allowed in’; that’s not what we’re trying to do. It’s also not to say local people are banned and absolutely forbidden; that’s not what we’re trying to do either. We’re trying to prioritise students and make sure we have a safe space which students feel is their own without feeling uncomfortable for whatever reason.
“Of course, we have zero tolerance policies in the SU, so whether it’s at the Shed, in our reception, in a sports club or society, or in Tower Bar, if there’s harassment or inappropriate behaviour of any sort, we’ll put our zero tolerance policy into effect, and that’ll go across the board… It’s really important to have that on-campus community, especially with 58% of international students feeling isolated or lonely.”
Ian: “Obviously, this is not a completely new model, this is a model that many other universities have operated for many years, and successfully balanced the needs of the student population with running a [public] live music venue, for example. It’s not quite as black and white as ‘this is no longer a venue for the public’ – of course, the public will still be able to enjoy many things that the Engine Shed brings to the city as a whole – but in terms of the day-to-day atmosphere, I think we’ll see it becoming much more student-focused and more of a social space than a pub or bar.”
It was confirmed via the Students’ Union Twitter account that, if access to Tower Bar was restricted, “partner agencies” would also be allowed in. How many of these partner agencies are there?
James: “The details are still to be announced, but the Students’ Union and the University are very keen to recognise that we are part of the local community, and that we have partners that we both work with. The Lincolnshire Echo is one of them, The Lincolnite is another, Siemens, Hubren, and Santander are others. But we will open up associate membership for anyone to apply to become a member of the Students’ Union.
“If there’s somebody who wants to use the facilities, they can become an associate member, and as long as the student officers and the licensees of the venue don’t have any concern, and the reason to use it is legitimate (rather than just wanting a cheap beer), then I can’t see that being an issue, although we’re getting into detail that’s not been decided yet.
“Like Ian said, this is a model that works in the majority of student unions around the country, and it very much balances the needs of the local community, the needs of students, the needs of the Union and the needs of the University. We’re not creating something new, but something that works in student unions across the country.”
Are you worried that there’s been damage to the university and student relations with the community, because these ideas were prematurely announced?
Brian: “I don’t think so. We’ve had a lot of excellent progress throughout this year, the first year we’ve really tried to engage with the local community and an aspiration to build a strong link with them. Local people are affected by students being here, students are affected by living amongst the community, and there are both pros and cons to that. Looking back to this time last year, just before I came into office, I think we’ve come in leaps and bounds in terms of how we’re perceived by the local community.
“Okay, there are some people who have piped up and are not happy, but you’re always going to have that, because you can’t please everybody. That doesn’t mean we’re just going to do what we want, because that’s not our attitude, but I think the analytics of the Twitter interactions – there’s people who’ve looked into that – show there’s a small handful of people causing the most fuss on Twitter. By and large, the majority of local people won’t be adversely affected for the reasons given.
“You don’t want any Tom, Dick, or Harry, who won’t necessarily have anything to do with the University or Students’ Union, who just wants to come in for the cheap beer, because that doesn’t have the right atmosphere or the right sort of message.”
Dan: “I mean, what else have we done with regard to the community this year?”
Brian: “Oh, we’ve done ten, maybe twelve, litter picks; Meet the Street, four separate events with over 200 people attending; we’ve done a Shush campaign, which is rolling out into the next year; World Hello Day; working with the police to formulate a process so people know who to contact if there is a noise issue.”
Dan: “The list goes on.”
James: “It sounds like he’s still on his election campaign. Vote Brian…”
You can read more about the SU takeover and its effect on students in Lifestyle Editor Kellie Pyart’s hereTweet