The bar is half-empty

"Don't head off into town and spend a fortune on weekend-priced drinks, when you can come to your very own union instead. New this term: fantastic, better-than-ever drinks promotions - trebles+mixer (incl Red Bull) for £2.50 - new DJ line-up, stilt-walking, stage dancers and fire performers."

This rather desperate promotion for the Newcastle student union bar tells a story. Those who look back fondly on an old-style university education may remember passing long hours in a union bar offering perhaps little more in-house entertainment than hard chairs, cheap beer and intense conversation.

Fire dancers forsooth, older readers may shriek, surprised at the efforts that have to be made to lure students into the bars that are provided for them nowadays.

But falling attendance is becoming a problem for student unions; some are losing large sums of money.

Aberdeen University students’ association recently announced it is to close its union, once voted the best club in Scotland, blaming city-centre drinking shops for forcing it out of business.

Newcastle University, another metropolitan institution, lost £180,000 last year through its bars. Numbers have slumped so badly that the university’s 1,800-capacity venue with several bars and restaurants is often only a quarter full, even on Friday nights.

The commercial manager, Ian Long, says: “In some bars in Newcastle city centre, you can buy three trebles for a fiver, that’s nine shots of vodka, and the mixers are very small. We have a safe-drinking policy and we wouldn’t want to compete with that. We have had to move to offering trebles for £2.50 on a Friday night, because that is what the students are looking for, but we serve them in a 12-ounce glass with a big mixer.”

Liverpool says its Monday night crowd has fallen from 1,500 two years ago to 250 now. “It is not working in the same way as it used to. But we are giving students messages about health and safety so we are not going to then offer them a bucket of beer or two shots of vodka for 50p,” says a spokesman for the guild of students.

Even in the sedate town of St Andrews, where the Prince of Wales was a student, the union bars made a loss of £37,000 last year. Director of representation at the student union, Steve Savage, says: “In the past, the perception may have been that students were in the bar every night of the week, but nowadays I think it is more like two nights a week and they will be working or studying the other nights.”

Perhaps, in a Britain increasingly concerned about binge drinking, there is a cause for celebration in the fact that students are spending less time propping up the bar. Aberdeen’s president, Angela Fraser, says the student union is planning to open a new social space that feels more like a community centre. “There are students from 120 countries at Aberdeen and they don’t all feel comfortable going into a bar.”

Edinburgh University, meanwhile, has opened a juice bar.

The Guardian
Tuesday January 15, 2008