I visited my Alma Mater at the weekend for the first time in many years. I had been back to the city several times since I left but not revisited my old college for a long time. I was in the area to attend a football match but was encouraged to visit one of my old haunts by news of recent investment.
When I completed my degree in the last century, lets be honest it was more than thirty years ago, I did a year-long stint as a full time elected sabbatical officer for the local students union (SU) with the grand title of information and communications officer.
It was a transitional year for me as I moved from obtaining a degree in Physical Science (an amalgamation of Physics and Chemistry) to a lifetime as a technical journalist. It was also a transitional year for the SU as it moved its base from an old inadequate terrace house to a brand new purpose-built facility capable of supporting the couple of thousand students at the college.
The bar counter changed from a five foot hole in the wall of a back room that could seat a dozen people to a modern set-up that allowed half a dozen bar staff to serve customers at one time in a building that could accommodate several hundred.
So the recent investment of several million pounds in the SU building to help it even better cater for a student population that has grown to over thirty thousand in the intervening years whetted my appetite for a return visit.
There had been a few structural changes like covering and making use of a courtyard in the center of the building which had been wasted space since the day the building opened and the re-sitting of a main entrance which had meant that virtually everyone entering the building had to do so via a space-hugging wooden staircase. This change created a lounge with seating on bright red sofas for several dozen. All in all there was much better use of the space available.
The thing that most struck me about the changes was the use of technology. Anyone connected with the electronics industry very quickly becomes blasé about its effect on everyday lives. I am as guilty as many with the constant need to update my consumer electronics. The latest mobile gadget, PCs, high definition TVs all have enhanced my environment – I have so far resisted an i-Pad but that is more to do with the decision of whether to sign up for wireless access. I guess it is the same for present day students but I was amazed how much technology surrounded them.
When we occupied the SU building back in the late 1970s it was almost a technology-free zone. We had to have a vote on whether to have a Juke Box and there was one television in a corner of a dedicated lounge. I have been trying to remember which shows drew the largest TV audience and I think it was Star Trek and Top of the Pops. I am sure it was not the weekly in-house produced TV program that fell with my responsibility but which I abdicated responsibility to those more interested/ better equipped to handle.
During my visit on Saturday lunchtime I didn't count them but there must have been getting on for 50 flat screens TV scattered around the building. Many in the larger areas where showing music videos while in several lounges a live soccer game was being shown with some of the sets equipped to show a 3D transmission if it was available. We have become accustomed to sports bars having small TV screens inset in to the walls in their restrooms but here there were several 12 ins screens and piped commentary so you didn't miss any of the action.
But the technology in the restroom was not restricted to entertainment. An electronic unit by the door measured and displayed the hygiene status of the bathroom area, not here a sheet of paper on the back of the door with indecipherable signatures saying when the last cleaners had popped their head around the door.
Scattered around the building were other units enabling students to make a select music and videos to suit their mood and in several of the larger rooms there were lighting and audio rigs that would put many discothèques to shame.
Of more personal interest I picked up a copy of the SU magazine – The Knowledge – and was interested to note that it is published every 8 weeks. In my day I had to assemble and print (through a Thursday night!) a weekly newspaper called FLY (I don't know why it was called that either, it was a name I inherited). This was put together using a selection of manual and electric typewriters, and printed on a small offset litho machine and manually collated. I realized that the present in frequency of publication was down to the increasing use of electronic social media to spread the news amongst the more geographically spread student population.
Of course it was not just the technology that has changed the environment for today's students, there are now four or five bar counters – the original still in its old place is by far the smallest. One thing that has not changed, they still sell a very cheap pint.