In which I rant about 24 Hour Opening…

Yesterday morning I had to deal with a student who was very unhappy that his 1 litre carton of fruit juice had been thrown away by one of the cleaners. He was upset because it was expensive and untouched and he’d “only left it for a minute” while he went to clean his teeth in the toilets.  Now, the cleaner was not in the wrong here because she had no idea how long the juice had been there when she found it and our library is routinely awash with litter in the mornings during exam season*, so she did the right thing. The reason this incident stuck with me is a. the teeth cleaning part and b. the fact that the reason he was so annoyed was obviously that he was knackered. Welcome to exam season and 24 hour opening, the silly season starts here!

Although, to be fair, our 24 hour opening runs from October to June and breaks only at Christmas and Easter but it’s still generally quite quiet outside of exam periods. We’re open 24 hours from Sunday to Thursday, so we’re not open Friday and Saturday nights, thank goodness. And if I had my way we wouldn’t do it at all, because I really don’t think it encourages a healthy lifestyle, good revision, or sensible studying.

Take my guy yesterday morning, I know him quite well and it’s entirely likely that he hasn’t really left the Library since Sunday, unless he’s had to take an exam. He’s got his toothbrush in his bag, for goodness sake, this is a man who is not planning on going home anytime soon. And there’s lots more like him. Last year at our other library that has 24 hour opening, caretakers found toiletries bags hidden behind the ceiling panels in the toilets. I firmly believe that if we were to open over Friday and Saturday nights, as students pressure us to do every year, we would have a small minority of students who would try to get by without renting student accommodation and would simply split their time between the Library and their friends sofas. It sounds ridiculous, but these were among the concerns that SOAS had when they abandoned 24 hour opening after trialling it for a few years (with the full support of their Student Union, I might add). I’ve also heard rumours of such shenanigans in one of the UEL libraries.

It isn’t healthy for students to spend half of their week living in the library, but that is the unavoidable consequence of providing 24 hour opening. Today’s students are under a vast amount of pressure, most have to work while they study, all of them want to get a good degree and most are well aware that they’re going to be flung into the midst of a recession once they graduate. I can completely understand why students are therefore demanding that library facilities be available 24/7 as they have to find ways of making study fit into their lives. We’re under a great deal of pressure to provide students with what they want, especially in this era of rising fees and the sodding NSS. But we can’t be all things to all people and there are serious practicalities involved here. We can’t provide showers, I doubt there are many libraries that can. We can’t provide comfortable places to sleep and in fact, our regulations state that students can’t sleep in the Library and staff will wake up any students they find sleeping in case they have fallen ill**. I know this isn’t true of all libraries and I’ve even heard of some that will give out blankets to students studying overnight (Exeter, anyone?) but still, having a two-hour kip with your head resting on your keyboard is not exactly good exam preparation, is it? We can’t provide a decent breakfast, unless your idea of a decent breakfast is a day old sandwich from the vending machine (and even then, we’re in the minority of libraries that allow students to bring food in or buy it in the library, there’s plenty of libraries that don’t) and there’s no guarantee that there’s anywhere else on campus that can either, or that students can afford it.***

I remember when I was doing my A levels that there was a lot of emphasis placed on sensible preparation for exams; not cramming, taking breaks, having a good night’s sleep the night before. We don’t seem to talk about this anymore once students reach University level, but I would argue that they need it just as much if not more as many are now away from the support of their families. Surely we should be saying somehow, somewhere that spending the 48 hours prior to your exam cramming in the Library, leaving only briefly to have a smoke, is not necessarily going to do you any good in the actual exam?

That’s if they’re even cramming at all anyway; reports from the Night Team suggest that these some of these students spend quite a lot of time streaming films on the PCs or hanging out in the café with their mates. It’s as if they’re under the impression that merely being in the Library will help them absorb knowledge, presumably by some sort of osmosis. Allowing them to remain in the Library for days at a time lets this type of student develop a false sense of study; it’s alright for them to catch up with Eastenders now because they’re already in the Library and they’ll do some revision afterwards, right? Then; it’s alright for them to spend an hour chatting to their mates because they’re in the Library and they’ll do their group presentation afterwards, yeah? Before they know it, 24 hours as gone by and they’ve not managed to do much at all. These are also the students that we see descending on the Library the night before their coursework deadline en masse; they’ve put everything off till the last-minute but it’s alright, the Library’s open and they can just spend the entire night hammering out 2500 words before morning. Oddly enough, they always seem surprised when the rest of their classmates have the same idea and the printers crash under the strain…

So what would I prefer? I don’t really know, I haven’t been in the sector long enough to really know the best way to proceed. It seems to me that having opening hours of 8am to midnight (and running a staffed service, not using Security, during those opening hours it at all possible) would provide a service that catered to as many students as possible, but would also encourage them to plan their work and revision better. I know that closing at midnight wouldn’t necessarily make students go home and go to bed before their exams, but at least it wouldn’t feel quite so much like our responsibility if they didn’t.

If anyone knows of a University that’s doing something different or interesting with their opening hours, please let me know in the comments. Also feel free to have a rant about how annoying exam season is at your institution; I’ll be sure to commiserate with you!

*rant to come, believe me!

** This has led to some “entertaining” incidents of students barricading themselves in rooms to have a nap, bless.

***don’t get me started on the ridiculous prices charged for food on university campuses.


The sodding Student Experience

There was an interesting article in the Times Higher Education yesterday entitled ‘To spoon feed is not to nuture’ which examines research into learning behaviours undertaken at the University of Cumbria. Peter Ovens, Senior Research Fellow, suggests that many of today’s students are “puzzled” by the idea of independent learning, as a result of being spoon fed through their GCSEs and A Levels by teachers who have been forced to focus on targets and league tables. Dr Ovens further warns that current reforms that focus on improving the “student experience” could lead to even greater spoon feeding of students, which is not in their best interest, nor that of their Universities.

This is an issue that I’m very interested in, as I currently work at an Institution that is trying hard to improve it’s National Student Survey results which means that I hear the phrase “the student experience” roughly once a day. I’m also familiar, as I’m sure a lot of my fellow librarians are, with the irritation that is the Spoon Fed Student. You know the ones; they stand in a queue to ask how to get to the first floor, despite the large signs pointing to the stairs. They come to the Help Desk to tell you that the PC attached to the scanner is not turned on, to which the only response is “well why don’t you turn it on then?” They try and persuade you to look up every book on their reading list on the catalogue for them, then get all teary when you tell them you’ll show them how to do the first one and thats it. Then they ask for help finding them all on the shelf, even once you’ve explained DDC to them and shown them the stacks. They complain that no one ever sat down with them personally to go over all the Library rules and regulations in detail, so how can they be expected to comply with them? In short, they make you want to tear your hair out. And there seem to be more and more of them every year.

Now I’m not really qualified to suggest a solution for this state of affairs, but I certainly agree with Dr Ovens that more spoon feeding of students will not help and this is why I really dislike the focus on the sodding Student Experience. Everyone is so concerned that final year students will rate them badly on the NSS that they go out of their way to keep them happy; reading coursework before it’s handed in to advise on structure, being lenient about having student ID on campus, waiving deserved fines if someone kicks up enough of a fuss, giving direct links from Blackboard to e-journal articles that are required reading* etc etc ad nauseum. None of this helps the student in the long run, it just leaves them thinking that there will always be a way out of any difficult situation they find themselves in, they don’t really need to make much effort and if they complain enough their problem will go away. That is no preparation for the real world and is bound to have an effect on employability rates, which is not ideal when we’re releasing graduates into a recession.

I understand that students who are spoon fed through their school years are going to expect the same at University and this situation is unlikely to change unless schools and colleges change it themselves. I also think that it is unfair to expect 18 year olds to work in a way that they have never worked before, and to succeed at it straight away. Nevertheless, instead of giving into these expectations throughout their University career, maybe we should explain the realities of higher education in induction week and give them the first year to get used to it, with some assistance, and then let them sink or swim? After all, the current situation doesn’t seem to be working very well for any of us, and I would quite like to retire with normal blood pressure levels and a full head of hair!

* Unpopular opinion: I don’t even like putting Reading Lists on the catalogue. When I were a student (and this were all fields!)  we got one printed copy of the Reading List and had to look up everything on it ourselves and it didn’t do us any harm!!!