Written by Benjamin Butcher, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, and Marianne Gros, bathimpact writer
The University of Bath prides itself on student satisfaction. For the past two years, we have triumphed in the National Student Survey, coming first in the country, most recently with a 93% overall satisfaction rate. Qualified staff, a vast array of teams and societies as well as stellar teaching and sporting facilities are amongst the highlights of our university experience, the aim being that – wherever a student wants to get involved – they have the opportunity to do so.
Yet within this emerges a startling buck to the trend. When asked by a Which? consumer magazine survey in 2014, the University scored a disappointing 45% satisfaction rating in the institution’s creative prospects.
The University’s poor performance regarding the Arts has not gone unnoticed, and a lot has changed since the survey was conducted. The opening of the £10 million Arts and Management building, bemusingly christened as the Edge, finally offers somewhat appropriate facilities for our art enthusiasts, notably an avant-garde Arts Theatre, multiple studios and practice rooms designed to cater for all of the University’s 18 arts societies. It symbolises a genuine effort on behalf of the University to prioritise the Arts and their impact on students.
Students’ Union Activities Officer Freddy Clapson sees the building as a key step, saying “Last year we didn’t have any sort of arts theatre. Not having such a place is obviously going to hit our arts performance. Hopefully that rating will increase with the new arts centre”
Having the facilities has already proven beneficial to some, relieving societies like ChAOS, the University’s orchestral society, and BodySoc, the contemporary dance society, from the burden of having to practice in the Chancellor’s Building.
Although it is now open and available for use, the funding for The Edge has dried up, leaving the building unpolished and the target of sharp criticism. BUST, the University’s theatre group, mentioned that stage doors were not large enough to fit sets through. SalsaSoc are unable to use the dance studios, as they were designed for bare-foot dancing only.
The lack of funding is something John Struthers, Director of the Institute of Contemporary and Interdisciplinary Arts, who manages the arts at Bath, is wary of. John was unsure of the cost, but it is estimated to be as high as £60,000. Rooms need better soundproofing, instruments looked after and sound systems attached. These are small problems, but ones which could have been prevented if consultation with societies, the main beneficiaries of the building, had been better.
On paper, the problem may appear to be rooted in funding. Each year, the Students’ Union is given a ‘block grant’ by the University which, in turn, is allocated to the various arms of the SU. In the 2013-14 academic year, sports received a generous annual budget of just over £183,000, dwarfing that of societies which received £50,000. In light of an unequal distribution of the grant, the SU is seen as increasingly biased towards sport clubs at the expense of the Arts.
Additional funding, it seems, is often problematic. Money means power and greater possibility to deliver. Many committee members would like to see a greater flow of cash to organise trips, competitions, professional workshops and purchase costumes. In this aspect, it is difficult not to compare the arts with sports, some of whom – perhaps deservedly, given the University’s reputation – have every need catered for from professional coaches to therapists. The amount of time, effort and resources given to the athletic environment at the University continues to uphold its national reputation of sporting excellence.
However, in relation to society funding, the issue is not as black and white as it seems, and there is a lack of correlation between Art societies’ complaints and the SU’s response. John Morgan, Finance Director of the SU, told bathimpact that, “Societies horrifically underspend their budget. If they’re not going to spend it, we’re not going to give it to them. The budget is there to be spent.”
There is some truth in this. Whilst sports societies found themselves considerably over budget in 2012/13, the arts societies themselves (albeit to differing levels) had a surplus of a over a thousand pounds. Mismanagement of budgets is something which Freddy Clapson has noticed and considers as the main issue:
“It’s pretty much bad financial management from certain societies. The way in which the funding works, and is very business practice, is that if you haven’t spent all your money, you don’t need that much next year. So if you’re allocated £1000 but only spend £500, at the end of the year, if a society has that much money in their account, they’ll drop our budget by that much.”
But the perception that Bath is a sports university as opposed to a well-rounded one is an ongoing problem, and one that is deeply rooted in the University’s history. John Struthers claims that, having been hired as the first Director of Arts sixteen years ago, sports had long been the focus of the institution as “we were science and mainly male”. The sporting prowess of the University had been a consequence of the situation, rather than one of deliberate prioritisation.
On this point the SU is clear: the sports are not prioritised. John Morgan told us that, “If one area [sports] is well funded, but under pressure, it is difficult to tell that area they need less”. Sports have a well-established history of performing to elite standards, which requires more money and, ultimately, gains greater publicity and attention; both internally and to the outside world.
Perhaps it is the shadow cast by sport that makes it appear less prioritised; a university which already excels will attract sports students, and member from the arts societies are aware that this, and the fact that the University offers no arts-based degrees, plays against them.
The new ICIA building could act as a symbol in that way, encouraging prospective students that Bath has a solid base for those interested in the arts. But attitudinal changes take time; many of the Arts societies offer an excellent experience to their members, through events, lessons, rehearsals and socials, but it isn’t publicly broadcasted.
Equally, the 85 societies, which organise over 500 events throughout the year, either in an official or casual capacity, have only two full-time members of staff dealing with everything from budgeting to organisation.
“I am working on the staff and realise that we are massively understaffed,” Freddy told us. If Sports generate more revenue, there is greater incentive to enhance their publicity, and allocate resources in terms of budget and staff
The institutions are committed to enhancing the arts, from John, who campaigns fiercely for more money for better equipment, to Freddy, who deals with student groups whenever they approach him. It has just been buried in never-ending administrative work, the search for sustainability and energy-draining power politics, leaving students disillusioned by the University’s ability and will to support them.
But within the picture of a creative environment hidden by the successes of sport emerges a group of students committed to their individual passions: “The point for us is people who want to be involved can be involved”, the Chair of BUSMS told us. This is the key to achieving the necessary reputation that would raise awareness and encourages students to fully engage with the Arts. Only then will the University of Bath be considered as a well-rounded institution, committed to perfect student experience.