Is eating together the be all and self-catering the end all for the “collegiate experience” in higher education?  

Dr Jill Tidmarsh, Vice Principal of Josephine Butler College ,Durham University, UK

When Josephine Butler College was at hard hat and gumboot stage, I had the chance to look around with the new Principal.  At that stage the walls were up, the roof was on and we were shown into two almost identically shaped buildings resembling modern cow sheds, purpose built rave barns or small aircraft hangars.  Barring the smaller rooms along the sides, central spaces on both were cavernous, with high ceilings, innards and infrastructure not visible enough to be award winning, revealing exposed ductwork rather than exposed beams.  One of the buildings was to be a sports-hall-cum-not-sure-what and as for the other, the college’s bar, please read David Held’s blog on the complexities of having bars in College; it’s by no means as simple as one might imagine.

We were proudly informed that Josephine Butler College – for Josephine Butler, see Victorian suffragist, champion of justice, equality and liberty, a woman who challenged the very inverse of these principles in garrison towns across the empire – was to have the largest bar not just in the University but the City, but…  no dining hall. It was a doubly pyrrhic victory in that the College was soon ousted from that position by a bar restaurant chain opening in the City. We were, on our tour of the buildings, delighted to see the 66 single en-suite self-catered flats of six rooms with 66 beautifully appointed shared kitchens; but that was it. It was assumed that students in Josephine Butler College would be so happy cooking for themselves that they would not need, want or miss dining together as a college

Might this be the beginning of the end for Colleges in Durham, or a split between elite and suburbia? Could we actually build a college that felt like a community if it were one without a dining hall (let alone one large enough to dine all members or all of a year group together at one sitting)?  While all colleges at Durham University have outgrown that luxury, in most, for those students living in in their first year and choosing to eat three meals a day in college, approximately six hundred opportunities to eat in the company of your fellow college members, at your college’s dining table.

In Josephine Butler College, there were to be none.  

Notwithstanding the inequality of access to key college family events such as Fresher’s Formals and College Colours Formals, this was alarming in respect of social isolation, a lack of integration, a failure to engage, and indeed a wholly thin university experience at best for our students.  This exacerbated relative poverty was the more galling for our proximity to the Great Hall in Castle or the lofty vaults of St Aidan’s … And all, by the way, for no less cost.

Well as imagined, it didn’t take much reflection for adjustments to be made and the issue to be tackled on both fronts. Firstly we arranged for college formal dining to occur, at least twice a term, catered by any means possible including external caterers. While the Principal was doing battle on the food front, a spot of social construction was pressed into play. Borrowing from outreach and early intervention models in the social care and health fields and with almost militaristic social engineering, a college mentor system was produced and an infantry of 40 college mentors positioned themselves in the social spaces of groups of students in the week the college opened and weekly thereafter. The social and health care models inspiring the approach were borrowed from New Labour policies to commission statutory and voluntary sector joint working models which took providers of services and support out into communities. Let me explain.

Being out in communities was a strategy to strengthen joint working with patients and carers who might not necessarily willingly, or indeed could not easily, engage with such supports in main provider sites such as hospitals.  The approach was most visibly seen in the large spending for Sure Start Centres (family centres) in areas of relative poverty and deprivation.  Sure Starts became hubs themselves for non specialized community engagement and a place from which to link children and families with more focused support, such as speech and learning therapies for preschool aged children, thus enabling earlier connects to specialist support, and a friendly environment to encourage peer support.

So, in a University setting, a College might be seen as a Sure Start Centre, and the mentors the non professional staff, volunteers and community “champions”.  In the case of Josephine Butler it was critical to have engagement that reached out to the individual students in their flats, such that their opportunities to be the engaged stakeholders in their college were enhanced as much as possible. This model also made the invisible “harder to reach” student conspicuous, but discreetly and early on in any potential downward cycle of wellbeing.

College mentoring is not a new phenomenon by any means but in Josephine Butler College, to construct a strong community from the start, it had to be college mentoring ‘with bells on.’ There are many examples of good practice and some variable outcomes across the Durham University colleges and Josephine Butler College was in a very advantageous position to pick the best of what worked and learn which models to skirt around. The College was confident, even from the very first day of opening, that in the absence of outright resistance or barricading oneself into one’s room every student would be properly networked and connected to an “interested other” who would facilitate their access to the college’s support events and staff, encourage their involvement with each other, their involvement with the college as their student union and thus generate an engaged and interactive community from the word go. 

The College has always benefited from a reflective community in which staff professed to sport ‘L plates’ for the first few years and has been open to shared learning with the student body as it has grown. So the mentor system has been tweaked and twisted over the years by students, mentors and staff alike, to accommodate, really, its success. The two approaches, getting food on the communal table, and having at least every Fresher networked with others and conversant over comestibles, have converged over the eight years of Josephine Butler College’s existence such that a social care ‘model army’ of college mentors now eat together weekly with students, and a self-catered college has overcome the obstacles in the way of the ‘fellowship of the table.’

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