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Great debate: Union under threat from university plan

IT is one of the world's oldest student unions and was where former political leaders Donald Dewar, John Smith, Charles Kennedy and broadcaster Andrew Neil cut their debating teeth.

Now the future of Glasgow University Union (GUU), which was founded in 1885, is claimed to be under threat from plans by Glasgow University to turn its social venue into a £9 million sports facility.

Students said the move to take over the union-run Hive nightclub and turn it into an indoor sports venue would cut off their income and force them to shut.

GUU officials said the majority of their £1.3 million annual income came from bars and nightclubs located in The Hive, in the city’s west end.

Chris Sibbald, president of GUU, said losing the income would bring an end to a host of other activities, including the debating society, where some of the country’s best known political and public figures have spoken.

Past presidents of the union include the former Labour First Minister Mr Dewar, Labour leader Mr Smith, LibDem leader Mr Kennedy, his successor Sir Menzies Campbell and Mr Neil, who hosts the BBC’s Daily Politics Show and is a former Sunday Times editor.

Among the current Government frontbench, Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox has also held the office.

Mr Sibbald’s claim was refuted by the university, who said it would work to ensure the union continued to be a “vibrant” part of campus life.

“The money that we make out of the social venues is absolutely critical in supporting all the other activities that the union offers, but it is not just about the money,” said Mr Sibbald.

“The social life of the union is an absolutely critical part of bringing people together across this university.

“It is deeply discouraging that the university hierarchy does not seem to recognise the importance of this social venue to our existence and its wider role in the life of the university.”

The situation has arisen because a 25-year lease with Kelvin Hall sports arena to supply indoor exercise space comes to an end next year.

The expiry of the contract coincides with plans by Glasgow Life, a charity which runs the city’s art and sports facilities on behalf of the council, to conduct a major overhaul of Kelvin Hall and rebrand it as a Glasgow Life facility, rather than one shared with Glasgow University.

According to internal documents, renegotiating the lease with Glasgow Life would cost the university an initial fee of £3.5 million, followed by a lease of £170,000 a year. The documents also note that leasing, rather than owning, sports facilities means “they will not be included for consideration in university league tables scoring”.

The university’s preferred option is to spend £9.2m extending the existing Stevenson Building into the area currently occupied by The Hive and building bespoke sports facilities.

A crucial element of this solution is the ability to bring in additional revenue by expanding student membership and charging higher fees, but also by tapping into the lucrative leisure market by opening the facilities to the public.

In a market analysis of the leisure industry, a university report suggests undercutting council-run sports clubs, known as the Glasgow Club. The report states: “It is critical that the Sport and Recreation Service offer lower membership pricing than the Glasgow Club.”

Last night, a spokesman for the university said no decisions had been taken and insisted the future viability of GUU was not in question.

“As a result of the closure of sporting facilities at the Kelvin Hall next year we are considering extending our facilities at the Stevenson Building,” he said.

“GUU has been briefed on this possible development and will be closely consulted should the university decide to build a sports extension.”

A decision will be made when the university’s ruling Court meets next month.

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