Currently, the University’s academic plan for 2012 to 2017 (detailed in Achieving Strategic Academic Priorities 2012) focuses on improving McGill’s rankings, its research, and thus its attraction and retention of world class students. But such plans do not reflect McGill’s reality as a physical space for students. Despite McGill’s downtown location and limited space for expansion, there is ample room to improve preexisting spaces.
Multipurpose and accessible student spaces should not be viewed as separate from McGill’s strategic goals in terms of improving its ranking. Improving spaces will attract a higher calibre of students, influence the engagement of current students, and redefine McGill’s legacy as students become alumni. The definition of an excellent institution must extend beyond its academic ranking to include the institution’s dedication to improving student living.
A well-designed student space must be a long-term goal of the administration and Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). The Shatner University Centre, despite its purpose, is not perceived as a space for students to convene. The second-floor cafeteria space is poorly organized and not an attractive destination for students, and the furniture of the main floor lounge is outdated. Seasonal affective disorders are common on campus during the winter months, and isolation is increasingly shown to cause mental health issues, particularly during exam season. There is a clear need for versatile communal spaces that are student-developed and student-oriented.
The majority of existing student spaces are specific to certain groups on campus. Departmental associations have dedicated offices, faculty associations have their own lounges, and even libraries are limited to the students they were designed for. By creating a central hub, all students would have common access to a space for collaborating and participating in the McGill campus community. As these spaces become more exclusive, more must be done to both improve accessibility and create a common space for all students, regardless of field or level of study. McGill and SSMU can follow the example of Ryerson’s new Student Learning Centre, which was designed by students, for students.
Certain areas must also be refurbished to suit the immediate needs of students, and plans must be developed to ensure that spaces can evolve as these needs change. Due to the proliferation of laptop computers, for example, the need for extensive computer labs (such as in the Ferrier computer lab) is not as dire as it was 10 years ago. The time and money spent on creating a space for students will be wasted if they are not used to address student needs. Deciding which spaces to prioritize must be a collaborative process between administrators, associations, and faculties.
Redesigning student spaces need not be a costly endeavour. Such a project could focus on the creative process and finding cost-effective new ways to use the spaces that we already have. The process of consultation should involve students throughout, and has already started through initiatives such as the McGill Spaces Project. SSMU and faculty associations could also foster student engagement by encouraging case competitions for students alongside student consultation, something was done with relative success for the Student Run Cafeteria. Opening up the process of redesgin would ensure that students have a major stake in the project.
In the short-term, student societies are in the best position to address the space deficit and may do so through a fee levy, such as the one passed by the Science Undergraduate Society in Winter 2015. This solution is unreliable, as made evident by the difficulty faced by SSMU in ensuring its building fee passed in Fall 2014. Our student leaders must take steps to lobby McGill to improve student spaces on campus. Ensuring a sustainable and equal improvement of student spaces must be a common goal for all stakeholders.
The creation of a functional and multipurpose student space should not be perceived as dichotomous to improving academic results. Should McGill wish to achieve the same calibre of results as it has historically, it must adapt to a post-secondary standard that emphasizes student living. This must entail the provision of opportunities and spaces that are conducive to student well-being. By continuing to ignore student spaces at the expense of student well-being, McGill will unwittingly perpetuate its image as an enterprise rather than a reputable institution of a quality, well-rounded academic experience.