Monthly Archives: November 2015

What did UMIST stand for?

Well, my over-riding memory of being at UMIST was just how very international it was. Unlike most other universities in England which were very mono-cultural, at least in our eyes.

UMIST was where I went to university in the late 1970s in Manchester. Many years later it merged with the University of Manchester which is nearby. Or was taken over, depending on your point of view. Now the ‘old UMIST’ campus is to be sold off as prime city centre land, earmarked for tower blocks of student housing. The word is consolidation.

Not so many years ago I tried to get a library ticket at the university after the merger. I was an alumni I told them. Ah yes, they said, but only UMIST alumni, so no free ticket. To be fair, that rule has changed.

And now the university is running a small project to try and preserve the memories and meanings of UMIST, asking on LinkedIn for nostalgic postings on what UMIST meant to its former students and staff. Well, some thoughts…

Of course, these days every university is chasing the overseas market and their fees. And even back in the day, post-graduate students in many places were from more diverse backgrounds than the undergraduates. But UMIST stood out as being highly international at all levels.

My extra-curricula interests ranged from the Socialist Society to Community Action, becoming the elected Welfare Officer with a sabbatical year after my graduation. The debates in the Students Union were wide-ranging, well informed, and keenly felt. The Iraq-Iran war directly affected people’s families and home towns. The ethnic Chinese students with families in Singapore knew what colonialism meant.

More recently I worked for the University of Salford, and curiously its high level of diversity amongst undergraduates was a pleasing reminder of the culture of UMIST.

I guess my point is, that notwithstanding all the marketing requirements that universities now have to never admit any weakness, it would be intellectually and personally satisfying to see some measure of recognition of the strength that was UMIST’s international culture.

Why new buildings can be more hostile to disabled people

You might think that newer buildings would be better for disabled people than older buildings. Better access. Easier movement inside. More ramps and fewer steps, and so on. So why, increasingly, does it not feel like that when you actually visit a new building?

The devil is in the detail
The details of building design are controlled by the Building Regulations, through a process called Building Control. This process is different to Planning Permission, which looks at the outside design and how it looks to passers-by, the impact of parking on neighbours, and so on. The Building Regulations control what goes on inside. For example, making sure that the electricity sockets are safely away from any water taps, or that the bannisters are close enough together so that a toddler cannot fall downstairs through a gap.

Computer says OK
A few years ago the Government at the time gave into pressure from businesses for less red tape, less regulation, less burden on business as they claimed. Up to then, Building Control was something that the local council did, usually on the same corridor as Planning Permission. Well, said business, let us do our own Building Control. Don’t worry, they said, we will hire independent professionals, so we are not marking our own homework. And the Government let it happen.

Two bad changes then followed, one cultural and one technical. The cultural change is that the independent professionals challenge less often than a council official would, because they need the work, the next contract. It is a world of hire and fire. And the technical change is, to save money, that building designers use computer programs more often. So the computer counts up the turning circles and the accessible toilets, checks the ramp gradients and gives the design a green light. Even if it makes no sense to humans.

The result too often is, for disabled people, new buildings that are increasingly chaotic and hostile.