Following the controversial opening of the The University Club in May 2019, Brianna Walsh investigates how the pandemic has affected club operations.
Amidst a Phase 4 UCD lockdown virtual classrooms, library bookings and online learning have become the new normal. No aspect of university life has escaped impact, as students and staff alike face the repercussions of this pandemic. The University Club, despite its express exclusivity, is as much a target of the tragedy as the rest of us. In examining the effects that Covid-19 has had on the operation of the elite club, old questions arise from the dead with a bitterly fresh face. In the context of Covid’s consequences for students, is there any merit behind the multimillion-euro construction, or is it merely a castle propped upon a slowly sinking cloud?
The opening of a new University Club beside the O’Reilly Hall faced controversy from its very conception. The Students Union was vehemently opposed to the idea at the time, citing concern over the expense associated with the building, while mental health and library services encountered serious disregard. UCD academics were angered that the production of this new facility meant the destruction of the old club and Common Room. The old club and Common Room served as an informal space where staff could mingle freely and control their own membership costs.
President Andrew Deeks defended the club at the time, holding that “most world-class universities have a venue of this nature” and the club would address a “significant gap”. He stated in his 2019 President’s Bulletin, that the club “presents many opportunities for building our community and engaging externally.”
The club was confirmed to have cost just under 12.4 million euro by The College Tribune, coming in under budget. The website describes the venue as a “comfortable setting in which to socialise, dine and entertain.” It is a space for distinguished guest events, private meetings, and connecting with other members; staff, alumni, associates, and corporate guests are invited to join, at a cost of €125 per year. The club first opened in May 2019. The university finance committee predicted that income from the clubhouse is estimated to pay for the cost of its construction within 22 years.
It appears that the pandemic has not phased the club’s enthusiasm, with increased advertising of their new operating guidelines in response to Covid-19 health regulations. Since re-opening in August, the Club Café have been offering takeaway services and outdoor dining facilities, with seating available for up to 15 people. Rooms have been “reconfigured to accommodate a physical distance of 2m between attendees of events”, while members are urged to “host your next hybrid or virtual event at UCD… where digital and physical events meet.” The amenity’s social media does indicate another sorry side to the story, however, with little evidence of any actual occasions taking place, apart from the promotion of online Zoom series run by UCD Alumni Relations. Most jarringly, a Facebook video invites its audience to meet beside the lake, the camera panning to highlight an array of empty seats.
Associate Professor Wolfgang Marx contended that the club is “very much in the red”. The Historical Musicology lecturer disclosed that letters were sent out to local alumni, automatically and freely making them honorary members to attract business, but “the President would never admit to that”. Although he does not know the full extent of staff consensus, he asserted that he has not observed much interaction with the club and has taken a pledge to never enter it himself. Despite the “battle being over”, he still misses the informality of the old Common Room, with a view of the new setting as a place for official guest events rather than mingling. Guest events that are now unlikely to occur due to the pandemic.
Professor Marx rendered the club a paradox; “while it looks exclusive, it’s desperate to get anyone in who will pay for a coffee”. Paying regard to the impact of the pandemic, he is “not convinced of how the thing is ever going to recoup its investment – maybe it will meet its running costs”.
The exact number of current members remains unknown, as do the true economic impacts of Covid-19 on the club’s operations.
UCDSU President Conor Anderson dubbed the University Club a “vanity project”. He cited the ongoing inadequacy of mental health services and library facilities, areas that suffered further at the club’s expense. In particular, he emphasised the controversy around UCD’s “upfront and affirmative statement” that there would be no refunds or fee decreases this academic year, despite the lack of accessibility to campus for many students and the switch to online learning. He mentioned the disproportionate consequences for international and graduate students, who face higher costs than any other. The university held that students are “not paying for an experience, they are paying for a degree.” Interestingly, Anderson noted the plethora of marketing material that “does nothing but advertise the UCD experience!”
Professor Marx indicated that the University Club was funded by “university reserves”, the exact details of which are confidential. Online information from the UCD Finance Office shows that fees provide the highest income for the college, followed by state grants. The site states, “If we earn additional fee income, we have scope for allocating additional resources”, 50% of which goes to the University Performance Based Funding Mechanism (UPBF). The UPBF is a “small level of funding that may be applied at the discretion of the UMT and the President”.
The University Club does provide a fantastic space for hosting events and honorary distinguished guests. Furthermore, the club is designed to “foster relationships with alumni, other institutions and industry partners”, and perhaps the benefits of this are not to be underestimated. Honing alumni relations in particular can have a positive impact in terms of donations towards student-centred causes. Last year alone, the UCD Foundation contributed €180,000 towards mental health services. How much of this can be attributed to the club however is uncertain and Anderson concludes that while there may be a place for it, “there are many more pressing issues” and the “money and space could have been better used”.
Covid-19 is indifferent to health, wealth, or library seats. It seems that its impact on the University Club only serves to render injustice more palpable, as it sits quietly alongside UCD students, who are Zooming-in from expensive campus bedrooms and paying full university fees.