One of the biggest issues of the 2017/18 academic year concerned the Muslim prayer space in the King George VI building. Having gone through a consultation period, asking whether it should be changed to a multi-faith space, the student voice seemed to support remaining as it is, with the construction of a multi-faith centre a long-term future plan.
The issue arose when the University set out to address the asbestos in the King George VI building, with the recently introduced School of Pharmacy moving in. During that process, the University closed the building, including the prayer space. The opportunity to repurpose the room was taken as a multi-faith space, having been operational as Muslim-only for 30 years, since it no longer could offer the Windsor Terrace chaplaincy.
The University also had the motivation of changing how the space was run, with the Islamic Society having autonomous control at the time. From a “legal liability perspective”, the University wanted to transfer control of the space to a staff member, especially to stop members of the public using the room.
With this move came an outcry from the Muslim student community, and resistance to the change. Then President of the Students’ Union, Ronnie Reid, published an open letter supporting the space being for Muslim staff and students, but conceded that the University would probably have to take control of the space themselves.
In response, the University shifted their position, and proposed a period of consultation through the Autumn term, with a decision to be made on its future in December 2017.
After the asbestos had been removed, the prayer space reopened in late September, run by a University faith space coordinator. However, the opening hours became a point of contention, as staffing costs and logistics prevented the space being open every day for all five daily prayers.
In October, hundreds of students protested outside of the prayer space in attempt to regain access, with the room only being open from 8am to 1pm on Saturdays, and even more limited on Sundays. Mielad Niekzad, a Biomedical Science student, said: “If you go to the library, it’s open on Saturdays and Sundays. The university is aware that students study during weekends. And likewise, we pray throughout the week. It’s very important for us – praying is part of our lives.”
Reid wrote a letter to the University Registrar, John Hogan, and set up a task and finish group with the relevant stakeholders to discuss the issue. In mid-November, it was agreed that the opening hours would be extended at the weekend to cater for Muslim staff and students.
Having secured a future for a Muslim prayer space on campus seven days a week, attention turned to the long-term plans to provide faith spaces on Newcastle’s campus. Through Student Council, a motion proposed by Ronnie Reid resolved for the Union to lobby the University to build a multi-faith centre that would accommodate for all students’ faith needs. The motion passed with 89% in favour.
Issues still persist, with no permanent short-term replacement for the dilapidated Windsor Terrace chaplaincy site. The current aim for the Union is to get a concrete commitment to a multi-faith centre in the coming years, much like the one being built in Preston for UCLAN students.