Deputy Editor Alex Hendley speaks to NUSU President Ronnie Reid about the Union’s prayer space decisions
Can you give us an overview of what’s happened since I last spoke to you, when the prayer space had just had its opening hours reduced?
I think we can close the loop on the previous decision made. The situation is now, that the prayer space will be open to encompass all of the daily prayers, all week. Prior to this change, the space had very limited opening hours, so it is now open for all five of the daily prayers.
So how closely has this change taken it back to what it was previously?
Previously it was total, 24-hour access. It’s not quite that now, but in the request in the Student Council motion that went through on 16 November, the request was that the opening hours must encompass the five daily prayers.
The University has now met that request, and the Students’ Union has been very positive as we supported ISoc [Newcastle University Islamic Society] on that request, on that specific issue in Council.
When the opening hours of the prayer space first got reduced, were you taking that same opinion/stance then?
When it first got changed, our arguments were primarily focused around weekend access. We felt that students do not keep a normal five day working week, students are here on Saturdays and Sundays – there is that necessity to pray – so we said that was unacceptable and supported the Islamic campus community on having access on weekends.
I wrote to John Hogan [Newcastle University Registrar] and we had negotiations and conversations and eventually we worked with the Islamic Society, and at the task and finish group las Friday it was decided that the university would open the prayer space to encompass the five prayers, seven days a week. So, it was changed from a restricted set of opening hours to a satisfactory set of opening hours.
There are still issues that need to be ironed out, especially in terms of the separate entrance for the brothers and sisters to the space, due to the use of a fire door, which an issue which needs to be worked out by the task and finish group. However, the biggest issue that faced them was the opening hours, and we’ve got that sorted.
"We need to closely look at the multi-faith situation and I think that can only be solved with a purpose build multi-faith centre"
NUSU President Ronnie Reid
Do you think the university was wrong to have ever changed it in the first place? Is changing it back, or unrestricting the opening hours, almost an admittance that they were wrong?
I sympathise on the University on this: I sympathise with the fact that the space needed to be managed by the University itself, and previously it was managed by the Islamic Society. We think the University should manage its own space – from a legal liability perspective – that’s how the University should work. The University needed to work out the best possible way that they could manage a space used by a wide variety of people.
They decided that they couldn’t commit 24-hour access to a university-owned space, as they would then have to staff that space. To staff a space like that would be incredibly expensive and they needed to evaluate how this would work in the future.
They made a decision in late September when everyone came back – and that decision was restricted access. The Islamic Society were clearly unhappy, and protested. The Students’ Union was very supportive of them on that and assisted in their communications with the University.
We all worked together to come to an end goal, which works for everyone. That end goal, the final straw, was that Council motion which showed that the student body was behind the Islamic Society and their ambition to get that space back. That takes us onto the next issue, which is other faiths.
At the same Council I put forward a motion to lobby the University to create a multi-faith centre – built to the specs and demands of every faith, like the one they have in Preston for UCLAN. We want to do that because in 2015 Windsor Terrace was closed off, which was the old faith centre for many different groups of people. What we’re saying in 2017, the year of Freedom City 2017, whilst legacy projects are being considered, this morning I presented the first real vision of how legacy should be presented, with this multi-faith centre.
Next week a survey is opening for any student to take part, based on faith spaces and how they are run.
Using the survey, we will make a proposal and report in the new year, take that to the University and the Estate Capital Strategic Planning Committee – who decide what the next big constructions are that they want to undertake, and try and get a link between Freedom City legacy and estates planning committee, and get it signed off as a priority for the next five or six years, then that would be a real success of the Union.
Back to ISoc more specifically – now the protests have stopped, would you call it cynical to say the University have gone back on their decision just to end them for the time being?
We need to closely look at the multi-faith situation and I think that can only be solved with a purpose build multi-faith centre.
As to the University changing its mind on the matter, which it did, I think it shows the power of the student voice. I think it shows the power of the Students’ Union to mediate the opinion of students and the University.
Also, it showed the passion and the ingenuity of many, many Muslim students to get out and protest, peacefully, for what they wanted.
I was astounded and pretty honoured to be a member of a student body that does that. I was incredibly impressed.