An in-cider look at £20m student union

Chris White and Sam Neagus
Chris White and Sam Neagus
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The bad news for those visiting the new-look £20 million Student’s Union at Sheffield University is that long gone are the days when you could get a pint of cider and black for a pound.

The good news is if you fancy a flaked tuna and anchovies tartine served with olives and fine beans in a fifth-floor restaurant with panoramic views of the city then you’re in the right place.

“Things have moved on from that idea all students want from a union is somewhere selling cheap booze,” says development officer Sam Neagus. “Today, university costs more than ever and students are demanding a full experience – we have to meet that.”

It was with this in mind that Sheffield University this summer funded a massive £20 million redevelopment of the union building in Western Bank. Today, a fortnight ahead of its official opening, The Diary has been invited for a look round.

Impressive? Oh yes.

New features of the five- storey complex include an outdoor mini-amphitheatre; a spectacular glass bridge connecting to the Octagon Centre; six state-of-the-art meeting rooms; a floor dedicated to student support services and a radically revamped venue space for gigs and club nights.

And it’s hoped the overhaul will attract the likes of me and thee too. They want more non-students using the facilities. That fine dining restaurant – called Inox Dine (inox being another word for steel) – will be open to all.

“Our students go out into the community,” says Sam. “Now we felt it important to create facilities which would bring the community to us.”

The changes are the third in 15 years. The last revamp, costing £5 million, was 2010.

“But that’s important,” says Chris White, head of entertainment. “Research shows that when students are choosing a university, the union is the third most important factor after the course and the city.”

That means the building needs to impress but so too do the things on offer. Here, that ranges from knitting clubs to poker societies.

Yet some traditions never change. The development has also included improved pool facilities in the bar. That’s where our tour ends – with a cider. “We’ve been voted best union in the country two years running,” says Chris. “This revamp will mean we stay at the top.”

No Bar? We’ll Go To The West End Instead

Sheffield University’s first Student Union building opened in 1936 but did so without what many youngsters might today consider its most important facility: a bar.

Graves House, named after the Sheffield benefactor J G Graves and still standing in Western Bank today, had an assembly hall with stage, dining area, common rooms and meeting facilities.

But it wasn’t until 12 years (and, apparently, much grumbling) later that a licensed area was added.

It meant, for many years, the West End pub, in Glossop Road, was the unofficial meeting point for young scholars. The move to the present premises came in the Sixties.

Down the decades, the SU has not only provided entertainment and advice for students – there are some 300 affiliated societies today, while the union building has hosted gigs by the likes of The Who and The Kinks – it has also fought for students rights and organised political demonstrations. Malcolm X famously spoke here in December 1964.

The SU has also done great charity work with the annual RAG (Raising And Giving) week established in the Thirties and still going strong.