Looking back on decades of change in Sheffield’s universities

Pat McGrath Director of Accommodation and Commercial  Services at the University of Sheffield at Halifax Hall
Pat McGrath Director of Accommodation and Commercial Services at the University of Sheffield at Halifax Hall
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Thousands of students have settled into life in Sheffield at the start of a new academic year - but for the first time in over two decades Pat McGrath won’t be around to oversee their time in university halls.

During 26 years of sweeping changes in higher education, Pat - who is retiring from her role as Sheffield University’s director of accommodation and commercial services - led the complete £160 million rebuild of its student halls, as well as the opening of a hotel and restaurant on the campus.

Since Pat joined the university in 1989, students have become increasingly crucial to Sheffield’s economy, and she was among the first to recognise the need to adapt as the sector was transformed by consumer culture.

“Nowadays everyone talks about the ‘student experience’ - that was something we were doing way back,” she said.

Pat, originally from Firth Park, held similar jobs in London before returning to her home city, tempted by the prospect of the then-upcoming World Student Games.

She took on a general manager’s post when Sheffield University decided to merge its separately-run halls of residence into a single department, which she eventually become director of.

“It was very traditional in Sheffield halls of residence, with wardens and everybody ate and slept all under one roof,” she said. “Lots of people absolutely loved it. But it was for a particular time and unfortunately most of the accommodation had been built in the 1960s and 70s, and really it wasn’t appropriate for students of the 1990s and 2000s.”

In 2004 the university launched a new residential strategy, which mapped out a huge construction and refurbishment programme which involved the creation of the ‘student villages’ at Endcliffe and Ranmoor.

Pat admitted: “Unfortunately I think we had to do too much too quickly. We had to build thousands of new beds. We were never going to win any prizes with local residents for doing it.”

At the time it was the biggest project in higher education, and Pat said it ‘took over her life’. “I’m so proud. It made me realise what I was made of. The team rose to it and now we’ve got university after university saying ‘Can we come and see what you’re doing?’”

The site of Tapton Halls in Crookes was sold for housing, and the university also disposed of many of its street properties, with restrictive covenants which mean they can only be used by families.

“That’s really changed a number of areas of Sheffield,” Pat reflected. “Tapton we did just at the right time. It was fortuitous that the property market was at its height.”

And of the recent surge in new student flats planned by private developers, she added: “It’s great to see cranes in Sheffield. We have a great relationship with the council and we’re speaking to developers to talk about what we want from accommodation.”

But she said she had doubts about some early schemes, such as the Unite building in Kelham Island, once considered an unusual location.

“Getting to university was a bit like run the risk. It was one of the poorest areas. If we work together we can get something that’s right for the student - if not, it’s just a bed factory.”

The restaurant, Inox Dine, and the Halifax Hall hotel, opened in 2013, as the university struggled to make a profit from catering. A new business, Unicus, was created to look after the ventures.

Endcliffe’s Halifax Hall - formerly a women-only student residence - is a ‘shining star’ and very popular, said Pat, but Inox is still a ‘work in progress’. It is in an awkward location in the students’ union building and ‘still needs to be more widely known’.

This year a fresh residential strategy will be prepared. There is potential for more new developments.

“It won’t be the university building it, it’ll be us working with partners,” Pat said. “We have to listen to what students are looking for and we have to be on top of our game.”

Pat, aged 59, lives at Langsett near Penistone with her husband Nick, also 59, who worked for the university as an operations manager until 2011. “I’ve been coming to work and he’s been at home, so I want to address that imbalance and have some fun,” she said.

Keeping busy won’t be a problem. Pat will be doing work for Weston Park Hospital and CAFOD, she is a governor at Notre Dame School and chairs not-for-profit firm University Hospitality Seminars.

“I’ll be really sad to leave - it’s been a great privilege.”