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The secret life of watercoolers

University leaders often readily agree to implement student leaders' policies - but are they as easy to deliver as they look? Alan Sutherland has a water cooler moment.
This article is more than 5 years old

Alan Sutherland is CEO at Surrey SU

Sometimes the policies that students’ union sabbatical officers pursue in the student interest look deceptively easy to agree to for university senior managers. But are they as easy to deliver as they look?

Take the tale of a dihydrogen monoxide thermal reduction dispensing device, or as you may also know it, a water cooler.

Goating and goaling

The ubiquitous reusable water bottle, which is very much en vogue currently, can be seen daily in the hands of students – who are not only hyper-conscious of single-use plastics, but enjoy a trend. One student in our entirely fictitious scenario meets a students’ union sabbatical officer in a regular outreach type session, where the sabbs go out and about to meet students. The officer is doing their job to get student feedback, and asks our student if there is anything they would like to see on campus to improve the student learning experience.

“Yes”, says our made-up student. “More water coolers in the library” as they hold their empty S’Well bottle walking to fill it up at a far-flung tap.

The officer, new in post, thinks this is great – student feedback (tick), a practical suggestion (tick), not too expensive (tick), easy to do (tick). All in all, a policy which can be classed as a “win” (tickety tick tick tick).

Meet the managers

In their next meeting with the senior non-academic executive (you can substitute your own university job title here, I’ll use senior manager), the officer asks for another water cooler in the library.

The senior manager thinks this is great – student feedback (tick), a practical suggestion (tick), not too expensive (tick), easy to do (tick). All in all, something which can go in an email titled ‘you said, we did’ (tickety tick tick tick).

The senior manager emails the head of estates, instructing them to put another water cooler in the library because the SU has asked for one. The head of estates is pleased with this email because it is student feedback (tick), a practical suggestion (tick), not too expensive (tick), easy to do (tick). All in all, a policy which can be classed as a clear commitment to the student experience (tickety tick tick tick).

The email is then forwarded to a project manager who can make it happen. The project manager is fairly new to the university and is not wholly up to speed with the way a university works. They have a multitude of questions; where in the library, what type, who is paying, when do you want it? However, not wishing to appear clueless, they get going using intuition as their guide. They know this has at some point come from the union, so they email them.

Hi, I have asked to install a water cooler for you, who should I speak to about this?”

This email comes to reception, who of course asks the member of staff responsible for SU facilities about it. This person knows nothing. The message is sent back:

No, sorry, we didn’t ask for a water cooler”

The project manager emails head of estates, informing them it is no longer needed – and everyone is happy.

Weeks pass. The officer and the senior manager reunite for their next meeting. “When will that water cooler arrive”. The senior manager does not know such detail but will chase it up. The head of estates tells them they were told it was no longer needed, forwarding the project manager’s email. This email is then tersely forwarded to the officer with a polite version of “are you having a laugh?” inserted. The officer then emails the project manager directly and makes sense of the whole situation,

Back on track

Now the project manager encounters the library. Where do they want this water cooler? “We don’t want a water cooler” – prepared for this answer, the manager can now explain the background and actually whether they want it or not, they are getting it.

Time to find a location for our magnificent fountain. It needs to be in a convenient location, where students are studying, but not somewhere where they don’t want food and drink consumed.

A small working party is formed of library staff, project manager, and sabbatical officer. The project manager now thinks this has become overly complicated and says with a jaunty tone “I’ve come from the commercial world and if we want a water cooler we just do it! It wouldn’t be like this in the real world”.

Everyone now hates the project manager and thinks he should return to his commercial utopia if it is so wonderful.

After some discussion, a perfect position is now agreed. The project manager then gets to work – to achieve the task, they need the following

  1. a water cooler
  2. water
  3. power

So the project manager contacts procurement to find out where water coolers come from – and helpfully there is a preferred supplier. The next challenge is water and power. Power is easy, and an electrician is booked in to run a new spur to provide 13a for a new water cooler. The water proves harder to achieve.

In the old days, one would just plonk a 20 litre bottle on top of a chiller. However, the need to reduce plastic waste means it really needs to be plumbed in – and they have the option of getting water from the other end of the floor or from directly above. Our “perfect” position is about as far away from water as is possible. Time to call in the M&E expert. This is a member of staff that lives for pipes and wires, and deftly works out how to get our water 18 metres from one end of the library to where it needs to be, and the work needed to do it.

At this point our intrepid project manager has everything they need to get the job done and fills out their mandatory project form outlining the work needed:

  1. Water Cooler hire charge
  2. Electric point installation
  3. Plumbing works
  4. Minor building works needed to run plumbing
  5. QS fee
  6. Internal PM fee
  7. Redecoration for making good
  8. VAT

This form goes off to estates admin for processing.

The correct question at this point should be “who is paying for this?” – except what is actually asked is “who is this for?” Sadly, the project manager answers the question literally. “It’s for the students’ union” they say.

Yes but who pays

So, the SU is promptly issued with an invoice for installing a water cooler. Not recognising the invoice, the SU finance clerk asks for authorisation. This goes to the project manager, who goes to the sabbatical officer, who says they are not paying.

Well, maybe the library pays, thinks the project manager. “We haven’t got the budget” says the library.

The project manager at this point returns the problem to the head of estates, who at that point is staring at a panoply of budget cuts and mounting maintenance issues – the last thing they want is another whimsical flight of fancy from the SU, so back to the senior manager it goes.

Remarkably, given the senior manager does not actually possess a budget of their own in the university, they too cannot help.

Finally, a decree is issued. The catering department can pay for it (whether they like it or not).

The senior manager tells the head of estates who is paying, who then emails the project manager, who then emails the sabbatical officer.

Thank you for your email. My term of office completed on June 30th and I have now left the university”

9 responses to “The secret life of watercoolers

  1. September: new sabbatical officer receives an email from a student. “The water cooler in the library is too cold… would it be possible to install a hot one too?”.

  2. At least you got the units plumbed in. As well as reducing plastic waste, the financial saving is significant. NB this is a room refurbishment budget item.

  3. “entirely fictitious” ha ha, you couldn’t make it up! I’d be willing to wager that this exact scenario’s probably played out on a multitude of other campuses too!

  4. ‘We need more microwaves on campus’. ‘Yes, but who is responsible for cleaning the microwaves?’ – I recognise everything in this article far too well!

  5. Then there are 8 years of commuter students asking for lockers with no joy.
    Amazon asks and it happens in weeks!.

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