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Students slam 'disappointing' Hillhead facilities as Headspace remains shuttered

No resolution to RAAC saga as University declines to commit to repairs timeline 

By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

A large mural welcomes students to the Headspace Building

I walk into Headspace fifteen minutes after nine in the evening. It's relatively quiet. Some folks are studying and one student is trying to watch BBC Iplayer in the TV room (the Internet doesn't work).

On a wall to my left, there is a large mural. An ode to the Granite City, bold script proudly states that Aberdeen is “made of strong stuff.”

This is rather ironic- given that much of the University’s flagship student centre has been closed for the last ten months.

And, as The Gaudie can now reveal, the University has made no plans to reopen the facility anytime soon.

Headspace was first shut in June

The shuttered entrance to Headspace, as photographed in August 2023. Photo: Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

Last May, inspectors discovered that a number of buildings on the University estate contained RAAC, including some at Hillhead Student Village. 

A lighter and less durable form of concrete, RAAC was used in the construction of many buildings between the 1960s and 90s- and has sparked collapse fears across the nation in recent years.

Upon the discovery of RAAC in the building’s roof, Headspace was immediately closed. By summers’ end, the University had reopened portions of the basement, including where I was standing.

Yet, much of the complex, which includes ‘The Works’ restaurant and bar; as well as a Co-Op grocery store, remains shuttered. 

This means that 2000 paying students do not have access to on-site hot meals or grocery essentials.

Are students getting value for money?

The Co-Op has been closed since last June. Photo: Andrew Hanson

Since it first opened in 1968, Hillhead has been home to generations of freshers. Branded as ‘hassle-free’ accommodation for students of all budgets, rent ranges from £103-£178 per week. 

Students can choose from catered or non-catered options. Free parking, utilities, wifi, and round the clock security are included with each package.

Now, some residents are questioning whether the University has been forthright in their representation of the closures.

With the shuttering of the on-site Co-Op, the closest supermarket is Lidl, a ten minute walk down the road. However, this solution doesn’t work for all students.

For example, first year student Amelia told The Gaudie: “Lidl doesn’t have a gluten free range, (whereas the Co-Op does) so as a celiac sufferer, popping to the shop was always out of the question. It takes a series of long buses to get to the big supermarkets that have the right food.” 

Another first year student, Mustapha, said he only learned that much of the student centre was closed once he arrived at Hillhead.

He quipped: “I was actually very happy to see the Co-Op logo as I drove into Hillhead, but was rather disappointed when upon coming close I realised that there was a barricade in front of the main entrance.”

While Mustapha says he hasn’t experienced any issues shopping at Lidl, he noted that it would be nice to get a hot meal on-site once in a while.

The Works at Hillhead, pictured during Freshers Week in 2019. Photo: University of Aberdeen

“Having a restaurant would’ve most definitely been a plus point,” he said. “There are days when you’d find it hard cooking a meal for yourself if courses get too hard…”

When open, The Works offered a range of hot food and snacks; as well as a continental breakfast, a 'three course buffet dinner," and a Sunday Brunch. Now, students looking for meals after 3 PM are limited to a selection of two or three options at the Crisp outlet in the Student Union Building.

A Starbucks outlet managed by AUSA has been opened as an alternative, but 'Little Brew', which shuts at 9, only offers a range of hot and cold sandwiches, sweet treats, and coffee.

A third student, who asked not to be named, also weighed in on the closures. 

She said: “Overall, my experience has not been affected that much. I don’t mind having to walk a bit to the nearest shop to get food because I enjoy walking.”

“I feel that others find it exhausting to walk back to Hillhead with heavy bags of food shopping, and I hear a lot of people complaining about this and how many wish the Co-Op was still open.”

Back in the TV room, I ask the student setting up Iplayer if he's heard about The Works being closed.

He's just arrived in February and thinks I'm referring to the Starbucks (which is already locked up for the night), so I rephrase.

“Ohhh,” he says, “I've heard it has something to do with the concrete. Someone in reception told me it might not open for two years.”

Why hasn't a temporary grocery store opened by now?

According to Aberdeen City Council documents, plans to erect a temporary grocery store in an adjacent building were submitted by the University on the 19th of July. 

The council approved the documents on the 22nd of September, and the University has had permission to renovate the site ever since. 

However, work has yet to begin, despite staff being told it would be ready by January. It’s in quite a state, as I saw on my way into Headspace. 

Permission has been granted to open a temporary shop at the adjacent AUSA building. Photo: Ben Hendry

A University spokesperson told us: “Every effort is being made to have a small convenience store open at Hillhead for residents arriving in September."

Is the University being forthcoming with applicants?

A brief perusal of the University’s website for information about Hillhead sparked more questions than answers. No mention can be found of RAAC, or about the closure of Co-Op or The Works.

However, upon closer inspection, some material appears to misleading. For example, a downloadable “Feel at Home” guide notes:

“Headspace is the heart of Hillhead Student Village. Here you can find a variety of meeting and study rooms, community space, a community kitchen, a grocery shop and a café bar serving delicious food, drink and specialty coffees.”

The guide doesn’t mention that the community kitchen was converted into a Starbucks and that the cafe bar and grocery shop have been closed for nearly a year.

Speaking to students earlier in the day, a similar theme emerges.

As Amelia noted: “The promotional materials aren’t accurate, as they don’t explicitly mention the lack of facilities. 

“Whilst they may not be overly advertising it,” she added, “pretty much all student villages have these features, and the fact that UoA doesn’t have these should be boldly laid out to avoid disappointment.”

Mustapha added: “I feel that the promotional materials seldom accurately represent the features at Hillhead, I was expecting a slightly bigger room upon arrival and relatively spacious toilets but was extremely disappointed.

“Headspace is definitely a nice area for recreational purposes… But it’s undeniable that the level of misrepresentation is truly baffling.”

A University spokesperson contested such claims, telling The Gaudie:

"The services available to students are made clear to prospective students at offer holder, open days and online sessions and during any accommodation tours we undertake."

I peek into ‘The Works’- which is ablaze with light, despite being off limits to students. The large room is littered with detritus- tables, chairs, and boxes of door handles.

A peek into the abandoned Works cafe/bar- now home to boxes of door handles. Photo: Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

Will Headspace ever reopen? 

With the University continuing to face a significant financial deficit, it remains unclear when (or if) Headspace will be completely reopened. 

A University spokesperson told us: “The safety and wellbeing of our staff and students is always our priority and, where the presence of RAAC has been identified, suitable measures are in place to prevent access.

“This has necessitated change to the physical space at Hillhead but we have done all we can to provide the same or similar services in other areas.

“Working with AUSA, the Starbucks@littlebrew café operation at Hillhead has ensured hot food options have continued to be made available to Hillhead residents, while those on catered packages continue to have access to the Rocksalt Food Court in the Student Union building.

"This is in addition to the grocery delivery services offered by all major supermarket chains."

On my way out, I stop to chat with two female students playing pool.

“Have you heard whether or not the shop has reopened?” I ask.

Not yet, one replies, “Lidl is the nearest store.”

It's not too bad getting there, she adds, but it's more difficult carrying your shopping uphill on the way home.

Fair enough, I think, and head for the door.

My job done, I walk past the shuttered restaurant and the locked-up Starbucks and out into the inky black darkness. After fifteen minutes or so (I like to write while I walk), I look up- I'm at Lidl.

I walk towards the doors.

It's closed for the night. How appropriate. 


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