Down the pan: universities and toilets


In a previous job, when I was Head of Department, I carried out one of those required induction meetings for a new colleague. We went through various aspects of his first few weeks as a lecturer and reached the point where I asked ‘And what about you; do you have any questions?’

There was a pause. He didn’t look comfortable. Then, cautiously, he said, ‘Toilets. I don’t like the toilets here at all. They’re dirty and horrible and I don’t find I can, er, use them…’

I shared with him my shortlist of the least disgusting toilets in our building and in adjacent ones. He seemed, dare I say it, relieved. At the time, he was living in his office, but let’s not go there. It happens.

Toilet issues

I’ve been thinking about toilets recently while writing the ‘What comes out’ section of the MOOC I’ve been producing on ‘Health and Well-being in the Ancient World’. You’ll probably know that the Romans had communal loos, in which men sat around having a chat and doing business while they did their business. Me, I’m fairly insecure about toilets, with recurring nightmares about ones which are unusable due to lack of privacy or to filthiness, which is probably why I’m also a keen supporter of Toilet Twinning. Toilets matter; in developing countries, they can be a way of keeping women safe, as well as a means of reducing disease.

Today, in UK universities most discussions of toilets will probably be about whether to have gender-neutral facilities. But even before that important aspect came on to the agenda, there were issues in university toilets. In my travels around the UK I have found some really unpleasant toilets; dirty, dated, cold. The College of Arts and Law at Birmingham scores particularly highly for nastiness. The staining of the pans has been like that since I first went there, oh, far too many years ago. The foyer gets a makeover: the loos remain horrible.


When I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna, the problem was a different one: the lack of women’s toilets (gender-neutral was nowhere near being on the agenda there). The queues before the 90-minute lectures were such that you had to get in line well ahead of your lecture’s start time. My host department turned out to have a Secret Toilet which was kept locked but could be opened by the same key as one’s office, so that in practice it was a staff-only toilet; although in what passed there for ‘staff induction’ the Secret Toilet was never mentioned, and I only discovered it when I saw a colleague emerge from what I had previously thought was a cupboard.


At my current university, however, where as far as I know there are no Secret Toilets (they wouldn’t be appropriate at The Open University, would they?), there is an obsession with flushing which seems unusual for the profession.

I have no idea why The Open University boasts so many people who are worried about the flush. I’ve never had any shocking experiences in the loos there – the fact that we have so few students on campus reduces the amount of use each toilet gets, and the cleaning service is excellent. Some buildings, but by no means all, even have state-of-the-art rainwater flushing; really, it’s all wonderful. Best toilets in the higher education sector.

Many toilets on the campus give a lot of detail about how best to use the flush.


Precise, isn’t it? But clearly it’s not enough, and some people are evidently uneasy about these things. So, for your delight, in the rest of this blog post I am sharing my favourite home-made signs on display in ladies’ loos across the Walton Hall campus in Milton Keynes.

The following three signs come from three different buildings, so it’s not even that there’s a pocket of unease in one faculty. Enjoy…


I particularly like the ambiguity here about whether it’s you or the toilet that is leaving/being left in a ‘clean and orderly state’. Both, one would hope. But this level of warning clearly isn’t sufficient, and so amateur poets enter the arena:



Unlike classic toilet poems like ‘If you sprinkle when you tinkle’, in neither of these two cases could I find the poem online, so I suspect there really are colleagues who have been communing with their lavatorial Muses. Maybe something Very Bad happened years before I joined The Open University; something akin to the Lloyds Bank coprolite, all eight inches of it. Now there’s a real toilet nightmare…



For those who like a bit of history, the images at the top of this post are the pictures on the walls of the wonderful toilet at the Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon, where we were made very welcome when filming the MOOC!



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