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Student Life Centre – first impressions

Are students being helped properly?

It was the most devastating blow of the savage cuts announced by management last autumn. The University of Sussex, it was declared, was simply spending too much money on its advice and support services. And so the axe fell on our student advisers, with the scheme declared too costly to continue.

This provoked an outcry from the student body and a fierce backlash from ‘Stop the Cuts’: individual advisers who were being made redundant became active within the campaign group and student activists composed a blog comprising of student testimonials, which detailed anonymous experiences of student advisers and the help received from them.

Many contributors attested that without the aid of their adviser, circumstances would have forced them to withdraw from the university: “I would almost certainly not still be here ready to sit my final exams if it wasn’t for my student adviser,” reads one such entry. “Her advice and understanding has been invaluable. When I first went to student support I was ready to leave my degree due to the stress and hardship I was under.”

Certainly, Sussex’s welfare and support services were particularly highly regarded. This excellent reputation was supported by the fact that between the establishment of the student adviser scheme just over five years ago and its abolishment several months ago, student drop-out rates halved. Despite this statistic, Jenni Grundy, former Head of Student Support and Experience, denied there was a strong or convincing link between student advising and ‘retention rates’: the measure of the degree to which students withdraw from or remain at the university.

“Although anecdotal evidence indicates that the service is good,” she said, “further examples suggest otherwise.”

Senior management seemingly shared these sentiments, maintaining that Sussex was out of step with the approach of its peer institutions, which it was claimed place more emphasis on the provision of light-touch information, advice and guidance services. The visibility of the resources was also criticised, with it being argued that they were too dispersed and as such, inaccessible.

Regarding expenditure, management put forward that Sussex was subject to too high a relative cost per student compared to other universities and that it was not financially viable for the support services to continue in the manner that they did.

However, the stance broadly adopted by the student body was that, regardless of the financial difficulties faced by the university, high-quality service is worth investing in; many students found it difficult to accept that eleven student adviser redundancies and reduced numbers of support staff would not impact the quality of the crucial care that the university provides.

Whilst the university claimed to collaborate with the Students’ Union throughout the reform process, the planned redundancies proceeded against the advice of the Union and Student Reps. The University maintained that the void would be filled by their new proposal, The Student Life Centre (SLC), which was launched this term.

The SLC – based on the ground floor of the Chichester 1 building – represents “a major reshaping of student advising arrangements in terms of cost, visibility, location and service structure,” providing a “single point for non-academic information and advice to students,” with a  newly composed team comprising of a range of support staff – including some Student Advisors that avoided redundancy – trained to deal with a wide variety of problems that students face.
The university believes that “the SLC has improved how services are provided.

“In bringing the advising team into a single location, it has been able to provide services throughout the day and for longer hours than was typical for the individual student advisers across campus and has begun the process of improving the range of information available.

“The SLC has already provided advice and guidance to hundreds of students on campus and the feedback overall has been positive.”

However, the university may need to accept that, at the very least, the SLC has been experiencing some teething problems.

A first-year Biology student, who wishes to be identified as James, required the assistance of the SLC last week due to troubles relating to housing.

“I was affected by the housing crisis,” he says, “so had to find off-campus accommodation. However, I am unhappy living with my flatmates as they are heavy cannabis smokers and keep trying to pressurise me into taking drugs.

“I went to the SLC to talk my problem over with someone. It was generally okay but there was a lengthy waiting time and the lady I spoke to had no idea what she was doing; she had to keep asking her colleagues what to do, even though they were in the middle of dealing with other students.

“I was alarmed at how little discretion there was; privacy just didn’t exist. I didn’t want my flatmates to find out that I had been to the SLC so it was far too lax for my liking. When I mentioned my concerns, she iterated that there was room for improvement in the format and structure of the SLC as there have been student complaints, with some saying that they have been misinformed.”

When asked how his problem was dealt with James replied: “I was eventually sent to the Housing Office and given the number of some housing advice and counselling service which can help with situations like mine. I phoned it and the number was no longer in service! Unbelievable! What a horrible start to my first year!”

Another student, who wishes to be identified as Julia, has also had a bad experience with the SLC.

“I failed my year for the second time and wanted to transfer onto another course,” she explains. “But I simply received a letter advising me that the examination board recommended that I be withdrawn and wishing me good luck in whatever path I choose to pursue. This was terrifying; I have used the student adviser scheme extensively in the past and was told that I would probably be able to transfer if the worst came to the worst.

“Under the old scheme, in that situation I would have approached my adviser directly. But as this system is no longer in place, I wasn’t sure what to do. At a loss, on the day of the resit results, I approached the Progress and Assessment Office where I had to proactively ask what I should do. They recommended that I visit the SLC. However, there’s no policy of, ‘if you fail – go to the SLC’.

“When I reached it, I was very distressed and the tense environment there did not make me feel comfortable. It’s exposed, clinical and desolate so actually reminded me of an airport with a big open space and a desk, no cubicles and no privacy.

“I approached the staff and the man seemed surprised I’d turned up and after I explained my situation, he almost laughed at me! He was very unsympathetic, just like check-in staff when you’ve missed your flight by three seconds or whatever and he asked if I had any friends in the department which I wanted to change to who could speak to the tutors for me. When I said I didn’t, he simply replied, ‘then this is pretty much the end of the road for you.’ However, I now have a place on an alternative course so this was clearly untrue.

“At the time, though, there seemed to be no hope. Lots of people were crying because they had failed their course; one girl was totally breaking down but was left abandoned. I suppose they were busy that day.

“However, no-one even talked me through my options. In that situation, lots of people would have given up and left.

“That’s exactly what I was about to do when I saw my student adviser, who had escaped redundancy and was given another role within the SLC. She arranged a meeting and provided me with honest encouragement, totally going against what the ‘check-in man’ had said and telling me to try my best to secure a place on another course by contacting various departments directly. I received a fast reply from the convener of the one I was most interested in. He was very positive and I was eventually accepted onto the course.

“The staff at the SLC had a gross lack of vital student compassion and did not seem qualified to handle delicate situations like mine. I don’t want to be unfair to them; maybe I just had a bad experience because they were busy that day. But in the future, I will be very hesitant to seek support from the SLC and will email my old student advisor directly.”

Management believe that the SLC is an improvement to the previous scheme as it is more visible but Julia shares the concerns of many students who feel that a faceless, centralised service compromises the discretion present in the old system. “Talking about one’s problems requires privacy and understanding,” reads one of the testimonials. “An adviser needs to have a personal understanding of a situation within the right context for the best solutions to be found.”

“The SLC lacks the familiarity of my student adviser,” attests Julia. “It needs to be more private and personal and the staff need to be more welcoming and supportive. The waiting time was also an issue. Having used the old scheme extensively, I  can confidently say that in no way is the SLC an improvement; it is much better to operate via the same adviser who will have a personal understanding of your problems.

“The university is perfectly happy to take my money but they are not willing to help when things go tits up! They have enough money for new buildings and a swanky café yet they can’t afford decent student support.”

Despite Julia’s concerns, the university has insisted that “the creation of the SLC was not focused on reducing spending, but on improving the way in which services are organised and provided. We believe that the level of resources provided is appropriate – and the fact that so far there is not a waiting time to see an adviser in the SLC suggests that we have got that judgement about right.”

When confronted about the issue of student complaints about the SLC, Clare Mackie, Pro-Vice-Chancellor responsible for Teaching and Learning and chair of the working group for the development of the SLC, said, “If people do have concerns as the new services are established we will listen and respond to those – but the overwhelming evidence so far is that the SLC is doing a good job in helping and supporting our students.”

Lita Wallis, Students’ Union Education Officer says, “I was very concerned last year when it was proposed to make such drastic changes to the provision of advice to students. However, Clare Mackie has been working with the Students’ Union to try and address problems with the SLC as they arise. It is of great concern to the Students’ Union if students feel that they are not receiving an adequate level of support from the SLC, and we encourage anyone who feels that things should be different to contact either myself or Jo Goodman, the Welfare Officer, so that we may propose  suggestions to the university, and make sure action is taken.”

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2 Comments

  1. Kieran has done the campus community a great service with this report, which highlights serious problems with Student Life Centre. Judging by his account the SLC is failing in exactly the manner predicted by anti-cuts campaigners last year. There is no pleasure to be taken in being proved right when students’ welfare is being affected, but surely the university ought now to admit the SLC project has failed and urgently implement substantive changes to ensure no student has to suffer the insensitive treatment described by those quoted here.

    What is the ‘overwhelming evidence’ Clare Mackie refers to, on which basis she claims the SLC is doing a good job?

    Reply
  2. Thank you very much for your comments, Tom.

    Unfortunately, in the quote that Clare Mackie provided, she did not elaborate to explain what this “overwhelming evidence” might be; however, in the statement I received from the university, it is claimed that: “the SLC team are developing and introducing feedback mechanisms for students” so I can only assume that this is where she is taking this viewpoint from.

    On another note, I also want to iterate that this article was not intended in any way to be an attack on the staff of the SLC as a whole; as I understand it there has been a certain degree of confusion about this. Judging from the student accounts in the article, the conduct of some individual staff members has of course been very insensitive and I make no apologies for reporting this to be the case; thanks to the ‘help’ of one staff member, Julia was quite unnecessarily on the verge of throwing the towel in altogether.

    However, in general, I feel that the staff receive quite a mixed review — Julia’s old academic adviser being a member of staff at the SLC — and I attempted to balance the article out with statements from the university who claim that the feedback has been positive.

    The “overwhelming evidence” in my opinion is that the staff as a whole are dreadfully overworked. This in no small part can be attributed to any problems that might have arisen in regards to the SLC. I tried to reflect this in the article by reporting that ‘Stop the Cuts’ was concerned about the redundancy of 11 staff members since it was not convinced that this would not impair the standard of support received and I also think that Julia’s account reflects the fact that staff are over-burdened.

    Nonetheless I regret very much the perception, however small, that I am even slightly attributing the failure of the SLC to the staff that work there. Ultimately, the responsibility for this shambles lies with the university management alone.

    Reply

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