Yesterday I was invited to speak at the College’s annual Student Welfare Seminar; given the very conspicuous lack of students in attendance I felt it would be appropriate to give a run down of my headline talk somewhere accessible to students. I may have rocked the boat somewhat, but hopefully I have stimulated some much needed conversations within the College which Emily-Jane can take advantage of when she takes over in a few weeks. Feedback from the room was overwhelmingly positive from individual student counsellors all the way up to the acting Vice Provost (Education). Unfortunately I may have been mostly preaching to the converted as the seminar was mostly attended by those who are already doing everything they can to support students. The inspiration for the title came from a particular senior member of academic staff who came to say “speak truth to power for the rest of your life”.
Below are the points I made yesterday.
Student Support: the roadmap to excellence
As Deputy President (Welfare) my job in a nutshell is to ensure that the College is living up to its duty of care to students, to advocate for students as a whole, and to defend their needs an wishes. This in itself makes me no stranger to expressing unpopular opinions; as I learned very early on in my tenure as DPW, the views of the students often strike dissonance with that of the College. Imperial College Union is essentially the College’s critical friend – we understand that views may not always align, recognise that we often achieve more as partners than adversaries, but will still call the College out when we need to.
The College talks constantly in terms of ‘Excellence’ and I don’t think I’ve ever heard College President Alice Gast give a speech without saying ‘Excellence’ in most sentences. The College’s strategic mission “to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society” also leans on Excellence. The question in my mind is why is it only research and education that are enshrined in the College’s mission statement. What about the people? After all, Imperial College London is nothing without its students, academics and professional staff.
Looking at some of the detailed strategic actions in the College Strategy we see a few references to student support. “We will continue to enhance our portfolio of student support services” and “We will prioritise the mental well-being of the student body, recognising this as both a moral imperative and a prerequisite of academic success” – the latter was written word for word by the Union. As much as it’s a giant win to see our words put directly into the College’s 5 year plan, it still begs the question as to why this objective wasn’t written by senior members of the student wellbeing support team. Why was it that in 2015 there was a fight to get the health of students on the agenda of a university?
The Mentality Campaign
The reason these explicit commitments to support student mental health came to pass is the Mentality campaign. The results of the Mentality Report in 2015 were shocking, damning and clearly forced senior members of College management to stop and think about what was being inflicted on students at Imperial. I’ve written before about the success of Mentality and how many of the report’s recommendations were met by the College within 6 months of publication. This is a phenomenal achievement for a student campaign, but I wonder if we need to be making bigger asks than clearer signposting and reduced waiting times. Should we not be chasing the College and ensuring they live up to their commitment? It’s one thing to say you’re committed to supporting student mental health, but another to prove yourself, and until every student feels tangible benefit I will continue to argue that a simple written commitment is somewhat tokenistic. One year into the College Strategy, there is still time to make leaps and bounds for student mental health support.
Life at the Coalface
Those delivering student support functions at the coalface are not the ones at fault; they are fighting a battle of demand with limited resource and support. There’s a parallel in my mind as a medic between student support services and the NHS – under resourced and surviving on goodwill of frontline staff.
The Student Counselling & Mental Health Service has massively expanded and diversified its staffing but still cannot keep up with demand; this year like many other institutions, our counselling service saw a massive jump in demand with a 37% increase in the number of students seeking counselling. The Disability Advice Service essentially begged and cajoled the ICT department to hand over rooms to them so that they can see students. Both services acknowledge that the rooms they are stuck with are largely unfit for purpose, but it’s the best they can get.
In halls, wardens and subwardens are constantly put in difficult and potentially dangerous situations as the people dealing with students reaching crisis point at evenings and weekends. The number of serious mental health incidents in halls is on the rise, and yet this year was the first year it occurred to anyone that hall wardening teams should receive any form of mental health training. Further to that, it was once again the Union who were pushing (for some time on what felt like a brick wall) to secure this training for wardening teams after being approached by distressed subwardens looking for formalised support after a student took their life in halls.
Personal tutors as well are essentially a lottery; some are excellent and some are dire. Although the Education Development Unit is doing a huge piece of work to rebuild how personal tutors are trained and to ensure top quality tutoring, it is difficult to prepare personal tutors and other staff on the front line for every eventuality. Even as a student welfare officer this year and last year for the medics I’ve been faced with students in crisis over an enormous range of issues. The fact is that the lives of students as individuals cannot be slotted into neat categories, the problems we as students face are often complex and require a range of expertise to solve. Anything can happen, but with the best will in the world I’m not convinced the student support staff on the ground are given the tools to deal with the huge variety of issues they are likely to face.
Education & Welfare
The Deputy President (Education) and I are a close duo at work; we share a small staff team and often work together on the same projects. In fact back in the day there was only one role, Deputy President (Education & Welfare). Although everyone at the Union recognises that education and welfare are inextricably linked, we always say ‘education’ before we say ‘welfare’. The welfare side, I believe, is the absolute fundamental enabler of education. In my mind there is a venn diagram of welfare and education, with success in the middle.
To return to the College’s mission statement of excellence in education and research, I argue strongly that in order to achieve this mission the College and the Union should be striving for excellence in welfare. Once again, what does it say about the College that it’s mission statement pays no heed to people. Student welfare support continues to be the forgotten sector in Higher Education. What is the true cost of ‘Excellence’?
In the context of the White Paper I believe that student support will have to become fundamental. In the proposed world where market principles come to Higher Education and universities are forced to become more like competitive businesses chasing the next level of TEF, institutions like Imperial may well be forced to strengthen their student support package urgently.
I sometimes see an element of institutional arrogance at Imperial, in that some of its staff believe the College is untouchable due to its strong academic reputation. Yet they don’t realise that very few people where I come from (that frozen land called the North) have heard of Imperial College. It will be easy for Imperial to rest on its laurels and lose prospective talent to new universities with shinier reputations. In the TEF driven world, reputation will be everything. Does Imperial want to be known as a brutal, heartless Excellence machine? Or does it want to be known for its friendly and supportive environment which fosters the growth of exceptionally gifted STEM students?
The Role of the Union
Working with the Union is fundamental to improving student support and we will always come to the defence of student support services. The problem we have is that we are often the ones picking up the pieces when certain parts of the student support system don’t work.
As an example, this year in the Advice Centre we were faced by a surprising number of students coming to see our advisors regarding sexual assault, not looking for support because they were assaulted, but because they weren’t satisfied with the handling of the issue when they went to the College. Fortunately this is something which is being addressed by the College’s strategic planning unit as a matter of urgency; however it should never have got this far in the first place. Imperial, like most institutions struggles to adequately deal with the problem of sexual violence among students. I’m the first to say that it’s an incredibly difficult issue to deal with, but that is not an excuse or a defence. Hearing these stories, which are by no means isolated to the theme of sexual assault is always the worst part of my job. Additionally frustrating is knowing that the people who are blamed, often the front line staff like ‘the counsellors’ or ‘the disability advisors’, are not the people at fault.
Ultimately everyone involved in student wellbeing support is chasing the same goal: for students to be happy and healthy, and feel supported throughout their time at Imperial, enabling them to reach their full potential. Despite this shared aim, support services are not joined up and do not have a joint strategic vision. As I’ve said before, students have complex problems often with multiple facets and causes; these cannot be solved by one counsellor, one study mentor, one advisor or one personal tutor.
We have a collective responsibility to the students which we are not yet fully living up to.
Is there a solution?
As a big believer in self reflection, be at as an individual or an organisation, I strongly believe that as a collective with a shared interest in improving student wellbeing the Union and all the College’s student support services should take a long, hard look at ourselves at all levels of seniority. There are home truths that need to be faced and if we fail to acknowledge and take ownership of the fatal flaws in the system, or shirk responsibility for problems, the problems will only grow and will still be present in four years time when the College writes a new strategy.
The fabled roadmap to excellence in student support has already been written in the Future Student Services review, but its advice is yet to be heeded. To my dismay it is not publically available and is yet to be acted upon despite its recommendations being agreed and endorsed by the highest decision making body in the College. It essentially details the same solutions that I envisage, which in all honesty feels a lot like basic common sense.
All services, including the Union should be making sure they get the basics of delivering a service right. We should ask ourselves if we are working effectively for the benefit of students, and if we really are delivering high quality support from counselling to housing advice and back again.
We should speak of solutions, not just of problems. In the last termly meeting of the Student Support and Wellbeing Committee, the difficulties faced by students returning from interruption of studies were discussed at length. The problem was identified, and then identified again in slightly different words by someone else in the room. This cycle continued for some time, while everyone in the room said how difficult it is from their service’s perspective when a student returns from interruption. After 45 minutes a committee member from the Union decided enough was enough and asked the room to suggest solutions. This went down like a lead balloon, as have previous suggestions in the same committee to consider the possible roots of a particular problem.
Student support requires a holistic approach to ‘The Student’. Too many times I have seen students talked about in terms of their degree course, their mental health state, their nationality or their gender. It seems to not always occur to anyone that ‘The Student’ is so much more than these features of their identity, that students as a whole do not fit into neat categories, or that there is no such thing as ‘The Average Student’. This means that support services need to be sensitive to this, to be agile and multidisciplinary.
Student support should also be more evidence based. I find it hilarious in a twisted sort of way that an institution which spent the last five years and counting of medical school teaching me to think critically and take a rigorous, data driven, evidence based approach to everything I do, and yet I rarely see the institution practicing what it preaches. In the Union we use a principle called Advice, Advocacy and Action. The numbers, types and causes of cases coming to the advice centre essentially inform the campaigning we do. Lobbying the College to act as a rent guarantor and pushing for consent education are both borne out of this principle. So why is it that when the 37% increase in students seeking counselling from last year was presented, was no one able to suggest a reason other than “more people know about our service, so we’re doing a really good job of advertising ourselves”? This may be the case, but there is no way of knowing, without interrogating a seemingly simple increase further. As a STEM institution which prides itself on excellent teaching and research, we do not take an analytical and scientific approach to one of the College's core functions.
The conclusion of all this is that unlike Imperial's research, student support is a long way from world leading or ‘Excellent’. This is not to say that it can’t be done, it just requires a fundamental and radical change of approach as outlined above. As I’ve said many times, this is a collective responsibility of support service staff, academic staff, College upper management and the Union.
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