Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Halls as a scholastic community: carrots or sticks

Posted by Jock Coats on February 2nd, 2012

I’ve just left our hall office where warden colleagues appear to be holding the first of what promises to be several evenings of disciplinary assizes.  I hope they will not be bloody ones!  I will be helping tomorrow night with some relating to another part of our site that I don’t normally look after.  I am always only too aware that I seem to do very few of these, whilst over the years the number that some colleagues do increases all the time.  I can’t help feeling there is something wrong here when I get into trouble with my management for NOT doing disciplinaries, as if there ought to be some quota we each have to fill! (I assure any students reading this that the isn’t)

Over the years I’ve been a warden my site has grown by around 400% and has become, as with the wider university population, much more diverse.  Out of hours support, pastoral and disciplinary, and warden line management, has moved from being handled through student services to hall management as part of estates directorate.  We have recruited a higher and higher proportion of wardens from amongst younger, undergraduate students, perhaps because they are easier for hall managers to manage compared with us obstreperous old curmudgeons who actually have experience, wide connections around the university and opinions as to how social order could and should be maintained.

When I started it was predominently university staff, mostly academic, who were wardens – I was a fortunate (for me) exception – and at the very least, no undergraduate students in any large halls.  The number of issues that have gone on to disciplinary hearings has increased I am sure by a greater proportion than the number of extra residents in the hall.  Resultant penalties have risen inexorably – they now make my eyes water and I’m a well paid full time employee not struggling to live on loans, grants, part time jobs and handouts from mum and dad.  Whilst there are lot of factors here, I can’t help thinking that there is some cause and effect going on.

Most importantly, at least since the transfer of warden and disciplinary functions to halls and estates from student services (where they remain in most other universities I can find information for), we have had very little debate about what we expect and what students, our customers and community backbone, expect out of halls.  Or at least, despite all my experience, none of any discussions that have been had have involved tapping that experience or that of other long serving wardens (at least before being presented with fait accomplis changes for “consultation”).  And I assure you, I think about it all the time…at least as much as I put into my day job or, now, my degree.  Because I believe, very fundamentally, that halls form an integral and crucial part of the now fashionable “Student Experience”. And, as one who calls Morrell Hall “home” I take their success or failure intensely personally.

UNC SWAT team: campus overkill?That debate is now long overdue and urgent as we approach the time when students are going to be asked to pay more than ever before just to study here, never mind around fifty per cent again to stay in halls of residence.  If we’re not careful, out of hours “support” might start looking even more like that now available at the Univesity of North Carolina seen in this photo… We will have failed.

Even now, it feels to me that we are “coping” rather than succeeding.  Those who are punished for what they often feel are relatively trivial infractions and those who suffer disturbances when they are trying to work or sleep are not sure who to complain to or what happens when they do complain are not being well served.  I rather suspect that if some knew quite how much people who are, most of the time, their neighbours, classmates and friends, ended up paying when they enter the disciplinary system they would be even more likely to suffer in silence.

So to my vision for halls and the support we give to residents in halls.

Halls should be an integral part of the scholastic community of the university. If people are paying nine grand just to study here or fourteen grand to study and have a room on the university estate, they should expect the two to be more joined up.  For the Student Experience to extend from lecture room to bedroom if you will, with added value facilities such as social study space and communal leisure areas as part of the package.  If the postgraduate centre, for example, deserves a social facility, then so should all the rest of halls.

Out of hours support should combine the roles of pastoral support, academic adviser, student support coordinator – in short, what other institutions call the student’s “Moral Tutor“.  Junior ranks of support should be more like the Peer Assisted Learning helpers some academic departments use to provide backup support in areas they did well in in earlier years.  We should look to have thriving community associations in each hall.

We need to find more carrots and use the stick less often, but possibly more harshly when we do. Vandalism and violence and abuse could be dealt with by sending down or rustication.  I’ll bet you think that as an anarchist I don’t “do” rules.  Not true at all.  I “do” private law – we, the property owner, can impose whatever reasonable restrictions we like to create the atmosphere we want as a part of the contract residents choose to accept.  But in return we should offer more connection with the rest of the life of the university than the semi-detached hostel status halls currently appear at times to be treated as (by both management and student residents).

To this end we need to find ways of welcoming new residents when they arrive.  Kitchen meetings several weeks into their time here are not “welcome” events.  I was frankly shocked when I discovered that the talks I had campaigned for this year turned out to be “invitations” rather than “expected” attendance.  We need to lay down the boundaries at the point of arrival, not once they get into trouble.

Halls need a social online space where future flat and block mates can meet each other and the support staff before they arrive, just as we are hoping to do for the modules and courses they will be on, from as soon as they know where they will be living and what they will be studying.   And using the same social media platform (such as Moodle) so that they appear to be part of the same institution and the same infrastructure, again, not semi-detached or yet another thing to learn to use to get the most out of the place.

Academics must realise, even now, that most of the work that counts as study outside of contact hours goes on “at home” and for many, especially as first years, that means in halls.  So they should be able to talk about how managing ones time involves also having respect for others in their environs so that everybody gets a fair chance at finding quiet time to get work done, and that they should know that academic support is available out of hours through the Warden/HallPAL teams with whom they meet to discuss issues as they might with their own faculty SSCs and so on.

I would have one warden/dean drawn from relatively senior academic or academic related staff, or at least people with established student support experience in the university, and they can remain as the “ultimate threat” for disciplinary action as the Deans are in university colleges when security officers or HallPALs report issues to them.  And their powers should include rustication or removal from halls with negotiation with accommodation officers and university senior staff.  In fact, wouldn’t it be fantastic if each Faculty could nominate at least one of the HallPAL/junior wardens in each hall whilst Student Support appoints the Dean/Senior Warden in all of them.

In some halls this might mean reconfiguring Warden/Dean accommodation in order to be able to recruit more senior people to the role, with most current warden accommodation more appropriate for early career academics who should be encouraged to be part of halls support teams when they join the institution and perhaps student rooms in shared flats for the HallPAL undergraduate support team members.  Contracts need to give more security of tenure than the year to year system that operates at present (Reading has revolving four year contracts for their Wardens, who are recruited from the senior academic levels).

Southampton found that the ratio of support staff to residents had to be closer to one to fifty for residents to feel they had someone identifiable they could contact, not the one to a hundred proposed a couple of years ago here.  Hull has a relatively senior academic (for which read member of the professoriat) with family accommodation for every block of fifty or so, with additional more junior but still academic based support – I am not proposing we can go that far, just yet, until such a system proves itself at least.  We need to be able to know and recognise students as neighbours, not just occasional policing teams calling in when they’ve done something wrong or got a complaint to make and be recognised by them to gain their respect and for them to know that there is always someone on hand with the time to help them, academically or pastorally.

Line management for these roles needs to be returned to student and academic support departments and away from estates and hall management which isolates them from the rest of the university support structures.

All this need not be costly, certainly no more costly than the changes to the out of hours support service proposed two years ago.  It does require a culture change.  A realisation that halls are an integral part of creating a scholastic community, adding value to the nine grand fees by being more than just a place to live (and a relatively expensive one at that), creating a culture that will enhance our local communities by setting boundaries for students before they move out into private accommodation – as one former governor once suggested to me, the “collegiality” rite of passage between “familiarity” and “community”.  More carrot than stick.  More community than hostel.  More integrated into the rest of the university.

I’ve been saying these things for years without anyone acknowledging them let alone incorporating any of the ideas.  And to me, the result is tonight’s “assizes,” bloody or not.  Such confrontational situations are not good for the university’s reputation or the student experience.  Let’s hope we can find those elusive carrots instead.