Jock's Backroom Blog

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

How do you view Halls of Residence? Hotels or communities?

Posted by Jock Coats on December 16th, 2009

Some of you will know that there’s a proposal doing the rounds radically to alter the way we provide security and support in Halls of Residence. This will mean, at present at least (we are still in the “consultation” phase), that we will no longer have Hall Wardens. That role will be replaced partly by what the university calls “Senior Residents” who will be students paid by the hour for being on call in each hall in the early evening, and for meeting up and maintaining contact with a defined group of student residents each, and then through the night by a new full time, permanent, and up all night post of “Concierge”, whilst we will be hoping to bring the security service in-house to back them up, though there will only be one security guard roving around the city based halls on demand.

New blocks currently being built on Marston Rd

New blocks currently being built on Marston Rd

Clearly, as someone who snapped up the opportunity to commit myself to the twenty-four hours a day Brookes community by being a Warden not long after I started working here I am not unbiased: I believe that the continuity and experience of senior-ish figures from other parts of the university living within our halls is essential; if, that is we are able to be visible enough to exert such an influence, which at the moment we are largely not. Sadly, we know all to well that the Warden service has been undermined over a period of years owing mainly to management decisions which have led to what the proposals document calls a service “increasingly stretched and challenged in a number of areas”. And whilst we were often the first to warn about such a gradual diminution when the various changes were made, as well as to suggest ways it could be improved in the intervening time, it is now Wardens who face the chop in the name of rectifying the deficiencies created by tinkering with a system that the document also says “in the past worked well”.

As part of the consultation I have done lots of research into what goes on in other HEIs’ halls. 50 out of 58 I have looked at use a system similar to Hall Wardens – often with very senior university staff and academics being the visible “face” of the hall providing continuity and helping to develop a culture in each that helps make the hall more marketable – in a much more comprehensive way than we have ever done. And I have put forward an alternative scheme to that proposed which beefs up the role of Warden to that of “community leader” wiyj many other opportunities to increase the “collegial culture” of each hall through creating things like Junior Common Room committees that will let student residents get more involved from day one and help provide continuity from one year to the next.

But, as was said in the Joint Staff Committee today (Tuesday), my proposal depends on a fairly fundamentally different view of what we want halls of residence to be than the proposal, or, apparently, current thinking in that area (despite the preponderance of other institutions who clearly think differently). They tell us that students have made it clear that they want more independence, more of a hotel atmosphere and to be left to get on with things by themselves without us attempting to cajole them into being part of a “community”.

Now, I’m not sure where this student opinion cited comes from: I don’t believe there has been a comprehensive survey done. I seriously hope they are not relying on the annual halls satisfaction survey, done in November each year, which has a woefully low return rate and is often completed, as is often the case, by those who already have a gripe (dare one suggest that if they do crave independence, they are really looking for freedom from what they sometimes feel to be intrusion and hassle from the domestic management imposing penalties on, how shall we call them, the less fastidious at housekeeping?). And even if one has been done, which is not cited in the report, I have to say that we are not here to do what the majority thinks as much as be here for when they do need support and for those who need more support throughout their time in halls.

I also suggest that halls, especially as restricted as ours currently are to first year students, need to be a stepping stone. Yes it is often their first opportunity to experience independent living, but at the same time coming to university, especially if its far from home, is a big change in peoples’ lives, straight out of school as most will be. Halls should be seen not as a completely “independent” lifestyle into which all are ready to leap, but as a preparation for it, an easing into independence. Our more vocal local neighbours also feel that the year most students have in halls is our one chance to instil in them a sense of community and responsibility before we “inflict” them, as they see it, on their streets as neighbours.

Applicants too, at least those who go to the length of asking on forums such as the Student Room website, appear to be most concerned to apply for halls that have a good “community” feel. And it is notable that people are told to steer clear of some of our halls, especially the outlying ones, precisely because previous members feel there was not such a community spirit in them. An identifiable culture would, perhaps, make these halls, challenged by their location or facilities, more marketable, which will be increasingly important as we move towards a situation where we are able to offer returning students more years in halls – we will want them to be places that they want to remain a part of when otherwise they could be living out.

At the Senior Management Conference in October 2008 at which the main business was early discussion of the University Strategy 20:20’s “Green Paper” when we were discussing the “Student Experience” theme, several people suggested, and I certainly heard no objection, that our halls should be much more collegiate, with a sense of identity each and fostering perhaps different cultures, creating a “tradition” that would help new arrivals feel they had actually arrived somewhere they could immediately feel a part of.

We have gone on to make that “Student Experience” theme the main strand of the Strategy, and to talk about how to develop in our students the “soft skills” and what we are calling “graduate attributes” that we feel will help them stand out from the crowd when they move on from university. With some 70% of their time spent off the main teaching campuses and often in halls, where better to begin this process than by creating the sort of communities in which they can get involved, in halls? And nor does any of this have to impinge on their “independence” if that is really what they want. Those who don’t want to get involved don’t have to, but we ought to want to provide them with the opportunity to do so, and to have support, from peers and from perhaps wiser adult heads when they find they need it.

To quote from the web pages of Wantage Hall at Reading:

A good university hall of residence should not simply be somewhere convenient where the students happen to live, it should be a community, and an integral and important part of the total university experience…Different people need different things out of their time at university. Never mind, there are lots of other nice halls at the University of Reading, and, because we don’t try to make them all the same, you’ll almost certainly be able to find one that suits you…No matter how diligent a university student you are, you will spend more time away from your academic department than in it. And quite right, too: university is about more than lectures, essays, and exams — vital as these are. And if you live in hall, most of your time will be spent here. It is important therefore that your hall community offers a social context that suits you.

Is that ethos something we should be aiming for? Or somehow “too traditional” for our students? Certainly I believe this issue needs wider debate and agreement before making peremptory changes in the support that halls receive. For myself, however, if these proposals are accepted more or less as currently proposed, I suspect I shall probably be looking elsewhere not just for accommodation. In many ways I have put advancement in my career in IT on the back-burner preferring to make the most of that commitment to the twenty-four hour community that is Brookes, and it will be very difficult to think of the university quite the same if they dismiss that commitment in this way.

You can read the university’s proposals and my alternative proposal as .pdf files.


One Response to “How do you view Halls of Residence? Hotels or communities?”

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