Jock's Backroom Blog

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

Reflections of a Freshman, Part 5: Support, in and out of hours

Posted by Jock Coats on January 12th, 2012

I’ll try and wrap up with this post, and roll the issues of support both on and off campus, in and out of core hours, into one post.  I will probably still do a separate one about the future of halls of residence as well, but cover the basics in this one.

I have to say that whenever I’ve been to see the Student Support Co-ordinators they’ve been very helpful.  I’ve not really seen them about anything terribly complex yet, and I haven’t yet felt the need to visit Upgrade or my Academic Adviser so I can’t comment on them at all.  However I do find that as with other areas those of us whose course modules are delivered by different Faculties sometimes fall between the gaps I think.  The SSCs and Academic Adviser are of course, rightly, the ones in the faculty delivering the whole subject – in my case, Business.  But they are not in a position to answer questions on what amounts to fully half our course, those bits delivered by Humanities and Social Sciences.

A similar situation arises with the course representatives meetings – they are arranged by Department, so the meetings I go to only review their own modules, so we don’t get in on the discussion of modules in Politics and International Relations.  My understanding is that when everyone was simply on one or more fields, they had reps for each field, so if we had built a course simply by adding an economics field and a politics field together we would have been able to be reps on both (or perhaps either) field.  Something needs to change here I think.  One proposal was to have the program leads from Politics and International Relations attend some of our subject rep meetings in Wheatley, but I think that would be wasteful.  We might as well attend the equivalent meetings in both faculties – it needn’t be the same reps at each, so perhaps we could divide up the jobs between the IX course reps.

Halls of Residence

But my main beef on support is less directly concerned with the faculties themselves and more about “student life” – if you will the time outside contact hours and office hours and so on when, let’s face it, most of us end up doing our coursework, revision and so on.  And for me the focus for this is halls of residence.  I’ve been a warden for many years now and I’m a bit fed up of the various changes to the warden service that have diminished the service in my view.  And I’m even more fed up of not having my experience taken much into account when people who run the service make decisions.  It’s not as if I am backward in coming forward!

I am still learning – none more so than this semester when, though not exactly the same as fellow students in halls (in that I am a warden and they are paying residents), I have also found myself doing coursework at home in halls.  My feeling is that when Year 9k comes next year, those forking out another £5k plus for what in reality amounts to 24 or 25 weeks of useful occupancy, they are going to expect much more from halls in terms of support for both academic and social activities.

Our headline rents are around £100-£135 per week, usually for 38 weeks.  But for years now we have steadily increased the amount students are expected to pay for.  When I first started, I think they were on 33 week contracts, where they would pay for each term (week 1 to week 10), were expected to move out over each holiday (Christmas, Easter and the long vacation) so we could use halls for conferences and the like.  They paid, effectively, for the time they needed to be here.  Now thy have to pay throughout the Christmas vacation and for around three weeks after examinations finish in summer.  All in all, if you are in a £135 a week room, you can be paying the best part of £200 per week for the weeks you actually use (and if your lectures etc fit the right pattern, you can easily stay in Oxford two nights a week, with breakfast, for less).

Now of course the business of universities has changed.  We stopped expecting people to move out long before semesters started – when the Christmas and Easter conference trade became negligible.  Greater numbers of international students need accommodation throughout the academic year – though even these are, judging by the number of people actually in halls over the Christmas break, relatively few in number.  Right now, hall rent (indeed any accommodation) is the biggest expense compared with fees of £3k.  But when the choice is between £9k to study from home or £14k to stay away at university, I feel more people are going to want more of a connect between the academic day time activities and support in halls as part of a scholastic community.

As I proposed at the time hall wardens were last under discussion, I think we should be more like what other universities call “Moral Tutors”.  In our case it could be a mixture of the roles of Student Support Coordinators, Academic Advisers, Moral Tutors and Upgrade advisers.  And we should be split off from the Estates department again.  Still it seems from most universities job adverts for positions equivalent to wardens they mostly report into the Student Services and Support type function rather than the Estate management function.  Indeed even where universities, such as Reading, have outsourced the management of all their halls to UPP, they expect their wardens to come from the professoriat and other senior academics.

Since we have been run out of the Estates department, the recruitment has focussed on students, probably more easily managed than us obstreperous old timers with opinions on how to run things based on living there for a long time and experiencing what the students actually experience.

I understand we do not have a project in the Program for the Enhancement of the Student Experience that directly relates to halls.  This is a grave omission and before any further changes are made to the warden service this wide ranging discussion of how halls fit into the student experience and then what sort of support we need to provide in that environment needs to take place.  To kick such a discussion off I offer my scheme for the out of hours service that was submitted and roundly rejected the last time we looked at the out of hours support service, attached, as a Google Document available to people inside of Brookes.