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 12th January 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.

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See amid the winter snow…

Posted by Jock Coats on 6th January 2010

So the university has decided to be closed tomorrow, Thursday 7th January, except for “essential staff”.  This presents a nice little irony for those intent on evicting live-in warden staff from halls of residence.  Because of course, although it is not term time and we don’t have that many people about even in halls at the moment, what we do have are wardens, who, under the previous system of marketing the role primarily to university staff would, almost by definition, be stuck, tomorrow…in halls of residence.

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

Snow at Morrell Hall last night

What, one might ask, would have happened in halls if this snow had fallen on Friday night?  Would instant arrangements have been made to make lots of staff come in on an otherwise weekend day off to clear snow and so on?  No, wardens, coupled with security at night and on call back up where necessary would have had to have coped.

Indeed, today, just as soon as it was decided to close Gipsy Lane I made my way back to the hall and offered to take the warden bag and remain on site, on call, so that staff could be allowed to go home as staff on other sites had been allowed to do for their own safety.

But other problems will remain, indeed probably be exacerbated, by getting rid of wardens as proposed if this happens next year, even if this is repeated on a week night when the hall office and staff may have been around during the day.  For it is even less likely that concierge staff due to start at 10pm each night will be able to make it in (though to do justice to our current security staff, both of mine made their way in on time last night and even helped to clear snow during the night), and there will be no officially responsible person living on site to cope in such a situation, whereas wardens, well, assuming we’re not actually stuck somewhere else, we’d be stuck here, with nothing to do but help care for the security and welfare of our home community.

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

Posted by Jock Coats on 16th December 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.


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