Students return to Lancaster University this week after a summer of cuts, confusion and changes. Over the three month summer vacation a number of decision have been taken, the true effects of which will only be known now that undergraduate students have arrived.
The Students’ Union, which has a new intake of full-time student representation officers every summer, has been working since the first week of the summer holiday trying to ensure the impact on students is kept to a minimal, with varying levels of success.
“Students go home over the summer, but the Students’ Union continues to work hard to make sure their voices are heard by the University,” said Robbie Pickles, President of Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU). “Unfortunately though the University often makes its most unpopular decisions when students aren’t here to add their voices to our concerns. This has been the busiest summer LUSU has had in over a decade, and in a lot of cases the University made their decisions without allowing us time to counter them.”
Students returning to Lancaster will notice changes in the student support provisions available campus, notably the disappearance of the central based Student Learning Development Centre (SLDC), which has been dismantled and its staff redeployed to a faculty level, it is also likely that before the end of Michaelmas Term the Nurse Unit will also have gone, though its closure is yet to be confirmed.
The decision on both of these closures was made by the University before the end of the last academic year, but LUSU and the University & College Union (UCU), which represents staff, only became aware of them after term had ended.
LUSU’s Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Robin Hughes explains: “Quite a lot of people might read ‘the SLDC’s been closed’ and not be bothered. Unfortunately, the people who do know what it is and notice that it’s gone will be thinking ‘oh my god, this is a massively important service: why is this being allowed to shut?’
“For the people who do use it and do engage with the SLDC it is literally saving students’ necks and whilst there will be a diminished provision available through faculties it will certainly not be able to function to the capacity that the SLDC previously did.”
The University, along with the whole of the higher education sector has been readying itself for the Comprehensive Spending Review later this month. It is expected that as a result of the review the government’s higher education budget could be slashed by as much as 40%. Reports in last week’s Sunday Times suggested that the teaching budget could be cut by 64%.
While student services at the University are being cut, students are feeling the pinch as the cost of living continues to rise. At the end of last year, SCAN ran a story about the increase in library printing charges: 0.5p has been added to the price of black and white printing this year compared to last, but colour printing has increased by alomst 50%, from 14p to 21p. In a survey conducted by SCAN over the summer, 72% of students said printing on campus was too expensive.
Student parking permits for campus have also increased this year compared to last, going up from £52 to £115.
This increase in costs has not been helped by another year of delays in student loans and grants. Following the trend set last year, the Student Loans Company has again failed to ensure that some students have their finances through in time for the start of term.
Lancaster student Ste Smith was one of those students. He said: “I sent all of the documents I needed to send back in April, got an assessment, signed it and sent it back like you’re supposed to and thought everything was fine. I then got a letter saying that we hadn’t sent anything. I was on the phone for an hour, they then miraculously had all the documents they needed and said they were going to reassess everything, I’m still waiting.”
Along with the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Browne Review into higher Education funding is also due to be published this month. The latest rumours suggest that the review will recommend increasing the amount universities can charge for tuition fees from the current level of £3,290 a year for most undergraduates to £10,000 a year.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is planning a demonstration against budget cuts in education next month. They will be joined by the national UCU. If the Browne review does recommend an increase in fees, then the NUS will be counting on the support of Members of Parliament who pledged earlier in the year to vote against an increase in fees. Lancaster’s Conservative MP, Eric ollerenshaw has not signed that pledge.
LUSU is looking to take a number of students down to London for the national demo, but they are also focusing on a Lancaster specific campaign against cuts and increasing in charges at the University.
“We understand that this is a difficult time and that cuts have to come from somewhere. But it seems like that somewhere is always the place that hits students hardest, putting them at a disadvantage as they are pressured to pay more and more” said Pickles. “If Lancaster University is truly committed to retaining its top ten status, it must remain competitive in an increasingly turbulent market by putting students first.”