Student service cut as staff and unions are left in the dark

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The Student Learning Development Centre was shut down this summer and its services devolved to a Faculty level amidst complaints from staff and student unions of zero consultation.

The SLDC, which provided academic support and counselling for students, no longer exists as a central service available to all students. Three members of its staff have been redeployed into the Faculties as a result of the change, four others have been redundant and a final one will not have their contract renewed when it ends in December.

The SLDC did run a number of services, ranging from workshops to individual tutorials. Some of its most popular courses were Thesis in Progress for postgradutes and Effective Learning for international students. According to a report by the Research Training Programmes Working Group, 324 students undertook the Thesis In Progress course last year. It also ran Dyslexia Drop-in sessions for students who wanted extra support. Although individual tutorials will continue under the new devolved system along with some workshops, the courses and support groups above will not. The impact on students and staff have concerned both Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) and the Lancaster branch of the University and Colleges’ Union (UCU), but this concern has been exasperated by what they perceive as a chronic lack of consultation by the University about the change.

“We weren’t consulted on this, something which we have made clear our displeasure,” said Robin Hughes, LUSU’s Vice President Academic Affairs. “Obviously our specific purpose here is to help and assist students and to make sure they get the best deal during their time at university. We feel this change certainly isn’t going to make that happen.”

On June 1 a decision was taken by the University to close the SLDC and devolve its services. This decision was taken by the University Management Advisory Group (UMAG), which is chaired by the Vice Chancellor and is made up of the University’s Senior Management team. Neither LUSU nor UCU have a representative on this group. At the meeting a review about the future operation of the SLDC was presented by the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Bob McKinlay.

Later that month the Director of Human Recourses, Chris Thursh requested a meeting with the Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) staff, the department the SLDC came under. When CELT staff requested that they had union representation at the meeting was delayed by a week. On July 1 an email was circulated around CELT staff outlining the “future operation of the SLDC”.

The email explained how the four Effective Learning Tutors who had worked in the SLDC would be replaced by three Student Learning Advisors (SLA) who would work within the faculties: The Management School and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will each have a dedicated SLA. The School of Health and Medicine and the Faculty of Science and Technology will share their SLA. It had already been agreed before the report that one position of SLA would move to the Management School.

The change meant that one Tutor would be made redundant along with two part-time administration assistants and the SLDC Coordinator, Dr. Moria Peelo. Dr. Louise Innes, the Research Training Manager will not have her contract renewed.

As part of Prof. Mckinlay’s review Thursh spoke to the Director of CELT, Dr. Paul Rodaway, about the service offered by the SLDC. Dr. Rodaway explained: “I first formally found out after the UMAG decision. There will have been discussion for quite some time to the various options in relation to providing student learning support and the DVC went through an extended process of talking to all sorts of parties: [Faculty} Deans and Heads of Service and so on.”

These discussions did not included SLDC staff, UCU or the Students’ Union. Rory Daly, a UCU representative who has been working with SLDC staff said: “Lancaster UCU believes that one of the strengths of Lancaster’s offer to students is the high quality of academic and pastoral support offered by colleagues in SLDC. It is not appropriate that the decision to close SLDC and reduce this support should have been made with minimal consultation with the staff, the campus unions and LUSU. When consultation did take place it was very clear that the key decisions had already been made and would not be changed.”

In an email to SCAN Thursh explained that “student interests were always at the forefront of discussions with the Faculties about the transition.  Subsequent to the UMAG decision a meeting was held with LUSU to explain the changes”.

He added: “Collective and individual consultation meetings with all the trade unions and SLDC staff commenced on 1st July and have continued throughout July and August.” When an attempt was made to arrange a proper interview with Thrush SCAN was told “it isn’t possible for you to meet Chris about SLDC.”

Both LUSU and UCU have been refused access to Prof McKinlay’s report on the grounds that it is confidential, and it has been restricted from the minutes of the UMAG meeting. LUSU put in a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2005 for the document, which was denied twice by the University on the grounds that disclosure of the document would “inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”. The University has argued that the paper is exempt under Section 36 of the Act: “Information whose provision would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.” LUSU has applied to the Information Commissioner’s Office to appeal against the University’s decision.

Hughes, who has been working on the implications of the SLDC closure all summer added: “We’re still not able even at this point we are not able to give our full opinions on the matter because we never saw the initial report which suggested that this should be the case. We don’t know what the business case for this is so it’s very difficult to participate as meaningfully in the debate as we’d like to because we’re having that information withheld from us.”

There is a common concern that without admin support staff the SLAs will spend too much time distracted by other work and will not be able to devote as much time to students in need. The SLAs will be expected to maintain the website, currently done by admin staff. The admin staff also collect date, manage files and advertise SLDC sessions, work with thre tutors do not have the skills to replicate and could take time away from working with students.  “We’ve been looking at how we can empower them to manage that workload by themselves so the development of dedicated email accounts for each of the advisors is part of that, as is maintaining the website,” said Dr Rodaway.

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