The University needs to open its ears

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“It’s being sold as a strategy, a way forward, an improvement. But it shows no one has listened to or considered seriously enough what it is that we do now. We’re not going to be able to work better with Faculties just by being physically located there. In many ways it compromises our ability.”

This was the reaction of one former member of the Student Learning Development Centre (SLDC) staff to University Senior Management’s decision to close the SLDC and move the responsibility for all academic student support to the Faculties.

What this means is that from now on, there will be no central, open-to-all provision of support for students with learning difficulties, international students and students who just need a helping hand. You will have access to different kinds support depending on whether you are an arts, science or management student. Faculty staff will need to work hard to ensure that students in one discipline do not receive better support than students in another.

Over the summer, whilst decisions have been made and new plans have been drawn up, I have been investigating the issue of training courses for PhD students. Like other support, this is now solely the responsibility of the Faculties.

Every single person involved with central provision of support that I have spoken to has been worried about the effects of removing it. Some of the Faculty staff are worried. Groups of PhD students, led by the LUSU Post Graduate Research representative Mike Jenkins, have called for more centrally run courses. A working group including many of the people who deliver this support, set up to find ways of saving money, recommended some central provision remain.

The University did not listen to any of these people. On July 19, a meeting of University Senior Management took the decision to close the training courses down.

They may have had their reasons for doing this. They may have been good ones. We don’t know, because they won’t tell anyone. Senior management involved in the decision refused to meet with SCAN to explain. They refused to answer our questions asking for justification, directing us instead to earlier statements regarding the decision to close the SLDC, which was taken at a previous meeting on June 1, saying that these statements addressed the issue “explicitly”.

Many assume that it is simply an issue of saving money. In the current climate, this is not unreasonable. However, if budget cuts are to involve job losses and possibly thousands of students losing or receiving significantly different access to potentially life-changing support, we need to be given reasons.

Currently, the University’s financial position is secure; a message to staff from the Vice Chancellor reassures them that the draft accounts for the financial year 2009-10 show a surplus of 4.6%.

To assume that the University can retain this level of financial security over the next few years without severely tightening its belt is naïve; universities are facing significant cuts in government funding and money needs to be saved somewhere. But some of the proposed cuts seem short sighted at best.

The University’s reaction has concerned some members of staff. There is a feeling senior management do not appreciate the importance of support for students.

“What we don’t have at this institution is a teaching and learning champion. It’s not seen as important, which is why what happened to the SLDC happened,” another staff member told me. “Other institutions are adding more. It feels like we don’t have that kind of support at senior level.”

For the last few years Lancaster has been building up links with overseas institutions and encouraging international students to study here or participate in exchange programmes. Indeed, the international agenda is one of the seven areas for development identified in the University Strategic Plan 2009-2015. Much of the SLDC’s work was with international students, helping them integrate into life and study in Britian. Taking it away from them takes away a vital support structure.

As one person I questioned said to me: there’s no point buying an expensive car and having no money for any petrol.

What’s the worst thing about it all? I asked.

“The sense of not being understood. People are making decisions based on criteria that are alien to the work I do. They don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know the significance of what it is that they’re losing. Or if they do know, they seem not to care.”

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