University Welfare: Who Cares?

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Extensive research conducted by Union Vice-President for Equality, Welfare and Diversity Rosalia O’Reilly has raised serious concerns regarding the provision of welfare support for members of Lancaster’s University community.

Following the proposal and subsequent passing of O’Reilly’s motion to LUSU’s Union Council earlier this term, O’Reilly has been conducting research into the extent, and suitability, of welfare provision on campus in order to support her lobbying of the University Administration.

A particular area giving O’Reilly cause for concern is the allocation of counselling provision to the University’s 2,500 members of staff, many of whom are unable to gain access to the counselling provision they need due to a significant rise in overall demand on the service.

The service provided here on campus aims to provide staff and students with appropriate support during what has the potential to become a time of hitherto unparalleled pressure – be that pressure academic, social, financial or otherwise.

The counselling service’s spokesperson told SCAN, “We strive to make our counselling service the best we can to support our students. Feedback from students who have used the service is generally very positive.”

O’Reilly is keen to emphasise that, though her campaign pertains to the service provided by the University’s counselling service, her efforts are in no way intended to disparage the work done by individual counsellors or the benefits of counselling in a Higher Education context in general. Indeed, figures provided by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) indicate that those in receipt of counselling at university show significant improvements in their subsequent academic outcomes.  After a year-long study into the impact of counselling on academic outcomes in Further and Higher Education institutions across Britain, to which 65 institutions across the sector contributed data, BACP published findings which revealed that 75% of clients were either ‘improved’ or ‘recovered’ following counselling in Higher Education, compared to 71% of clients in primary care counselling. HE counselling services also achieve, on average, shorter waiting times for clients between referral and assessment (9 days in HE settings compared to 63 days in primary care counselling) and between assessment and the commencement of counselling sessions (16 days compared versus 84 days in primary care). The study acknowledged the particular saliency of counselling in educational environments, in which young people – already a statistically more vulnerable demographic – face the added burden posed by academic pressure and the challenges associated with leaving home for what is usually the first time. (www.bacp.co.uk)

Despite this positive national outlook, it is the situation at Lancaster that is O’Reilly’s primary concern. There are aspects of counselling provision here on campus with which O’Reilly is not wholly satisfied, and about which she is conducting a campaign enabling students to show their concern to those whose responsibility it is to ensure that students and staff here at Lancaster University receive the support they need to perform as they are capable of doing.

Throughout the Friday of Week Four, O’Reilly staged a preliminary campaign, held in Alexandra Square, in order to raise awareness of the issue amongst the student population in the first instance. She is now set to embark upon a follow-up phase of her long-term operation which will capitalise on support received during the Week Four consultations and prior canvassing of opinions. A key member of the University Management structure who is in line to be lobbied over this issue is the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Colleges and Student Experience, Amanda Chetwynd.

A LUSU Your Voice poll conducted over summer, along with separate emails sent to the LUSU officer in confidence, revealed significant dissatisfaction with key areas of the counselling service provided by The Base. Recurrent issues included the referral process (as many dislike the online self-referral system and would like the option to speak with an individual in person or – by way of compromise – via telephone) and subsequent waiting time; the difficulties faced by those wishing to refer someone else, who may not be at that point ready to admit that they have a problem; and the environment of the service itself. This latter issue was one which formed a core argument in the motion to Union Council in early October. Reasons cited for the unsuitability of the (newly-refurbished) area within University House were the proximity of counselling ‘pods’ to the waiting area for students’ general enquiries, the transparent glass panels of the pods, and the number of counsellors available for appointments.

SCAN contacted the service and asked for figures detailing the budget of refurbishment, and for details on who had been responsible for the layout and design of the space. No information was given in response to these specific requests; instead, samples of positive feedback from students who have used the service were proffered in return

On the matter of the material suitability of the counselling facilities, a spokesperson had the following to say:

“The recent refurbishment was planned with students in mind, and we hope that the new layout is clear and makes our services accessible. Counselling appointments have the full range of consulting rooms available for their use but they normally take place in the more private rooms”.

This somewhat-defensive response appears to miss the point of the Union’s focus on welfare-provision for its members: the efforts of those involved in the service are not being called into question, just as the potential benefit, as indicated above, is not in dispute. The Union, and this paper, wish to draw attention to serious administrative and procedural complications that ultimately undermine the effectiveness of a service designed to help the most vulnerable amongst us.

O’Reilly is determined to use the time she has as a LUSU Full-Time Officer to address an issue that was raised time and time again in her consultations with students over the summer vacation period. For her, the need for adequate mental health and wellbeing support is one which resonates with a particular poignancy, and she is determined to bring students’ concerns to the attention of those with the powers to remedy them.

“If I want to change something at this university and do something good with the time that I’ve got here, then this – for me – is a really good project.”

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