I often hear “we love UEA- but we want UEA to be even better”. Our relationship with the University is complex; we advocate for students to it, but it is also our main funder and one of our regulators. We rely on the University for the buildings we occupy, capital expenditure for major projects and also for on-going funding for our operations.
As student reps, we therefore walk a fine line between scrutinising the University, and promoting a good relationship with them. We act as a ‘critical friend’. But this relationship often creates a dividing line in student politics. Are you more likely to win for students if you are ‘friends’ with the university executive? Or does ‘fighting’ them on the issues make more headway?
The truth is that it is often difficult to know when to play passive partner or aggressive campaigner- and the fact many student reps can find themselves hesitant to fight on a key student issue for fear of not ‘playing like a partner’ is worrying.
Here’s a good example.
It’s December. After eighteen months of campaigning, your University is finally due to publish a mental health and wellbeing strategy in the new year. This will demonstrate how they intend to deal with a nationwide crisis in HE, where the demand on student support services has expanded exponentially beyond the capacity of universities. Mental health is a priority issue for your students, and two-month waiting lists to receive support demonstrates that something immediately needs to shift.
Student wellbeing services have failed to receive a funding increase that has matched student expansion. Attempts to campaign to increase funding, reduce waiting times, and see a specific plan for PGR, have been rebuffed for 8 months and met with only one answer: ‘wait for the strategy. The strategy will come’. You wait patiently, respecting the difficulty the university may be in internally.
It's March. Exam season’s about to happen. The counselling waiting list is so long that all but the most severe cases are being turned away. Your University has now installed some sculpture art on the roof of the library that looks a lot like someone contemplating suicide. It argues that all art “provokes”, the issues aren’t linked and that it is committed to supporting student mental health in a plan that will come soon
It's April. Now you hear of the sudden proposed closure of your University’s postgraduate counselling courses. Not only do these closures mark a major loss to your institution, but the courses contribute to the counselling hours in SSS, for free, and into local charities. Students working from diploma and certificate courses can no longer progress, and are informed of the course closures too late to go elsewhere. The equivalent of 4 fulltime members of staff will be lost from the counselling service. At least 9 placement students will cease to volunteer for local schools, Mind, The Sue Lambert Trust, and other charitable institutions.
University policy says you’ll see a full justification for the closure- but it’s not materialised. The process guarantees that an Equality impact assessment is completed- but you’ve not seen it. The loss in counselling staff in SSS does not concern the university, as the ‘new model’ for wellbeing they are developing is moving away from counselling and towards other ‘evidence based and cost effective’ services.
What this means in real terms is unknown as no strategy exists, and no evidence has been provided to demonstrate the rationale behind these changes. Students have not been consulted about what they want from a new mental health strategy, despite the fact that their tuition fees fund this service. Even if the counselling hours are replaced by other front-facing services, the total hours of support available will not increase significantly, and students will still be placed on two month long waiting lists.
Rather than just moan, or “protest”, you make positive suggestions. You argue that a good strategy will feature good practice from national organisations, ideas from other Universities, and clear plans and resource allocation. You say that the University should have a good understanding of how mentally healthy its student body is now before it decides what to do about it. You say there ought to be dedicated strands for particular types of students- postgrads, nursing students and international students. You argue that the strategy should be joined up with local NHS plans and should take account of the impact on space and the estate on mental health.
You make more suggestions that students have come to you with. You argue that a good plan would involve people from across the University, like personal tutors and administrators. You demonstrate the value of mental messaging before students even arrive at University, the importance of self care and wellbeing training in a proper University induction, the vitality of linking the strategy to sport and friendship, and you advocate for mental health first aid investment across the campus. You suggest systematic consideration of the impact of wider policies and procedures and regulations on mental health. Above all, you make clear that the involvement of students in the design and delivery of the strategy and activities within this area is critical.
The University agrees with all of this in principle, but now it’s May. And there’s still no plan.
Advocating for change to a partner- even assertively- is tough. Campaigners are often confronted by, and have to accept the hard truths of, dealing with large organisations- change is often slower, and harder to implement, and more complex than we assume. But there is only so long that student representatives, working on behalf of their members, can play “partner” where the University has failed and continues to fail students.
We have already hit breaking point. Time is up- and UEA must publish its student mental health plan now, before its internal crisis has an irreparable impact on its students.