Partnership. Most students have probably never read the “UEA Student Charter”, but
in it promises that UEA will work in partnership with students when it comes to making decisions and improving the student experience. That partnership is something the Vice Chancellor says he’s proud of in Graduation speeches. But having been in office now for almost a month as the new SU Welfare Community and Diversity Officer, I’m starting to wonder whether this it’s true- and whether the summer represents an opportunity for UEA to ride roughshod over this partnership with students.
Take medical costs. It’s bad enough when submitting extenuating circumstances you don’t know what will happen to the data, but this month the University let it slip that because of what it calls a “growing problem” of students asking for medical notes, from September the Medical Centre on campus will start charging students an extortionate £35 for a note, as the Uni slashes its subsidy to the medical centre. The University knows full well that that “growing problem” is either down to the University’s expansion of student numbers, the crisis in mental health or LTS’s guidelines on extenuating circumstances (or all three)- but whatever the reason, it’s students that will pay- and the poorest students will miss out all together on being able to give sick notes to employers or prove their extenuating circumstances.
Or take drop out. New students at UEA used to have around five weeks to work out if UEA was right for them before incurring a financial liability. But this summer we’ve discovered that without consultation the University is cutting that to just 14 days before students will be liable for 25% of the year’s fee- which is no time at all for students struggling with student life to make a proper decision.
You could take campus facilities. There’s a building site down at the bottom of Chancellor’s drive and it has been there for a few years ever since the Uni demolished a bunch of temporary classrooms and the dedicated prayer space for our 600 Muslim students at UEA. Ever since the buildings came down, we’ve been promised that students would be consulted over what is to be built. Months and years have passed- and nothing. So we were surprised to learn that this summer in August the plans will be finalised for “Building 60”, with a single meeting featuring two student reps counting as student consultation. And there’s still no proper plans in place for a Muslim prayer facility.
Then there’s accommodation costs- the biggest slice of student expenditure by far. It’s great that most first year undergrads live on campus, but prices set by landlords in later years take their cue from University pricing, so it’s crucial that the University doesn’t seek to profit from the operation. Yet despite this for the past decade the University has been ratcheting up the cost of campus accommodation by more than inflation- hiking the average cost of housing on campus by £500 in that time in real terms and banking a £4m profit in the process in 2015-16.
Given the growing problem of student hardship, we were therefore pleased when last year the Uni agreed to consult with us on future price rises. But over the summer we learned that they’ve agreed an inflation busting rise for future years already- behind closed doors! Another decision taken without any consultation, over the summer.
Last month the Vice Chancellor’s lobby group Universities UK released research that suggests that students who feel like “customers” are less likely to be satisfied. We know that money is tight, and the University can’t accede to every demand that the SU has for the student experience. But the right thing to do is treat us like partners- talk to students, consult with their SU, and treat us like we have a stake in the University. Unless the University starts doing the right thing, students will respond negatively in the student surveys- with disastrous results for UEA.