‘The list of challenges is long! The University Management and Governance Structure needs to reform and it needs decentralising. It is crucial to pass back authority to both Departments and the Colleges. If the University wants to enhance creative energy, this has to be the beginning.’
David Held, Master of University College, January 2016
You might have heard about the university’s plans to streamline and centralise some of their services, and about the potential impact that this will have on student experience. The university’s overview of the program can be found here. This document is intended to briefly outline the proposed changes and the likely impact that they will have on Castle.
What is the university proposing?
In Castle we currently have four operations staff and a Bursar, who is shared with Hatfield. The operations staff include:
- An Operations Manager (Donna Pudwell) in charge of overseeing anything that happens in college from a health and safety point of view, including student and commercial events, maintenance etc.
- An Accomodations Co-ordinator (Wendy Chambers) in charge of the booking of all spaces in college, overseeing risk assessments, liaising with the servery and the Services Manager for formals and facilitating all other events.
- An Operations and Services Co-ordinator (Neville Carman) managing the porters, facilitating events and overseeing any larger maintenance work.
- A Head of Housekeeping (Ann Coult) managing the cleaners and housekeeping staff in college.
We also have a receptionist (Janet Edwards) responsible for checking in students and guests during commercial time, and for assisting the Accomodations Co-ordinator with their duties. She also does an excellent job at chasing rogue members of the public out of the Castle walls.
The Bursar (Michelle Crawford) is responsible for running the finances of both Castle and Hatfield, and providing support to the JCR and MCR Treasurers. The bursar also has a secretary in each of the colleges.
If the university’s proposal comes through, we would only be left with two operations staff, of which one on a lower pay grade than any of the four mentioned above. The number of bursars would also decrease from one for every two colleges to two bursars for all 12 colleges affected by the restructuring (Chad’s, John’s, Stevenson and John Snow are not affected). The university’s aim is to streamline operations staff and centralise it, appointing a central Director of Operations for all colleges.
This proposal is in consultation stage until the 10th of April and a final vote on its implementation will be held on the 29th of April. However, a Director of Operations has already been appointed.
This, however, is only stage one of a long-term restructuring process. Further stages might include the streamlining of other services currently offered by colleges, such as catering, housekeeping (with the potential reduction of the number of cleaners), and general student support staff, including positions providing welfare support.
Immediate consequences for Castle
The most immediate impact that phase one of the proposed changes would have on Castle’s student life would be on large-scale social events. Organising large scale events like June Ball, but also the other two balls, Castle Day, CCFS, CCA Auction and any new events planned by the Social Chair – as college is expanding – would become increasingly difficult with these changes. It may become impossible to run many of these events altogether – particularly June Ball – due to the reduced support and face-time with operations staff. While all of these events are entirely student-run, as students we cannot sign off certain legal documents or guarantee for overall health and safety. We need the support of professional operations staff.
However, the impact of the restructuring plan is not limited to large-scale events alone. Medium scale events such as hounds, welfare campaigns, outreach events and Panto would also be threatened with tangible impacts on student welfare, development and on the Castle community. Other events at risk are the evening events for Freshers Week, which could produce a negative effect on the integration of new freshers into college, with potentially detrimental consequences to the entire college community. All of these currently rely on the hard work of the current college office staff and the strong relationships that the JCR has with them.
Moreover, under a two-bursar system and with more financial centralisation, the support that the JCR receives to run its finances is likely to further decrease. For at least two years, the JCR has faced insufficient support from the university finance office on matters such as invoicing, authorising large payments, receiving guidance on tax and accounting, and other matters. College finance staff are the first point of call for any urgent financial issue, and receiving even less support may result in the JCR needing to cut down many of its financial activities, including funding for events, clubs and societies, welfare, development etc.
While it might seem easy to dismiss some of the above events as parties with no essential impact on our education and student experience, we believe that taken as a whole they constitute an essential component of what makes a collegiate university unique. Hundreds of students learn skills that they could learn in a classroom, by being directly involved in the organisation of these events. Social events in college constitute the soul of Castle’s social life, and this is true for all events from Hounds to June Ball. Moreover, putting at risk our welfare campaigns and outreach events would have serious, negative consequences on overall college welfare and on the impact we have on the local community.
Finally, it is worth noticing that unlike some other colleges, Castle operates as a commercial B&B and event venue outside of term time, which requires additional staffing.
In the long term, the proposed changes – including further phases of the restructuring plan – may pose a fundamental threat to student life in colleges and to the Castle spirit in general.
For example, we worry that changes in operations staff and catering will result in students losing all control over the management of college bars. This will not only mean that a lot of skills learned from working in a professional environment, with responsibilities that a student could only hold in a student bar, will be lost. It will also result in fewer students coming back to college, using college facilities and taking part to college life. As the Vice-Chancellor and current PVC for Colleges and Student Experience have themselves recognised, the declining number of students coming back into college is a major threat to the collegiate system at Durham.
Even more importantly, the future phases of the plan might result in the end of the student-led welfare system. Since the members of college welfare teams are not professionals, they cannot operate without the close supervision of college staff trained in providing welfare support services. As there are talks of streamlining these kinds of services in the future, and potentially even moving to a department-based psychological support system, we worry that this could result in a significant worsening of mental health issues in Castle and the university as a whole.
Student-led welfare systems capture mental health issues at earlier stages, before they progress to seriously alarming stages. Even if more funds were put into mental health services centrally, only student-led welfare teams in the colleges can capture early cases and address them as effectively as they do right now. The case of Bristol University, where mental health services were also recently centralised from local halls to university level, is an example of the risks that we are facing: numerous news articles have highlighted the tangible, negative impact that this has had on student wellbeing.
Reducing the number of housekeeping staff who have face-time with students would also have consequences on student welfare, as these members of staff often report potential welfare issues they have noticed so that they can be dealt with at the appropriate level.
On top of that, the concerns about financial independence and support raised above might mean that in the long run the JCR might not be able to sustain most of its activities at all, because we will not be able to support them financially.
The consultation period for phase one of the proposal will last until the 10th of April. We encourage anyone who is worried about the proposal – current Castle students, but also alumni, perspective students and their families – to email any complaints, concerns and questions they may have about how student experience will be affected to firstname.lastname@example.org, fill out the feedback form at www.dur.ac.uk/businessimprovement/local/haveyoursay and sign the petition at http://chng.it/qQQT9gNmTR. We have drafted a template email that can be used as a base or to take inspiration from (you can find it at the end of this document).
We realise that it is unlikely that the restructuring proposal will be repealed altogether. We do however hope that the university will listen to our concerns and adapt their plan to address them. In particular, we urge the Vice-Chancellor and PVC for Colleges and Student Experience to recognise that:
- Immediate action needs to be taken to mitigate the effects on student experience, such as ensuring that enough face-time with operations staff will be available to run events in colleges. This should include large scale events, not because we strive for ever ‘bigger and better’ balls, but because these events allow students to develop crucial skills, bring the college community together and incidentally benefit Durham’s public image.
- The long-term risks outlined in this document should be avoided at all costs, especially those related to student-led welfare. The collegiate system is Durham’s main selling point and made our education and student experience unique; these changes threaten it.
- Castle is in some ways a unique case and its uniqueness needs to be preserved. The building we are so lucky to call our home requires particular care when organising events of all scales and scopes. We are also the college with the most significant commercial activities outside of term time. Our JCR works extremely well to provide a unique student experience to all Castle students, and its activities need to be supported appropriately.
We sincerely hope that our concerns will be appropriately taken into account in the following weeks.
Email Template (to be emailed to email@example.com):
Dear Paul Taylor, Programme Sponsor,
Martyn Evans, PVC Colleges & Student Experience Office, and
Stuart Corbridge, Vice Chancellor,
I would like to register my serious concerns regarding the university’s Operations Restructuring Plan that is currently under consultation. As a member of University College, I believe that this will have a detrimental impact on College Welfare, student-run events and the overall student experience in a collegiate university.
Though it is easy to dismiss events such as our famous June Ball as parties, their planning and execution comes with a raft of benefits for student experience. This event alone involves 60 students meticulously organising and preparing a large-budget event. It is an experience that cannot be taught in a classroom. [Add a personal experience here.] It is clear that with reduced numbers of operations staff to support them, these would not be possible. Not only this, they are a key part of the Durham student experience and what helps to differentiate us from other universities. [Explain how the range of events that Durham and Castle offers made you choose Durham].
However, the impact of the operations restructure is not limited to large scale events alone. Castle runs an array of outreach events which bring the local community into the Castle walls. These would also be threatened. Equally, events such as the CCA Auction and Castle Charity Fashion Show – both of which raised thousands of pounds for local charities – would be jeopardised. [Add any events that you have been involved with] These all rely on the hard work of all of the existing college office staff.
I am also concerned about college welfare in the longer term. Though college welfare may not be directly affected by the proposals, future phases seem as though they are treading a dangerous path that risks threatening the service upon which hundreds of people’s mental health relies, such as decreasing the number of student support officers in the colleges. [Insert ways in which welfare is beneficial to you, or how you think it benefits the college as a whole] Moves to centralise welfare do not account for the small-scale issues that college welfare is able to address before they develop into more serious ones.
Moreover, under the proposed two-bursar system and further financial centralisation, the support that the JCR receives to run its finances is likely to further decrease. For at least two years, our JCR raised concerns that they receive insufficient support and guidance from the university finance office. [insert if any experience you have had with college finances eg. Sports and societies and how you rely on the JCR for that] College finance staff are the first point of call for any urgent financial issue. Receiving even less support may result in JCRs needing to cut down many of their financial activities, including funding for events, sports clubs and societies, welfare and development.
In the longer term, I feel that this threatens the very fabric of what makes a collegiate university so [identify how you think a collegiate university is special]. The centralisation of services sets the university on a dangerous course that could undermine what is best about it. It would mean that I have less reason to come back into college because [insert reason here].
I sincerely hope that you take these concerns on board.
[Insert name here]