Dear Mr Burn,
We are writing as the JCR Committees of Bristol’s Halls of Residence, as elected and nominated representatives of some 6000 students, to express significant concern over the proposed new model for pastoral care and wellbeing in Halls of Residence at the University.
1) Our Concerns
Whilst we agree that there is room for improvement in pastoral care within halls, we strongly believe that this new proposal is not fit for purpose and places students who are dependent on pastoral support at a significant risk.
We endorse the letters written to you by the Senior Residents and the Hall Associations. We urge the University to postpone the implementation of any new model for a further year, and to take this time to rethink the proposals after conducting a thorough, comprehensive and independent audit of the current pastoral care system within Halls. There is good evidence to suggest that the architects of the new model have little idea of the extent of what is currently provided by pastoral teams, and they risk throwing out some really good practice in their attempts to save money and centralize.
2) Aims of the Review – The Six Principles
The JCRs acknowledge the importance of the six principles that the University hoped to achieve when drawing up the proposed model. These were:
- Providing an accessible and comprehensive student wellbeing model
- Providing a student-centred, high-profile and skilled student ‘life and wellbeing’ team
- Foster and support diverse and inclusive communities
- Provide a safe and supportive environment for students to live and study independently
- Create a positive student experience and maximise value for money
- Facilitate working in partnership with students, staff and local communities to provide halls seamless, sustainable and consistent service.
We have reviewed these principles and do not believe that the new model addresses them.
1. Providing an accessible and comprehensive student wellbeing model
The new model does not address the first principle effectively, since those providing pastoral care will be in no way as accessible as they currently are. The new model will base these people in central ‘hubs’ for each cluster of halls, whereas the current model provides a far greater emphasis on in-hall support, which we understand students prefer. This centralisation, which sees a 70% drop in live-in pastoral care, poses a risk to vulnerable students, especially those suffering with mental health issues. Furthermore, the service cannot possibly be described as comprehensive, as under the new plans there will be no pastoral staff on duty in the mornings, leaving administrative staff to ‘hold the fort’. Current students (and SSAs) will tell you how misguided this is, given the case-load that surfaces at this point in the day.
Moreover, the proposals take the naïve view that the most vulnerable students will actively seek support from these centralised managers and advisers. But these vulnerable residents are, from our experience, those least likely to seek out help in an indisputably more depersonalised system. Currently Senior Residents are present figures who are placed to spot troubled students, to be their first point of contact and alert the necessary teams. By almost tripling the ‘junior-to-senior-resident’ ratio, the proposals mean new Mentors will face a much greater challenge and it is highly unlikely they will be able to provide the same effective support current Senior Residents do. The idea that a resident is less likely to seek wellbeing support from those also responsible for discipline is far removed from the reality of the situation. Residents know full well that there are no disciplinary repercussions in cases where the student’s wellbeing is clearly a priority. JCRs and pastoral teams agree on this. Disciplinary issues are very often a pathway into identifying pastoral needs.
2. Providing a student-centred, high-profile and skilled student ‘life and wellbeing’ team
Regarding the second principle, our understanding is that the new team recruited under this proposed new system will not be required to have any professional qualifications in the area of pastoral care, counselling or mental health, and will be no more skilled than the teams currently in place. New teams will lack the substantial experience of the teams they are going to replace. The new teams will also be less ‘high-profile’ than at present, and by being ‘hub-based’ will be less student-centred. The timeframe for recruitment of the new pastoral care team is fanciful. Currently, recruitment for new wellbeing support posts in the academic schools has taken 4 months to fill 8 out of 24 posts. The proposals suggest that 25 or more posts will be filled in roughly 3 months, which we don’t believe is possible.
3. Foster and support diverse and inclusive communities
With respect to the third aim: it is completely unclear to us who, if anyone, is supposed to take on the role of building and sustaining communities in the new model. The 70% staff reduction works against community development. In addition, the threat to bars would damage what many see as the real heart of our respective communities (see below).
4. Provide a safe and supportive environment for students to live and study independently
The massive reduction in live-in pastoral support again contradicts the aim to build a safe environment for students (point 4), especially since most students in Halls of Residence will be moving out of home for the first time. The new model’s live-in support amounts to roughly two Mentors per average-sized hall, and one Manager per hub. In 2017-18 Stoke Bishop is home to more than 2300 students; the residences to be included in the Clifton/PG hub currently house more than 1700; what will be the City Centre hub currently has more than 2500. No money is being spent on providing trained mental health professionals and counselling services, to tackle both short- and long-term mental health issues students may experience and foster a safe and supportive environment. The new plan apparently contains no more in-house counselling provision than exists currently (i.e. none at all). And yet rent money is being spent on housing more managers than in the current model, and fewer people directly involved with pastoral care.
5. Create a positive student experience and maximise value for money
The proposed model does not provide a “diverse residential portfolio” and sees halls become more homogeneous instead. Centralizing in this way does not equip teams to deal with the nuances of the different cultures and communities within different halls – which will wither in a short time, along with students’ loyalty to the institution. Currently diversity exists as a virtue of the localised system. There is nothing in the new proposals that addresses diversity and nothing that will make any meaningful difference to social or ethnic diversity in residences: it is above all differential rent levels that dictate the social mix of halls and these are not set to change. Furthermore, the proposals state that the new plan “offers an opportunity” to reduce rents. The claimed £800k annual savings under the new plan are closely related to a £1m one-time investment into wellbeing and pastoral care, so we could be forgiven for thinking that this plan serves primarily as a financially-driven enterprise. Promises by the Vice-Chancellor to all staff and students on 15th January that all savings will go towards reducing rents borders on the insulting; this equates to £200K between 6000 students, or about £33 each, or about 80p a week, a figure that is in no way proportionate to the current gains.
6. Facilitate working in partnership with students, staff and local communities to provide halls seamless, sustainable and consistent service.
Finally, those who conducted the review and formulated the new proposals have already failed to work with staff as they have excluded the Wardens and the rest of the pastoral teams from playing a part in formulating the plans on which they are probably best placed to advise. Later sections lay out in full our issues with the consultation process.
We strongly believe that the current model addresses all six principles better than the new model. It can be improved, but not by implementing these proposals.
3) The Community Aspect of Halls of Residences
The new model does not consider the effect on the sense of community that is currently so central to halls. It creates a centralised system in students are asked to identify more with a hub than their halls. Very few, if any, of the students have supported this. They would much rather identify with their hall. The Alumni letter suggests that this is a proven principle.
3.1) Community Leaders
We believe that the University has completely overlooked the role that Wardens, Deputy Wardens and Senior Residents play in shaping the community in halls. Currently, these people have a substantial role in organising extra-curricular and educational activities for current residents. These include organising concerts and theatre productions, and arranging intermural sporting activities and competitions, debates, quizzes, educational support and a great deal more. The relationships formed between current residents and Senior Residents are relationships that go beyond 1st year. They have been in our position and are the best people to give advice on situations. The new Residential Life Mentors only have pastoral responsibilities, and as such we do not believe that under the new system, they would be able to fully support community building activities in the same way Senior Residents currently do. Likewise, Deputy Wardens play a significant role in organising events for the entire hall, and liaising, alongside the JCR with external companies to organise events. They are key figures in the running of the bars and big events like a summer ball. Likewise, whilst also being an everyday present figure in halls, Student Support Advisers (SSAs), particularly those in City Centre halls, play a huge role in event planning and providing exemplary pastoral support.
3.2) Community Spaces
The future of the hall bars, which some Deputy Wardens manage, are also at stake as they are currently licensed as local clubs, in each Warden’s name, and the licences cannot simply be taken over by RHS. This will mean they would need to be reapplied for which would require support from neighbours. We believe that local communities will be hesitant to endorse this, given the obvious risks to discipline from cutting live-in support so drastically. One neighbour commented that “there is no mention by Simon Bray or Will Marsh of the wider community in which the University operates, and therefore no indication that the effect of these proposals on that community been taken into account” and that the University have not considered “how the disciplinary process will work in the absence of on-site Wardens.”
3.3) Students at the centre of their communities
The sense of community is also brought about by the existence of JCRs. The new model does not consider this, nor does it consider how the JCR’s will exist in the future. We are extremely concerned about this, firstly because we feel JCRs not only play an important role of establishing the Hall community, but they indirectly play a huge role in pastoral wellbeing as the Committee acts as a link between hall staff and the student body. Committees consist primarily of elected 1st year undergraduates. This puts them in a fantastic position to speak to other 1st years about issues and report to hall staff if any problems arise. We are also concerned about where the JCR subscriptions will go if JCRs do not exist next year. Will the Student Union gain the £320,000 from residents who currently pay their subscription fees to the JCRs? We feel that the SU are out of touch with the views of current residents, and therefore, are not fit to fully take on the role of managing the Residences Reps in the same way the current pastoral team support and guide the existing JCR Committees.
It is for these reasons we feel that the community aspect to halls has been overlooked and collectively, we believe that waiting a year, speaking to the right people and getting the proper feedback would create a model with a better chance of successful implementation.
4) Consultation Period prior to the Proposals
4.1) Involving current residents
We would also like to address the way in which consultation regarding wellbeing provision in halls of residences was conducted. As current residents, we believe that we are in the best position to give the University any feedback on the current pastoral system. However, along with our predecessors in respective JCRs who participated in the focus groups conducted during the 2016/17 Academic year, we believe that the consultation was both inefficient and inadequate. The feedback was non-representative as the SU survey last year had “800 interactions with the survey, with 536 students having completed all sections and 389 engaged with sections looking experiences in residences.” Firstly, not only was the survey sent out to students by the Student Union on Saturday 25th November 2017 received by students at 4:39 AM, it consisted of 6 bland and ambiguous questions such as whether students wanted staff with “wellbeing training.” The survey made no attempt to define what this term meant, nor how this training would come about. It is useless as a tool for future planning.
4.2) Involving the right people
Most importantly, the process did not include those who are members of the current pastoral team. We are aware of an email sent by Caroline Court, Head of Student Residential Life (see https://thetab.com/uk/bristol/2018/01/17/exclusive-controversy-as-leaked-bristol-email-suggests-hall-consultation-is-a-sham-31783). She interprets “consultation” from an “employment law perspective” and implies that those involved in the current consultation process will not be able to “shape/change the proposed structure.” By taking this approach, the consultation process became superficial, less of an inquiry into the pastoral needs of students and more of an HR exercise. We are deeply unhappy and worried that it seems that our feedback will be not be used to shape the current structure. None of the raw data from the surveys conducted over the course of the year, which supposedly influenced the new model, has been provided to us or the pastoral teams by the SU or the University, which makes it hard to see how the plan has been formed from the consultation conducted.
4.3) Risk to recruitment – Prospective students
We also believe that it is disingenuous of the University to advertise to prospective students, many of whom are basing their decision on student satisfaction, the current pastoral care system when the service they actually receive could be vastly inferior. The University does not change academic programmes from what has been advertised to new and current students. It should not make major changes to pastoral care without a proper lead-in time within the recruitment process. Furthermore, the proposals are not, and have not been for some time, publicly accessible the University’s website. As a result, many current and no prospective students are unaware of the changes that are being made to pastoral care in halls.
5) Strengths in the current system – Why it is basically fit for purpose
5.1) Senior Residents
We also believe that there are strengths in the current model that have been overlooked or ignored. Firstly, we would like to address the roles of Senior Residents. They act as an essential point of contact for all students, given that they are students themselves. Hence the contact between students and SRs is less formal. In the words of one student, the new model does not allow for the same “personal relationship” to be formed between Senior Residents and students, which makes them less approachable. Additionally, there are a significant number of Senior Residents in halls which makes them more accessible. We are aware that the quality of Senior Residents differs between halls as some halls foster exemplary Senior Residents and some halls do not. However, we feel that it is for RHS to conduct reviews of those halls to ensure that Senior Residents know what is expected of them and are performing to those expectations.
5.2) Student Support Advisers
Additionally, we feel that the Student Support Adviser role has been considerably overlooked. Student Support Advisers are crucial in the current system as they are directly involved in day-to-day pastoral care. SSAs are introduced to students at the very beginning of the year and integral in looking after students on a day to day level if problems were to arise. They have a wealth of experience in dealing with many different types of issues and removing the SSAs would put the most vulnerable students at risk, especially those suffering from persistent mental health illnesses and those struggling to settle in at their hall of residence. The new model does not commit to administrators being wellbeing trained. Additionally, in various halls, particularly City Centre Halls, SSAs contribute to the community life in halls by helping to put on events and assisting JCRs in putting on events and any other JCR issues. Most importantly, they are able to handle day-to-day administration within halls and keeping people updated with regards to events going on within halls of residences which would be more difficult for one general administrator between a number of halls.
5.3) Unique Selling Point
We also feel that the current model provides a USP for University halls against other Universities. The halls system is unique in the sense that it provides a “middle ground” that isn’t a collegiate system like Universities such as Oxford, Cambridge or Durham or like more modern universities with a less diverse range of halls such as Warwick. The current halls of residence system has a wide variety of options to suit different people’s needs, ranging from modern self-catered halls to traditional catered ones which many other Universities do not have. Having read the Alumni Associations’ letter, we agree with their belief that this proposed model will destroy the USP the halls system already has without providing a distinctive alternative.
These issues should be addressed on a case by case basis, and to entirely scrap what is a functioning and effective system would be irrational and detrimental to very vulnerable students.
6) Our Requests Going Forward
6.1) Fixing what doesn’t work
Whilst we admit that the current model is not perfect and there are issues that may need to be addressed, we are all in agreement that these imperfections do not warrant a full-scale remodelling. Our views are not just the views of our respective JCR Committees, but the views on behalf of the 6000 students we represent which is far more than the 800 students that interacted with the SU survey.
6.2) Board of Trustees
We would like this letter to be distributed to the individual members of the Board of Trustees and would like an elected group of JCR officers to meet with the chair of the Board to discuss the matter further.
Furthermore, we would like the proposed plans to be put on hold for a year to allow for an effective, comprehensive and independent audit of pastoral wellbeing provision in halls of residences.
6.4) Addressing our concerns
We also would like an honest and detailed response from Residential Hospitality Services and the Board of Trustees regarding our concerns stated in this letter.
JCR President – Badock Hall
JCR Vice-President – Badock Hall
JCR Vice-President – Badock Hall
JCR Treasurer - Badock Hall
JCR Communications Officer – Badock Hall
JCR Founders’ Ball Representative - Badock Hall
JCR Bar and Catering Officer - Badock Hall
JCR International Officer - Badock Hall
JCR Charity Officer - Badock Hall
JCR Technical Officer - Badock Hall
JCR Culture Officer - Badock Hall
JCR Sports Officer - Badock Hall
JCR Environment Officer - Badock Hall
JCR President - Churchill Hall
JCR Vice-President - Churchill Hall
JCR Treasurer - Churchill Hall
JCR Bar Events Representative - Churchill Hall
JCR Sports Representative - Churchill Hall
JCR President - City Centre Living
JCR Arts Representative - City Centre Living
JCR Charity and Sustainability Representative - City Centre Living
JCR International Representative - City Centre Living
JCR President - Clifton Hill House
JCR Vice-President - Clifton Hill House
JCR Treasurer – Clifton Hill House
JCR Secretary – Clifton Hill House
JCR Global Arts Representative - Clifton Hill House
JCR Performing Representative - Clifton Hill House
JCR Social Secretary - Clifton Hill House
JCR President – Colston Street
Claudia Mafolo Rodriguez
JCR President - Durdham Hall
JCR Treasurer - Durdham Hall
JCR Events Representative - Durdham Hall
JCR President - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Treasurer - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Secretary - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Arts Representative - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Charity and Sustainability Representative - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Events Representative - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Events Representative - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Tech Representative - Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR Hillside Woodside Representative – Goldney Hall and Hillside Woodside
JCR President – Hiatt Baker Hall
JCR Vice-President – Hiatt Baker Hall
JCR Environmental Representative – Hiatt Baker Hall
Sabrina de la Vega
JCR International Student Representative – Hiatt Baker Hall
JCR Non-Portfolio Officer – Hiatt Baker Hall
JCR President - Manor Hall
JCR Vice-President – Manor Hall
JCR Events Representative – Manor Hall
JCR Music and Arts Representative – Manor Hall
JCR Sports Representative - Manor Hall
JCR President - Riverside
JCR Joint-President – The Hawthorns
JCR Joint-President – The Hawthorns
JCR President - University Hall
Lok Wai Chung
JCR Vice-President - University Hall
JCR Treasurer - University Hall
JCR Secretary - University Hall
JCR Charity and Sustainability Officer - University Hall
JCR Communications and Publicity Officer - University Hall
JCR Events and Entertainment Officer – University Hall
JCR Music, Drama and Arts Representative - University Hall
JCR Non-Portfolio Officer - University Hall
JCR Non-Portfolio Officer - University Hall
JCR Sports and International Student Officer - University Hall
JCR President – Wills Hall
JCR Vice-President – Wills Hall
JCR Treasurer – Wills Hall
JCR Secretary - Wills Hall
JCR Bar Representative – Wills Hall
JCR Drama Representative - Wills Hall
JCR Entertainment Representative – Wills Hall
JCR Equality Representative - Wills Hall
JCR International Representative - Wills Hall
JCR Music Representative – Wills Hall
JCR RAG Representative - Wills Hall
JCR Sports Representative – Wills Hall
JCR Tech Representative - Wills Hall
JCR President - Winkworth House