Are student support groups the new societies?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

For those in students’ unions hoping that the new year would bring some opportunities to get face to face student activities going off the back of a refreshers fair, things aren’t looking good.

Infection rates continue to climb across the UK, and on the assumption that the tiering systems in use in England, Wales and Scotland are to stay, we are likely to see heavy restrictions remain on what can be done outside of the classroom.

With some notable exceptions, the majority of students’ unions haven’t run or indeed been allowed to run (or been allowed to allow their societies to run) in-person activity this term. And we know that overall, this high level of compliance over physical health risks has resulted in significant health deterioration caused by the isolation.

It’s all coming up

The big questions now surround next term. Very few universities have a plan for mental health harm reduction next term that responds to the current pandemic. The odd extra counsellor is like taking on some extra paramedics when you have an epidemic of car crashes on the roads.

It’s obviously long been the case that safe, socially distanced risk assessed activity is preferable to students ’round others’ rooms and houses – but we’re forever trapped in what we might call the harm reduction pragmatism paradox.

The multi-layered system of decision making – involving No.10, ministers, DfE officials, local public health officials, university management teams and even SU trustee boards may all display levels of nervousness about pragmatic solutions that involve allowing students to meet or undertake activity. The “optics” may not look good.

Can do culture

So what can be done? In an ideal world this approach at St Andrews would be possible in law and encouraged by ministers. It’s a partnership between the university and SU that is focussed on driving as much safe activity as possible, all anchored to the university’s graduate attributes framework.

That’s possible because across Scotland’s tiers, there’s an exemption to the gatherings rules for safe, risk assessed activity that is for the purposes of “education or training”. In Wales the exemption is for “accessing or receiving educational services”, which is less helpful.

And in England, the government’s tier rules have exemptions that have now been tightened to only allow gatherings over the limits for “a course of study or essential life skills training provided by a higher education provider”. Not at all helpful. As if the only education you get in higher education is from a formal “course of study”.

There’s an exemption in England for work purposes or “for the provision of voluntary or charitable services”. SUs are charities, and the Charity Commission says that this means you can hold trustee or even members’ meetings where these meetings are necessary for providing voluntary or charitable services. But we suspect clubs and societies doing things using this charity exemption would fail the Clapham Omnibus test.

But there’s another exemption for “support groups”.

Form a half circle

In the English legislation Exception 7 is that the exempt gathering is of a support group that consists of no more than 15 persons, takes place at premises other than a private dwelling, and is reasonably necessary for members of the group to be physically present at the gathering.

It still has to be risk assessed, have a responsible person etc. But a look at those mental health stats suggests that it’s reasonably necessary that students meet other students face to face to discuss their lives, interests, identity, problems or course.

It looks highly legally justifiable, desirable and safe. If I was a university I’d be working with my SU to massively ramp up as many support groups as possible in the new year from multiple angles.

The history society should have one for coping with the course, the LGBT+ group should have one for students who might need to come out, the Afro-Caribbean society should have one so those students can find each other. You can have ones for careers searching or English language skills or your faith or your age group.

The risk assessment can be straightforward and duplicated, there can be some great training for group facilitators, room bookings can be done en masse, and crucially it’s a way to keep what look like increasingly precarious societies going.

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