How do we collectively craft a more caring university community?

Ruqaiyah Javaid is Vice President Education at City Students’ Union

If you spend time on social media, you’ll notice that this is a generation of students that doesn’t feel especially noticed, served or cared about.

I think that is interesting, because much of the contemporary policy environment concerns “care” and universities’ duty of it towards their students and staff.

But with blurred lines between the duties and responsibilities of the state, the sector and the individual, what does it mean to “care” for students and staff appropriately and effectively?

How much responsibility should we place on members of our communities to care for themselves? And where participation means harm, how much of that are universities causing, how much can universities control, and how much is merely chaos?

At this year’s Wonkfest I was pleased to chair a panel that tried to find new answers to these questions.

A student lens on care

In the session we were joined first by Fiona Ellison from the Unite Foundation, who was able to share reflections from some of the care leaver scholars that the foundation works with. We might assume they have a pretty unique view on the world. But it’s one that echoes across not just their peer group, but for students as a whole. They’re people who know what it feels like to be cared for and what it feels like when the promise of support doesn’t materialise.

An important perspective is that whilst institutions talk a lot about caring for those around them, many students just don’t feel that that’s the case. For those that have reasonable adjustment plans that haven’t been realised, they don’t really feel like institutions have properly acknowledged the impact of remote learning on their ability to participate in their courses.

Digital poverty is something that is still really prevalent, particularly when students don’t have family to fall back on – whether it’s to help fund a new laptop or to buy extra mobile credit.

And while additional financial support often exists, students have to really purposefully go looking for it, it’s often time consuming, and can require students to “prove their poverty” in unnecessary and humiliating ways.

These are familiar issues – but I was particularly struck when Fiona said that one of the things the scholars talked about was that the remote working status of lots of higher education staff this year had made it much harder to find the person you need. It takes a long time to go through complicated websites over the little things, and so students often give up until it gets to crisis point. And much of the support available is around between nine and five on a Monday and Friday, and that’s just often not when students need that support – or have the time to engage in it.

And as an education officer, I was really taken by something else that Fiona said. The perception is that institutions are really trying to demonstrate their value, and justify the fee levels that they’re charging. But that was resulting in feeling like the demands on students’ time to get through everything have been growing – more assignments, more check-ins, more work – and are becoming overwhelming.

Avoiding overload when trying to demonstrate the value of online elements of education feels like an urgent priority.

How do we think about care?

Next in the session we were joined by Kate Tapper, a leadership coach who works with clients across Europe and the United States. Kate argued that we need to change the way that we think about “care” in higher education, and challenged us to think more widely about it, not just as something that we need to provide for certain cohorts, under certain circumstances, by certain people.

What do we even mean when we’re talking about care? It’s not a word that we really use much in universities – and when we do, sometimes we talk about it as a noun, sometimes as a verb, yet we have different understandings of the word. It’s a word we associate more with things like childcare, or social care, or health care.

In other words, we associate “care” with groups that we consider to be “vulnerable”.

Traditionally, mainstream thinking within universities is that it is a community of people that are on the whole robust, and not weak or broken or vulnerable. And so for many, the idea of care is not relevant, and only matters to a few subsets of people.

Kat’s argument is that if we’re doing the core business of learning, discovery and enterprise, then almost all human beings doing that stuff are by definition and by nature vulnerable. When we think about what it feels like to not know stuff, to not understand things, to feel confused, to get stuff wrong – all of that makes us vulnerable.

So there is vulnerability in a core activity of what universities are about, and yet we don’t think of ourselves as vulnerable and so don’t think of care as relevant. That’s what Kate challenged us as a sector to shift.

Bonding over care

When Wonkhe told me they’d invited someone from the international aid sector, I was at first confused. What do the challenges in safeguarding the vulnerable in receipt of aid in other countries have to do with what goes on on campus in the UK?

In fact, Franziska Schwarz from BOND gave us lots to think about. Following several high profile safeguarding failures in that sector, BOND had to start again – to move away from tick lists and policies, and to start by saying – what needs to change in order for people to both be and feel safe? We could do much more of that with students in our sector.

The international aid sector is one of with huge inequalities between those giving aid and those receiving aid – there’s huge vulnerabilities of the people who very often are in extremely dangerous situations, emergency situations, where they don’t actually feel like they have any power or agency.

So organisations who support people in that situation have immense power over those people. So one key learning for BOND was that safeguarding policies and processes can only ever be effective if the culture of an organisation supports it. For example – they found that the extent to which an organisation deals with “lower level” incidents has a real impact on the culture of an organisation. So for example, if it is acceptable, that somebody makes a sexist joke in the classroom or the office, and it’s not called out, and it’s not challenged, then a culture develops – where being dismissive of other people becomes acceptable, and that means not everyone in that organisation feels safe.

Given the controversy surrounding microaggressions in the press, it’s incumbent upon leaders in our sector to explain why tackling them is such an important part of the puzzle in trying to keep people safe.

Commissioning a solution

Finally, we were joined by Exeter’s Deputy VC and Provost Janice Kay. She spoke powerfully for us on the vehicle that’s been being used at Exeter – something called the Provost’s Commission.

The commission was set up in May 2018 after a particularly appalling incident of misogynist and racist social media – and became an important symbol to the university and the outside world that the instant did not represent the university or its values. Since, the commission has become an open forum for staff and students that meets publicly to scrutinise, test and challenge inclusion work to ensure Exeter’s community is an open, safe and welcoming environment for all.

It’s got representatives from across the three campuses, students at all levels of study and staff on all grades and from all of Exeter’s inclusion networks. And it’s been really helpful during the pandemic to have this network to build trust and open dialogue so that they could be honest and challenge each other.

They’ve had very difficult conversations – particularly around external matters, such as the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter, and internal freedom of speech issues, and the black awarding gap. They’ve also held a number of sessions called for by the community, including a recent one to look specifically at the issue of gender based violence that caused them to set up their new gender safety group.

It was a fascinating story of leadership in action – using the power of the Provost’s office at that university to bring people together to lead change from all parts of the university – and the sort of intervention it would be great to see across the sector.

Duty of care?

One of the things I’d hoped we get from the session would be some clarity on the “duty of care” that universities owe to students and staff. There is one – but when we don’t know what it means in practice, it’s hard to make sure it’s really being exercised in practice.

We didn’t emerge from the session with a new document setting out precisely what students and staff should expect. But what we did get was a clear sense that a culture of care that is about compassion and effectiveness rather than compliance has to be discussed and produced by those it impacts. It looks like leading the process and the discussion is as important as leading the action plan.

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