How to listen to students in the middle of a crisis

There’s a very specific group of 20-somethings across the UK caught right in the middle of nearly every fire that’s burning right now.

When we ran in our elections to be sabbatical elected officers in our SUs, we had dreams about improving the student experience – lecture capture policies, cheaper halls rents, and better bus services. We didn’t anticipate leading both a representative and organisational response to a global pandemic – and nothing prepared us for lobbying our universities in quite such drastic and urgent circumstances.

Communications between student officers from different SUs have been frequent and detailed. SUs that would never usually find cause to seek each other out are having long phone calls with each other, exasperated at their university’s approaches, comparing policies and arguments and finding a deep sense of reassurance that there are people out there who understand the binds we’re in.

Before we explain, we should make clear that these experiences – and the lessons that flow from them – aren’t necessarily about the two universities where we work. They’re not necessarily not about where we work either. And not all universities are like the experiences we describe here. But too many are, and rather than endless sharing on increasingly sad Zoom calls, we thought we should describe and summarise with a view to the sector as a whole learning lessons.

Picture the scene

It’s Wednesday morning, and you’re forwarded a petition from your students calling for all exams to be canceled. You’re told that four other institutions have already done this. GCSEs and A-Levels have been canceled, so why isn’t the university canceling its exams? What’s the SUs stance on it? Will the SU circulate the petition? What is the university doing on this? Why should students continue to sit their exams in a pandemic? Do they have no compassion? CAN YOU RESPOND NOW PLEASE.

You search frantically on the other institutions’ websites. Have they canceled all exams? What should be your line if it turns out to be true? It seems odd. Ah. As ever, there’s slightly more nuance than the petition implied. Misinformation has been fueled by “exams canceled” headlines, followed by small-print reading “and alternative assessments will take place online”. Should you circulate a misleading petition?

Rent payment queries are stacking up in your inbox. You’re trying to signpost them somewhere useful but all university departments are overrun with queries already, and signposting them to the same place could mean other pressing student queries get lost. Almost all have moral merit, but there are some heartbreaking stories in amongst the ranting. You’re told the decision about university-run housing rents in the third term will be made on Friday in an important meeting, but you can’t tell students that because you need to manage expectations. And so the emails stack up, and you’re left without anything to tell students.

It’s Thursday morning, and you’re forwarded a petition from your students demanding a no-detriment/safety-net policy. Exeter have done one you’re told. So what’s the SUs stance on it? Will the SU circulate the petition? What is the university doing on this? Why does the university want students to fail? What does “working with the university on this” even mean? Why can’t we just “crack on” and do the jobs we’re “BEING PAID TO DO”?

Institutions tell us that they’re developing a policy, and that it will be communicated out to students “shortly”. Suspiciously, no student officers have been involved in the conversations about what this policy looks like, which is odd, given the university’s previous fixation on “partnership”. You’re sent the policy draft (if you’re lucky) a few hours before it’s due to be signed off. Substantial changes are a lost cause but as you scan down the page, it looks like the policy has several flaws in it. It’s almost as if… student officers… weren’t in the room….when it was dreamed up?

It’s 10pm. Students are still commenting on your social media and messaging you. A student nurse is at home with 3 kids and is asking you – a 21 year old officer fresh out of your undergraduate degree – how she’s going to be able to complete her studies. An international student is asking what you can do for them because they can’t access their lecturer’s online content in their home country. Another student’s anxiety is manifesting as intimidating anger in your email inbox.

Any sign

It’s Friday morning. There’s still no sign of the no-detriment policy from the university, so you fire off another email to your PVC asking about progress. You see that thankfully, the university has decided to let students off paying their final rent instalment. Good news! Oh no wait, another petition has been forwarded to you asking for refunds of tuition fees. You’re told that students at other universities have started petitions too. So what’s the SUs stance on it? Will the SU circulate the petition? What is the university doing on this? Why is the university rinsing us for our money even though we have no face to face teaching? Why is the “SU SO USELESS?”

As a student governor of the university, you’ve just sat through a 3 hour presentation about the financial impact of Covid-19, the loss the university is immediately facing and any cost recovery activity required next year. You already know that the forecast for your SU grant looks bleak, student mental health services are likely to have a freeze – if not decline – in funding, and at this stage you’d bet your year’s salary that your accommodation services will increase rents next year to make up the short-fall.

But telling students that would be met with panic from the university. A student governor can’t talk to students about the financial impact on the university. Can SU officers legitimately gloss over calls for tuition fee reimbursements with their representative hat on? Can SU officers legitimately gloss over their financial responsibility for the university with their governor hat on? What is the student interest here?

And what is it students want? The student petition wording is unclear – it talks about “tuition fee reimbursement”. Do they want some of their debt wiped? Do they want cash in their pockets? What do international students want? Is this about compensation, or refunds, or both, or neither? How should they calculate what they should be refunded? And crucially, would students still want it if they knew the financial stability of their university was at risk if they had to pay out?

It’s lunchtime. An email comes back from the PVC – policy is stuck with *insert senior manager or committee here*. You’re assured they’re trying to get it out as quickly as possible. But students have been waiting for days now; they’re looking for an update. You’re told to “hold tight” as student anxiety increases further. You tearfully plea with the PVC that if and when they’re ready to release comms, they don’t do it at the end of a working day that leaves you fending for yourself with no answers to student questions. It goes out anyway.

It’s 7pm. You’re about to log off when your marketing team tells you they’re receiving lots of queries from students about bus ticket refunds from the private bus company. The bus company tells you that they won’t refund, freeze or roll over tickets. Apparently, “they need the money to keep going”. The bus industry is crying out for support from central government, yet the university is dependent on the monopolised bus service to function. How do you tell students “yeah it’s crap but I highly doubt you’ll get refunds and mass lobbying for them will be at best ineffective and at worst will make the only bus service we have go bust?”. So you know, there’s that.

It’s Friday night. Your phone “pings” on all of the social networks every few seconds. Students have seen a letter from the Government telling them to expect support, and answers, and solutions, soon. Questions pour in. You realise that there is nothing that you can use to update. No answers. No reassurances. No clarity on what you can or can’t tell students. The weekend awaits, full of student anxiety and apprehension, and student officers are at a loss as to what they can do to help.

What we’re asking for

It’s really easy to become disillusioned in our positions, and perhaps from the examples above you can see why. Being pulled from student queries to meetings with the university – working all hours of the day to do our best for students. Feeling responsible for trying to relieve student anxiety, but not having the information to do so. But as people uniquely positioned between students, universities and the government, we have an opportunity through representation to bring people together in these difficult times.

We’re certainly not asking for sympathy. What we’re asking for is for the opportunity to work positively and assertively with universities to generate an effective response to this crisis – that addresses the issues and the students we spot, builds the confidence of students in their university’s response and ensures that students are treated fairly. It may be deeply uncomfortable, but that involves speaking truth to power and having that heard and acted upon. Partnership can’t just be for the good times – it matters now.

Of course these are unprecedented times and people are working hard to resolve issues that nobody has ever been through this before. That’s why partnership working with universities is more important than ever, and good communication with students is now fundamental to their wellbeing. What’s also clear is that coordination and collaboration at a national level is absolutely essential. This was true a week or so ago over admissions, and it’s been true this week over “no detriment”. Competition is unhelpful, “chivvying” universities along by announcing expectations to students in a letter is unhelpful, and being over-cautious about “not centrally proscribing approaches” is also profoundly unhelpful.

All over the country, student reps are crying out for an approach to Covid-19 that genuinely holds students at its heart – clear national leadership from regulators and sector bodies, university leadership that allows students to lead and be in the room, and the active consideration of real student needs in the initial discussion stages, rather than when a decision has already been made.

Three simple asks

All of which results in three simple asks.

  1. To the government:  Please help support our sector. Consider students and all their diverse and pressing needs in your decision making. Don’t send students letters to put pressure on providers.
  2. To universities: Partner with your SUs. Include student officers in policy writing, include us in the crucial conversations and send out frequent, student-friendly communications even if you don’t have significant updates.
  3. And to students: We’re doing all that we can. We’re fighting your corner, and we will get through this. But please, just bear with us.

3 responses to “How to listen to students in the middle of a crisis

  1. Thank you for all the hard work you are doing.
    As a mature, mature student I can fully appreciate the struggles… Our university is not trying to fob us off, but is doing its best to ride this storm and to be able to continue next year!
    SU is doing a fabulous job nationwide.

  2. Thank you for all the support you are giving to us as students and fighting for our rights in these uncertain times. It really doesn’t go unnoticed and we are all extremely great full to have a good SU that is trying to get the best for their students.
    Thank you.

  3. Education Officer from Manchester Metropolitan here – I’ve never read something I’ve related too more closely. What a whirlwind it is, thank you for your honest and almost hilarious words, I needed to see this.

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