What can be done for students when their course is closed?

Joe McGarry is Education & Representation Coordinator at UCB Guild of Students

Ellie-Mae Goodfellow is a student rep at University College Birmingham

It’s an immutable truth that sometimes universities will have to close courses – and part of the nature of evolving education is that as technology and society develop, the demand for certain skills changes over time.

In the late 19th century, the demand for barge captains decreased with the shift from canal haulage to the railways, and as AI develops, the skills needed from traditional copy writers are changing.

It’s also the case that even where a skill is needed in society, other pressures – financial or regulatory – may push universities to close courses.

And often when senior managers talk to students and student leaders about why a course is closing, they (understandably!) point to these reasons.

But students who are getting taught out will face new challenges – and without proper protections in place, it can be a lonely experience for these students.

Teaching out

At UCB, we’re facing a closure in our specialist hair and media make-up course, and have been trying to understand what we, as a small students union, could possibly do to try and ameliorate some of the issues faced by these students.

We decided to approach this with a two principles in mind:

  • We need to work to understand how students feel – not try to gather student opinions on the scale of financial problems facing the sector
  • We aren’t trying to “save the course” – and this isn’t “another B3 complaint”. There are underlying reasons for what’s happening, but we want to focus our limited resource on trying to help students who are here now – because someone needs to.

One thing that struck us when listening to course reps is just how much they wanted to talk about what was happening.

The challenges faced by any student, such as loneliness, cost of living and academic pressure are particularly present when your favourite lecturer leaves, you’re unsure about what careers support you’ll get, and you don’t know what the circumstances around a potential resit would look like should you fail the year.

The uncertainty can be daunting, and finding a space to talk about it can be hard.

They also talked about the work done by some fantastic individuals in the department and careers service, and how their input has been genuinely appreciated.

Another thing we noticed was that they wanted more agency in being able to respond to what was happening. As we’ve seen with research on why students may look to jobs rather than hardship funds, when students are in a situation of uncertainty, they want options that give them the most control – rather than the ostensibly easier option of relying on someone else do to things for them.

We decided we’d invite in other students on their course, then look at what we could do with them – and broke these down into four areas.

Taking action

The first thing we looked at were the practical things we could do to get the “basic hygiene” right – the tangible stuff that would give them control to look at specific things. Some examples were:

  • A lot of them need straighteners, curlers and other equipment PAT testing before they go into employment. Rather than them all having to pay £30 for this, could we get a student staff member trained to do the testing and offer it to students for free?
  • If a student needs to resit, what advice can we take – and then advertise, so students can know what would happen to them in this eventuality.
  • For students on a BA that might want to change to an FdA, what advice could we get to support them to do this.
  • Getting them access to advice on any potential compensation.

We knew they wanted to talk about it with someone – what could we do to help them talk about it with each other? With many students coming from the local area, there isn’t a culture of hanging around after lectures, so we aimed to help them create spaces where they could interact outside of their course.

Helping them to put on small scale, free events is something we’re looking to do – and a joint make-up workshop, where they can practice these skills with each other gives them something to focus on, whilst also being together and able to talk to each other.

Expression and celebration

A noticeable thing that came up in our initial discussion was the sense of injustice many felt about the government’s approach to creative arts. After the spring budget, when Rishi Sunak spoke about how he wanted more film production to take place in the UK, the irony that a program making a significant contribution of graduates skilled in hair and media make-up to the film industry was soon to be closed was not lost.

Whether we help them write to their MPs, or write an article to go on the SU website, we’re going to help them write something, somewhere – to be able to express their frustration with the way things are.

Perhaps the most important for them when it comes to expressing something though, is celebration. When these students graduate, it’ll be a story of their success – regardless of whatever conditions led to the course closure, and we’re going to celebrate the skills they’ve learnt.

Previous graduates have gone on to work on Netflix films, weddings, stage productions and fashion shows, and we’re reaching out to them to share photos of their work in an article celebrating the achievements of graduates on this course, and the contributions they’ve made to their respective industries.

What now?

Joe can remember his old Nightline trainer saying “Bereavements are a fact of life. And they’re shit” The same is true of course closures.

There’s no training module, or guide on how to best support students through them – and this certainly isn’t meant to be one.

But with the current HE landscape, the frequency of them looks set to increase, and as membership organisations that exist to support students, it’s more important than ever that we talk about course closures – and share any ideas on what we can do to make them somewhat less shit for students facing them.

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