This article is more than 5 years old

The secret life of a students’ union advisor

Away from headlines about demonstrations and speaker bans, students' union advice centres quietly enable students to access their education. Phil Pilkington explains their value and purpose.
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Despite the focus on student mental health, and on the well understood financial issues that students face, there is no agreement on what services (and at what level of capacity) should be provided by universities to address students’ welfare.

Some universities have pursued independent quality audits of their services, and there are professional bodies that accredit individuals to practice, but there is no agreement on capacity, or on the right of students to access these services.

The problem of access and inconsistency is worse when we consider individual and independent student representation. This function, which complements the other key functions of group representation within departments and courses, could not be carried out by a university given the conflict of interest. Possible cases can include debt to the institution, complaints against staff, disciplinary matters for individual students, and accommodation complaints – and require professional, confidential and indemnified advice. The advocacy or advice function within a students’ union satisfies these conditions.

As with services provided by the university, there is a considerable difference in the capacity levels and experience of independent SU advocacy across the sector. Most of the legal rights that students have are uniform – so it should worry the Department for Education, the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator that access to services that enable students to exercise those rights is so uneven – and in the majority of non-university providers, non-existent.

Assorted centres

So what goes on in these SU advice departments? Some still imagine that SU officers are handling cases, but students’ unions normally employ dedicated professional staff who have experience of giving advice and have information systems to hand. They maintain a database on casework which can be used for reports to the SU membership, to the SU officers to inform their campaigning work, and to the university to better understand their students and emerging trends. The advisors are networked to other services and agencies in the university, key academic staff in faculties, academic registry staff, and external agencies such as hate crime reporting centres, alcohol and drug advisory support and the police.

Why not just point students to Citizens’ Advice? Student welfare and its complexity is unique, and anyway those services are stretched. And when there are substantial numbers of students involved in a single case or a case with common features – a rogue landlord with a number of properties, multiple complaints about a module or course, or a student characteristic that appears too often in the data – it is possible to step up the case to a campaigning matter for improving awareness or effecting change.

We ought to want graduates to be aware of their rights as citizens and be able to navigate the world around them, and so a crucial function of SU advice centres is focussed on making students aware of and able to deploy their rights. For example – students are often unaware of their rights as tenants and will accept not just ‘bad behaviour’ of landlords with disrepair, but also unlawful behaviour whose impacts can be life threatening. And it is unlikely that universities themselves will heavily promote to students their right to complain if their prospectus promises fail to materialise – but someone has to.

What do they deal with?

Student demographics can determine the range and frequency of cases. Financial hardship may occur at Oxbridge to a lesser extent than elsewhere, but will still bring with it the usual companions of stress, mental illness, and academic performance decline. The range of courses and disciplines will determine service demands and case profiles too. Experience shows that STEM students do not present issues to their SU early, if at all. Could that be a causal condition of the more pressing problem to the university of retention in these disciplines? They drop out before they find their way to seeking advice.

An SU advice service will cover the ‘normal’ categories of an external advice service of housing, benefits disputes, money/debt advice, consumer and criminal law, but in addition it will have to navigate institutional regulations covering academic assessments, complaints, disciplinaries (both academic and accommodation), and legal rights issues such as race, gender and disability. The advice service should, therefore, have strong and frequent connections with key staff in the institution while at the same time making it clear that its role is student or ‘client’ centred and will not compromise on the client’s interests.

Given the strong working relationships with the university there is then the possibility of joint awareness initiatives on a range of welfare issues in order to reduce the number of welfare cases which involve the institution in such matters as cheating and plagiarism, disciplinary and complaints hearings and a joined-up approach to signposting to other support systems which aids cross referrals. The knowledge of institutional regulations and procedures by students’ union advice services is often (and should be) more comprehensive than that of many front-line academics, even established course and personal tutors.

A secret best kept

Institutions are usually pleased that the advice service provided by the students’ union exists, but can be fearful of an advice service success being made public – the default approach is that all our students are like those smiling and diverse groups on the university’s web site and on the cover of the prospectus. One SU advice service achieved the status of accrediting students for food bank allocations – you can’t just turn up at a foodbank and ask for help, you have to be approved by a recognised and accredited service. That students were accessing foodbanks was not information that the sympathetic university leadership believed should be made public.

At the academic department level there is a further problem of access to advice, which requires a mature advice service to be aware of and to mitigate. Academic staff can take pastoral support beyond their competences into the realms of money advice, housing law and to academic regulation processes, all which can have serious negative consequences for the student (and vicarious liability for the institution).

And then there is the fear in the eyes of the academic who panics at the problem presented and advises that nothing or little can be done. It can be amusing when firm, detailed advice is a decade or more out of date (especially on student financing) but can sometimes be hugely detrimental to the student experience – recruiting international students with promises of institutional accommodation, repeating a year of study, bullying or complacency on work placements are frequent examples.

The solution to these problems is to have clear signposting and referral systems in place, and to then continuously remind staff how and to whom they should refer. There is a question of whether the induction processes of academic staff should and could include a signposting guide to support students – but that is merely a component of wider questions that surround effective induction to an institution. The cost benefits for effective pastoral support and the impact on drop out are obvious.

Unravelling the narratives

Within SU advice centres, a presented problem is often the beginning of a narrative which opens up an individual student’s experience: the welfare-education interface. A debt for mobile phone costs as the presenting problem can reveal more about money management, manifold debts and anxiety and real problems with academic work. An appeal against an examination result can lead to revealing health and family problems (an ill child, the recent death of a parent – even the day before the exam) which are not disclosed because of an uncaring institution but out of the student’s ignorance of procedures for mitigation and being overwhelmed by the problems in hand.

There can be uncaring, even cruel staff. In one memorable case involving a bereavement, evidence of the death of parent required a copy of the death certificate – not available to the Irish student, so a copy of the order of the funeral service was requested. There can be cases of uncaring institutions not from callousness but ignorance of procedures by a tutor. And then there are the cases of callousness out of cultural ignorance: the formal duties of bereavement for a high caste family leader, for example.

Such cases require a blend of skills, tenacity and cultural competence in uncovering the individual student’s narrative and matching up the appropriate regulation procedure and then deciding, in agreement with the client, the most effective way of raising the issue within the academic department – who to approach, and where to seek allies against a recalcitrant academic. The keepers of the regulations may be knowledgeable, and often sensitive, but can experience the same obstacles of perception amongst the faculty. Sometimes it requires the diplomacy of a pincer movement by registry and the SU advisor to resolve a case.

Funding SU advice

The unevenness of funding can be caused by a number of conditions which ought to be strategic issues for all parties – it could be a failure of long term continuity in SU management, an unchallenged lack of priority within the SU, or simply inadequate grant funding. Funding has often not kept pace with expansion, or in smaller providers may never have existed at all.

The cost-effectiveness of these services is easy to quantify: benefits recovered, income tax rebates paid, benefits recouped, delayed or misplaced loans expedited, disciplinary outcomes moderated by representation, or an extension of deadlines can all produce a gross figure of money obtained and students retained. But these gross figures obscure the support and guidance for the individual who can be confident and able in material terms to continue, and the changed perception towards the SU and the institution.

As such, the purpose of an SU advice service is not as a provider for a vague and unbounded concept of ‘well-being’. These functions solve the practical problems of being a student and enable them to secure the education experience promised to them. That meaningful access to such services is not a guaranteed entitlement for all students in all providers ought to be a source of shame.

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