The Vice Chancellor, Steve West was invited to attend the Student Council on 25 February 2021 to answer questions from the students as part of a Student Idea. The questions were submitted by the Student Council members in advance and asked by the Facilitator, with some follow up questions also being asked by members within the meeting. Below is a verbatim transcribe of the questions and answers.
Vice Chancellor: That’s fine, happy to be here. Go right ahead.
So great question. The short answer to that is we are refining Block Zero, and one of the things that we want to do is to rename it. It will be part of our enhanced induction for all students coming to the university, and it will be tailored more than it was last time to ensure that students receive generic induction as well as specific inductions as part of the academic programmes. So, the idea is that isn’t optional, and it is part of the induction into the university. But we also want to work with The Students’ Union, in particular, to make sure that it’s not just everything online, and that we’re blending it in with activities that bring people together. My hope is, of course, that by the beginning of the next academic year we are back on campus and able to deliver a blended approach.
So, Block Zero is to be renamed and should be an enhanced part of the induction. It is about being rolled out as an integral part of the student experience and blending it with introducing students to the whole range of engagements that are possible. We’ve taken a lot of feedback from Block Zero from last year, from staff and students and we’ve looked at it very hard. We’re trying to make sure that it does really focus on building a student’s confidence, that it builds momentum in terms of creating communities, creating friendships, and then transitioning into the university. We think this will be a very, very important thing for many students who will be coming to us in September/October. They will have been in lockdown for a significant part of their education in schools and colleges and we need to make sure that we’re bringing them in and landing them well in the university, making sure they settle, and they make those friendships that are hugely important, and making sure that we set the tone and the pace for the academic year right. So, it’s going to be an important part about how students begin to engage with the university and begin to experience the full offer that the university provides as well as making sure there’s some stuff in there that is about learning to live in a city, and live in a community and contribute positively to the environment and their surroundings. So, it’s not going to be an optional piece. It’s going to be a core part of saying hello and welcome.
I don’t think remote learning is here to stay in quite the same way. I do think we have discovered on our journey together with some things that we won’t want to lose, and I do think there are ways of creating a blended learning offer which benefits both the students and allows them the opportunity to engage with the university through that medium. Now, what we must do, of course, is to make sure that student has the facilities to do that, that they can access the university through IT. The idea would be to take the best bits from what we’ve all had to manage over the last few months, capture those and then use those.
But we are a campus university. Universities are social spaces. They are places where people come together, that’s the whole point of them. And importantly it’s not just about the academic endeavour, it is about making new friends, trying new things, debating, discussing, challenging others view of the word, and that is an important component. And, of course, many students, are living on campus. So, we want to make sure that we really bring the campus alive, and back to, you know, a state that we enjoyed before the pandemic. But we also recognise there are some bits we might want to get rid of going forward. It’s about using all the modality’s we have available to us to come up with something that works for staff and students. And the big thing for me will be around how we capture lectures and how we record them and screen them in live time so students can engage through live streaming, and use them after to go back and do revision and check their ideas out again without the pressure of trying to scribble everything out in a lecture. So, I think there some positives that we want to build on, but also recognise we are a university campus. We are a university about people, and we need to bring people together. And we need to make sure that the social environment works for students as they’re engaging with us as a university. So, we are looking to modernise some of our spaces. We are looking to take out some of those big lecture theatres where we used to squash everyone in for three- or four-hour sessions and talk at them, which I didn’t think ever was a good learning experience, and create something that student will be able to use. That I think will be beneficial to them. As we do that, of course, before we push any buttons we want to talk to the students. We want your views; we want to know what are the things you would like to see on campus. If I were to take out some, but not all the lecture theatres, what should we turn them info to? Now, I’ve got some ideas that I’m playing with, like a cinema or a stage performance space, but you’ll have lots of other ideas. And I want to work with The Students’ Union and students and maybe even get some of the student designers in architecture, and interior design and have them help us create some options. And that, I think, could help us give some really interesting spaces that students can then use and engage with in different ways.
Okay. It is absolutely a priority and it remains a priority. The university has done such a lot, again with The Students’ Union and the student societies around sustainability and climate action. We don’t want to lose that. This is too important for society and the world, and our future. So, it’s a strong priority throughout strategy 2030, which is the strategy that we’re now running. There’s a big section in there around sustainable futures, around health and well-being, and around climate action. We are going to be looking to the student to help us because this is about getting everybody engaging. So, the first thing is we want to ensure we build on the good work to date. We want to recognise it’s not just about climate, there is also an ecological emergency and the diversity of habitats is being damaging. So, we want to build on the work that we’ve done on our campus thus far to create a new environment for biodiversity. We’re looking into the United Nations sustainable development goals.
Okay that all great, but what are we doing next? First of all, we have got an action plan with a set of actions we want to take. We are, as you probably know, pretty ambitious. We want to be carbon neutral by 2030. That’s not that long away, to get us to that place, but we’ve all got work together to deliver it. There is a new student block of accommodation that we are due to start in the summer next year, and that will be nine hundred new bedrooms, and that’s PassivHaus standard. PassivHaus is the most ambitious thing we have done as a university in terms of creating carbon-neutral buildings for the future. It will be one of the first student developments in the UK and will probably be one of the biggest in Europe in terms of student accommodation. So that is a massive leap forward and we want to build on that. In the next phase, similarly, we want to carry that on and then we have made a significant contribution to the whole university sector in terms of our climate action toolkit and the work that, again, The Students’ Union and staff in university have done. Jim Longhurst and his colleagues are really pushing that agenda. Then finally we want to embed in the curriculum in our programmes, a module that all students will be able to access, which will be around futures and sustainability, and, in particular, helping them develop the toolset and understanding to go into the world, understanding climate change and the ecological emergency. So, this is significant. This is something that we will be investing in. There is, of course, increased cost. As always, we need to recognise that, but we have made a commitment and the board has made a commitment, that the PassivHaus, even though it’s more expensive to do it that way is absolutely what we should be doing.
So, this is a really good question, and quite a difficult one for me to answer, actually, because if the students are looking for an international experience that does require them to come to the UK at some point in their learning, their visa application will expect that to happen. Now, what the UK government has done, is accept that for many students at the moment it’s difficult to travel and indeed the UK government, in effect, is preventing people to travel into the UK. So, the visas have been adapted and we are providing support and delivery online, as we look forward. So, when we get to the next academic year, then there will be some programmes that will be completely online for all students regardless of location, and therefore, there is no limitation to access. But where students are studying on practice-led or practice-oriented programmes, where they will require access to specialist space, then, I think, we have to be very honest about their ability to be able to engage with the full university offering. We may to rejig programmes to enable them to do the theory potentially online, but then come to the university to engage the practice, and we’ll have to take that almost case by case. The other thing that I would say is that we will also make sure that students are able to make informed decisions. So, if it means that they might need to delay for a year in order to guarantee that they would be able to travel, then I think we should be honest enough to say that. So, working with the students, working with our colleagues internationally across the globe, and making sure that where we’ve got partnership pathways for students who are coming through colleges or universities who are studying UWE degrees in those environments, then there supported. And that’s fine through those colleges and universities. But if they’re coming to us eventually or coming through direct recruitment to us, then I think we need to be absolutely clear that where it won’t be possible for them to avoid all engagement on campus, then that might mean their plans might need to be buffered for a year or a semester. And we need to cross that bridge for each student as and when it occurs. The pandemic, of course, is different in every country and every country is having to manage their way through this and out of it, and it’s not possible to come out with a single answer, I don’t think at the minute. All we can do is try and be fair and transparent and also work with countries and work with the UK because our hope is there are no further restrictions after the summer. We don’t know yet, so again, we’re going to have to be flexible as well.
Very good question. So, as you know, the government has now announced that we will be able to do a phased return of students and the priority are those students who are requiring access to specialist space, specialist facilities. So, what we’ll be doing as a university is first of all bringing those students back in and bringing them back onto campus and giving them access to teaching support and technical support. We’ve also looked at the possibility of extending the day and the week, so maybe using some weekend access for students, and also then extending potentially into the early part of the summer. So, extending the year a little bit. Now, we want to avoid stretching the academic year too far. I don’t think that’s in the interests of students. So, if we can flex it during the day and if we can flex it during the week, that seems to me to be a better idea than saying to students, well it’s going to be a month longer than you thought it was going to be. That’s not, I think, a satisfactory solution. We want to graduate you as close to when you would have been graduating or progressing. That’s really really important. So that’s our priority. Of course, it is also about once students have graduated, giving them access in some programme areas to continue to engage with those specialist facilities into the summer on a voluntary basis, not part of their programmes or courses, to be able to finish off their portfolios. This is really important in arts and creative industries, where they are producing artefacts, and producing products. Engineering, similarly, and architecture would be the same, to help them finfish put their portfolios together. So, it won’t be, you’ve finished, you’re off, it will be, you’ve completed, you can progress, or you graduated but you will continue to get access to facilities to support you finishing off well. That’s what we’re actually saying.
So, I can’t comment on what the trip is and if the trip is essential. My view would be it cannot be essential, and it cannot be linked to learning outcomes, because if it is, then you disadvantage a whole group of students. So, it’s optional, and as I have said, I’m reluctant, for the very reasons you’ve just said, to extend into beyond the normal academic year cycle, because I just think it messes up people’s lives and my view is people have been messed up enough. We need to manage within what we’ve got, and flex that, rather than disrupt the summer. Yeah, because you’re right, there are all sorts of commitments that people may have made already, and if people can, I’m sure they’ll want to get a break.
Well, the way in which we’ll bring students back will be controlled within the covid safe environment. When you say you didn’t have a cleaner, do you mean you didn’t have one in there when you were there?
So, there’s no need to do that, the deep clean happens at the end of the day. They deep clean also in the morning, and then, high uses areas would be cleaned during the day as well. So, you would see cleaners there, though they wouldn’t be going into classrooms in between each session. That is why the wipes should have been there. So, what we’re doing is making sure that all of that is absolutely understood as we bring students back. We’re encouraging students to have lateral flow tests, two a week. Unfortunately, at one level, it’s voluntary. I can’t force it, but it will be available. I’m arguing with the government at the moment because I think it will be much easier if we had lateral flow testing that students could do for themselves at home. Otherwise, they have to come onto campus to do it. And that is, you know, another impediment, really. So, we will be following all of the covid secure requirements and there will be a requirement to wear masks in all buildings inside and in seminar rooms and specialist spaces unless you’re exempt. So, it’s ramped up a bit.
You know, I guess the example would be we all had to pivot to online learning and online meetings, and you’ve all experienced it. You’ve been on the journey. So, I think what we’ve recognised the need to invest more into creating that digital learning experience. We are not going to go back to the big three-hundred-seater lecture, I just don’t want us to do it. I want us to be more creative than that. If we’ve got broadcast-type information that we need to provide, let’s do that really well. Let’s get the production on that really good and let’s invest in helping staff to do that. So that’s one lesson. I guess the other thing that we’ve learned is that students have really missed being with each other on campus. I’ve been on campus since last March, I haven’t not been in, and I’ve been looking around our campuses. And there are things that I think we can do to enhance campus life. I think we can do things that make our environment better for staff and students and give them more areas that they can engage with. So how we invest in refurbishing and how we invest in parts of the campus, open areas as well as inside, is I think, something I think we have learnt we need to do. And we’ll be doing that. There will be more investment coming into those areas. So, there are two big things there. I think the other part is that the digital environment also gives us some flexibility around making sure that students get access to staff when they’re needing support, which sometimes is easier than chasing staff around the campus. So, there are quite a few bits in there that we’ve learnt and will want to build on, and we are building on.
So, I am on record, and I hope you know, that I’m not silent on this at all, I am lobbying the government, and I am lobbying on behalf of students. But the crucial facts are students are currently receiving their education, albeit perhaps different from the education that was provided two years ago, let’s say, before covid, and they’re still able to meet their learning outcomes. And actually, the investment that is going in is significant. So, the funding that comes from student fees is directly supporting students, and in fact, it’s costing the university more than in previous years. And that is partly as a response to covid-19, and I touched on the whole digital environment. Significant sums of money have been diverted into supporting students, and significant sums on hardship as well. And of course, there are refunds on student accommodation, where students haven’t been able to access the accommodation. So, we’re talking in multi-millions of pounds here, and if the funding isn’t there then we have to cut back. If the funding available to University is not coming in then we just have to stop doing stuff, and that directly impacts students. The debate so far on refunds has been around students asking for refunds and the vast majority of students are actually accessing the student loan company. So, these are home and European students in the main who are accessing funding from the state through the student loan company, and then when they graduate they start to pay back the loan. Any refunds, if they were made available, would not go to the students, they would go back to the student loan company immediately because the debt sits with the student loan company. So, our preference has been to lobby the government, rather than give money back to the government, to put more funding into welfare, to mental health support and to digital support. There is a bigger question which is around how going forward, that whole fee environment is reviewed. What happens in the future in terms of students’ loan company is a completely separate agenda I think. So, the difficulty at the moment is that the focus for me and for colleagues is towards the hardship funding that’s made available. And we are putting significant sums into that, as well as the digital poverty areas because that gives students support exactly when they need it. And of course, those schemes are available to all students across the uni.
Well, I hope so, I mean you’ve just heard me saying that the whole point of a campus University is really about social interaction, and working with The Students’ Union to create that and provide that. We’ve been hopefully supporting The Students’ Union over this period. The funding streams for them have been really, really difficult, and we recognise that. But we’re also looking at how we can invest in sporting facilities for the next academic year, and I can’t say too much about it, Augusta will know about it, but at this stage, it’s not something that we can publicise. But we’re looking to invest and create some additional facilities that student will be able to get access to and if one of them comes off, it will be very fast.
Thanks for that question. So, at the moment we haven’t seen increases, interestingly. The work that we did prior to covid of providing a menu of offers within the welling environment and also recognising that need of support for students who needed financial advice, or were needing advice in relationships and those sorts of things, that’s kicked in. And obviously, the digital environments that we’re using has allowed us to continue to support students. And we’ve got access to student minds and the additional support that’s provided through there, as well as we’re working with the NHS. So, there’s stuff that’s going on about creating enhancement, because I think we all recognise that as we bring students back and our staff come back, the mental health and well-being agenda, mental health, in particular, is likely to have a long tail. It’s likely that people are going to have anxiety and depression and a whole raft of post-covid mental health problems. So, we’re working very closely with our NHS colleague to create the pathways specifically for students across the city region. We haven’t seen an increase to date, but we’re aware that that might change, therefore we’re doing the work now. We do know that students who have been accessing support have often been in environments where they are self-isolating and isolated. So, they’re not with friends, they’re on their own, and that’s clearly something that we’ve been helping and supporting them through. If any students and this is genuine, if any students are struggling, if any students are concerned about their fellow students then they should use the university’s reporting framework and they need to get in contact with us so we can reach out and support them. So please keep an eye out for each other, please help us help you.
The other thing that we’re doing, I guess, at the moment, is just monitoring. So, the current wait time for all appointments types is seven working days, and that includes mental health appointments for practitioners who have capacity on their caseloads at the moment. Appointments for practitioners obviously are done through the welling services as normal, and anybody who is in crisis can see somebody on the same day. That’s very important. So, the average waiting time for the 2021 academic year to date is four working days, compared to eight working days at the same period last year. So, we’re doing better, we’ve halved the wating times and, as I said, the important bit is the crisis lines and the crisis support where need be. So, there’s no issue about students getting access to the facilities. Please reach out to them, please tell them if they need support, we’re here.
So, as you all probably know, this is fraught with difficulties. It’s taken a long time to get anything from the government. And I have to say the whole frustrations of Brexit continue, well after the decision has been made. The Turing scheme is different from the Erasmus scheme, I’m sure you will have been following all of that. The government has stated that the scheme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus plus programme, but it will also include countries from right across the world. So, it’s broader than just Europe. However, there are serious questions around the level of funding that’s available within the scheme. The government hasn’t put huge sums into the scheme and therefore there are concerns around will it actually be able to support students appropriately, or if is it primarily focusing on just outbound mobility, and not much else. And it’s not as broad as the Erasmus plus scheme by any stretch of the imagination, so the success obviously will be the uptake. In September, we will, as a university, be bidding to take part in this scheme. And that’s what you have to do, you have to bid in. So, we are going to bid, and we’ll see whether or not we can win anything that would help us provide those opportunities for students. It’s happening, I think, in early March, which is the bidding launch and the publication of the scheme. There’s then a call, basically which is six weeks, and so we have six weeks from when they fire the starting pistol to bid. Then we will know the outcome of that towards the end of July this year. But we’re definitely taking part. But there are lots of questions attached to it. It’s not if I’m honest, as good as the Erasmus plus scheme.
So quickly, is stuff that doesn’t require building. It might require investment and reconfiguration which could be done over a relatively short period, let’s say over the summer for example, and we are looking to see what we might be able to do in that space. The longer-term is we need to re-provide some additional pitches, the hockey pitch for example is coming towards the end of its life and we are working with the Lockleaze facility to put in additional pitches there, that would take obviously take time to produce. But we’re supporting them in that and in our budget, we’ve certainly provided a provision for that to happen. When that happens, when that space is then released, then we’re looking at more investment in sport on that space. And there is a whole raft of ideas, everything from an indoor tennis court to an indoor multi-court environment of some sort, which could do tennis as well, right the way through to an extension to the gym. So, take the sports centre that we’ve got at the moment and extend it. That’s the longer term. I won’t kid you, that won’t happen within the next year or so. But if we can get an additional facility, which is what we’re looking at, then that would happen quite quickly.
No, so what I’m talking about when I say lectures, these are the big, three-hundred-seater type environments where students are coming in and then talked at for around two hours, and then afterwards the tutorials and the seminars flow. What I’m proposing is that we want to do more of the tutorials/seminar/ small group work, where you’ve got more engagement and more opportunities to learn from each other and discuss. And where we are giving information, which is broadly what the big lectures do, then we should think about how we can do that in a different way. Can we create a better environment for that to happen for students? Record it and live stream it so that students can go back to it and revisit it? So that’s what I’m talking about there, it’s not getting rid of your seminar/tutorial type activities.
So, we would be looking to work with the programme team, taking advice from them about what’s the best way of delivering and engaging, challenging, and stretching the approach to the curriculum. I also want to say that I don’t want us to go back to having to have big examination halls. We’ve learnt a lot through this, and we’ve been quite creative, and let’s not throw that away. So, I will not be using the exhibition centre, which is currently the Nightingale Hospital, to cram a load of people in to do a load of exams.
Thank you for that. I don’t have the answer to that latter question right now, but I’ll take it away and investigate it. They will obviously be opportunities on campus as we come back for people to engage through that medium.
Your challenge question is around formats and how do we make sure that we’ve got the flexibility of the format. As you know, blackboard collaborate and Panopto are the two platforms that we’re using at the moment, however, covid-19 has given us the opportunity to explore some other options which I think would give you more of what you’re looking for. We’ve also used YouTube environment which is closed for the university. Obviously, it’s not public domain, so there are a number of options that were looking at, and when I’ve said one of things that we’ve learnt is that we need to invest in some of that digital platform, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s got to be easy, it got to be inclusive, and it’s got to work. Because the worst frustration, as we all know, is when you try to do something and it’s too complicated and it’s too difficult, and it doesn’t work even when you get there and your there and doing it.
Ok, I’ll take that back, thank you.
So, like a protocol on the emails response time is what you’re asking for there?
Ok, and with the other thing, just in terms of accessing hardship funding, that’s available for all students. So, students can access hardship funding of the university, is that you’re asking about?
So, well, when students initially access the university, then they are aware of the fees. And as part of your visa applications, you have to be able to demonstrate you have sufficient funds to be able to support yourself and your fees through that period. Now obviously things do change, and things happen and that’s why the hardship fund is there, and obviously, some students will also have access to bursary schemes at the point of entry or the point of starting the application. So, there isn’t a plan at the moment. There’s no plan to introduce a set of discounts once a student has already started and arrived. If students are struggling then what they should do, and this is for any student, what they should do is engage with us early, and if we need to reprofile the fee debt and agree on how that might be paid, then that is what we would do. So, it’s really important if students are struggling then they engage with us so that we can sit down with them and support them with how best for them to complete their studies and also have a repayment plan that works.
Well, it might well be, but you as students and The Students’ Union, are battling away as well. Interestingly, if all the students start to write to the local MPs, I guarantee what will happen -and I’m not stopping you from doing that by the way, please do- I will get swamped with a load of letters from MPs asking what the university is doing about this. The government is not engaging at any level with this at all, even with the funding, other than the last round of funding. Fifty million pounds has come in just now for hardship across one hundred and forty-odd institutions, and by the way, the university got about just over seven hundred thousand of that hardship funding. That’s what we’ve got. All the funding prior to that the government was announcing, was actually taking funding that we already had away and repurposing it. So, lots of the work that we used to do in outreach, lots of the work that we do around widening participation and access disappeared and was brought back in as hardship and support for mental health. So as a sector, our argument would be the government in England hasn’t even kept pace with what the Welsh and Scottish governments have done.
If you heard what I said, I said there is a debate which is about what does the student loan repayment scheme look like, both in terms of interest rates and in terms of payment level. And that has to be a government, taxpayer decision. And we’re saying that that would be helpful to do. What everybody concerned about, of course, is that there is a massive debt that has obviously built up for covid, and therefore the next spending review, so not the budget, but the spending review, is going to be really, really interesting in terms of what decisions the government makes across all gov departments and how it going to begin to repay what is a significant debt, which will be repaid, my guess is, over a fifty-year period.
I want us to build on the experiences that we’ve had to date, and look at how we assess students, look at why we assess students and look at how we assess them and work through programme by programme, module by module, to see what’s the best way for students to demonstrate the learning that they have achieved. So, I’m basically saying to people, come on, let’s get a bit creative and a little bit more innovative in the way in which we assess learning. Ok, rather than assess something you don’t know.
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