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Local and national student issue round up

We base our campaigning and representation work on evidence we gather here at Sussex and by following national developments affecting students here.

Our staff team collate a report every two weeks of relevant information including statistics from our support & advocacy team to show which issues are having an impact on our members.

This report is circulated to staff and officers and now we’re sharing it so you can follow things here at Sussex and nationally.

Content note for this edition:

Contents

  1. Local developments and trends

1. Sussex University Freedom of Information (FoI) requests

2. Cases from our Support and Advocacy team

3. University of Sussex joins Stonewall Diversity Champions programme

4. University of Sussex walk in Brighton Pride Parade

 

  1. National developments and trends

1. Freedom of speech in Universities

2. Student Minds to launch university mental health charter

3. Universities extend teaching into evening to cope with expansion

4. Russell Group Chief urges restoration of grant system for poorer students

5. Student Loans Company 'spied on vulnerable students' social media'

6. Study raises concerns over assessment methods in UK universities

 

1.1. Sussex University Freedom of Information (FoI) requests

We track publicly submitted requests for information from the University as they may reveal information we want to respond to.

A FoI request was filed on behalf of UAEM-UK and TranspariMED to determine the university’s score in the forthcoming Global Health Ranking of leading UK universities by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) UK. These questions surrounded clinical trials at the University and whether or not they followed global best practices in clinical trial registration, publicly published internal audits of trial registration and if they have time-specific plans to retrospectively post missing summary results for university-sponsored clinical trials completed in the past. All questions had no as a response.

We are still waiting for a response on a FoI request which requested to know the number of registered students with a visual impairment , the number of students are text to speech users and the number of students are screen reader users in the academic year 2017-18

 

1.2. Cases from our Support and Advocacy team

The following graph shows the case types over the past month (13th July to 9th August).

The largest section of new cases logged this month was for academic complaints, followed by both academic conduct and non-academic complaints, with the smallest number of cases being logged for student disciplinaries.


 

1.3 University of Sussex joins Stonewall Diversity Champions programme

The University of Sussex has signed up to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme in order to promote equality on campus. The programme provides resources and best practice for employers on creating and promoting an environment of LGBTQ+ equality, and works with the university to review relevant policies to ensure that they are inclusive for all sexualities and gender identities. Stonewall is also supporting the University’s submission to the Workplace Equality Index 2019 and an action plan that will cover areas such as staff recruitment and training, community engagement, and supporting the LGBT+ Staff Network.

The University’s Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Diversity and Equality), Claire Annesley, says “We aim by 2025 to be ranked in Stonewall’s list of its Top 100 Employers – an annual list that assesses submissions to the Workplace Equality Index to showcase the best employers for lesbian, gay, bi, and trans staff.”

This bold forms part of “Equal Sussex” - the first goal in the University’s new equality, diversity and inclusion strategy.

 

1.4 University of Sussex walk in Brighton Pride Parade


 

On Saturday 4th August University of Sussex students, staff and alumni walked in Brighton & Hove Pride’s Community Parade, marking the second year of the University’s partnership with the event.

More than 80 students, staff and alumni took part in the parade, which travelled through the city  from Hove Lawns, through the city centre to Preston Park where the Pride Festival took place.

Claire Annesley, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Equality and Diversity), says: “We are immensely proud to be continuing our partnership with Brighton & Hove Pride for a second year. We’re looking forward to being part once more of this spectacular and colourful showcase of the city’s diverse community – which of course includes our students, staff and alumni.”

 

 

 

2.1. Free speech in universities

On Friday 13th July, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published responses to its report on free speech in universities. The government, the Office for Students and the Charity Commission all gave official responses, and despite the report concluding that there is a lack of evidence that indicates to there being a free speech problem, the government appears to not be acknowledging this.

The initial report expressed concern over the vagueness surrounding the concept of ‘safe spaces’, the clarity and consistency of guidance on free speech issued by various bodies, and a lack of clarity of guidance on how to implement the Prevent duty.  The joint committee says that “coherent, consistent and accessible guidance material should be produced by January 2019 at the latest” in regards to upholding free speech at university. The government has set itself a more ambitious target of having guidance in place by the start of the coming academic year. In its commentary accompanying the responses, the committee states: “We agree with the government that this issue cannot be addressed by guidance alone, but that development of this guidance will be a ‘first step in a process of exposing and addressing any and all factors which stand in the way of our universities being places of truly open and challenging discourse’.”

The committee’s inquiry into free speech on campus did not find a widespread culture of censorship in universities and said that media reporting of sensational cases was “out of kilter with reality”. However, the government still asserts that there are “genuine problems which must be addressed; in particular the behaviour of some protestors and student groups, and the risk that a complex web of rules and guidance may impede free speech”.

The government’s response continues: “As the universities minister told the committee, we are particularly interested in establishing whether there is a broader culture of hostility to certain viewpoints which may act as a deterrent and impede free speech. We welcome the committee’s work to seek reliable evidence on this, and recognise that it is challenging to measure the extent to which this may be taking place.”

The government knows that this cannot be evidenced but persists with it regardless. Having set the initial complaint on free speech in universities running, the government fails to acknowledge that it was wrong to do so without concrete evidence. Instead, it says that it is glad that no evidence of its own claims can be found, before insisting that the real problem is an apparent monoculture on university campuses - something for which no evidence can be found because it is essentially unmeasurable. Smita Jamdar writes for WonkHe, this is both disingenuous and alarming. The government has no role, expertise or authority to determine what the correct campus culture should be; that should be a matter entirely for autonomous institutions.

 

2.2 Student Minds to launch university mental health charter

Students Minds have announced the development of a University Mental Health Charter. Backed by Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, the Charter will be a voluntary award and quality improvement scheme, which will recognise universities with exceptional approaches to promote and support the mental health and wellbeing of students and the university community.

The Charter’s development will be led by Student Minds in partnership with the UPP Foundation, the Office for Students (OfS), National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK. A wider advisory group will be announced in Autumn 2018, which others in the sector will be invited to participate in.

The Charter will have the most value by being embedded within the wider change programme. As such we will invite universities to achieve recognition for high standards of practice in areas established in University UK’s Step Change, such as leadership, early intervention and prevention, data collection and high quality services, and will stretch institutions in their approach to co-producing with students and members of the university community and reducing inequality by ensuring the needs of all students, including BAME, LGBTQ+ and widening participation groups, are met by excellent services.


Commenting on the announcement, Caroline Hounsell, Youth Lead and Director, Mental Health First Aid England, said, “In light of the ONS statistics published last week revealing an increase in student suicide rates, we welcome the development of the University Mental Health Charter. In placing a spotlight on best practice, this charter will help to drive positive change that ultimately supports the mental health of staff and students on an ongoing basis.”

“Our Higher Education course, developed in collaboration with Student Minds, is designed to skill people to spot the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and guide others to the next level of support. This is helping to build supportive cultures around mental health in universities across the country.”

 

2.3 Universities extend teaching into evening to cope with expansion

Growing numbers of UK universities are pushing their teaching hours into the evening to cope with bulging student enrolments, raising concerns about the impact on the family lives of teaching staff.In the latest case, academics at Lancaster University expressed concern about plans to extend classes to 7pm. The local branch of the University and College Union said that the proposal raised “serious issues” relating to “equality, health and safety”.

However, a snap survey by Times Higher Education has revealed that Lancaster is by no means the only university extending its working day beyond the traditional 5pm or 6pm, with Brunel University London, Oxford Brookes, Birmingham and Hertfordshire also extending their core teaching hours to 7:30 or 8pm most days a week.

Roger Seifert, professor of human resource management and industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton, said that extending hours was “in every possible way, a bad idea”.

“For undergraduate students, all evidence shows that attendance at later lectures will be low, as will be their ability to concentrate and take in the information,” Professor Seifert said.


Gregor Gall, a former professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford who is now an affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow, warned that female lecturers would be particularly adversely affected.

“This raises a number of contractual issues, whether or not it is voluntary or whether people would get time off in lieu for working later,” he said. “One particular problem will be for those who have childcare responsibilities, and unfortunately this responsibility still falls largely on women’s shoulders.

The lifting of student number controls in England in 2015 gave universities free rein to recruit as many undergraduates as they see fit. However the move has led to accusations that they now act like businesses, seeking to maximise their revenue by recruiting as many students as possible.

A spokesperson for the University and College Union (UCU) which represents lectures, said: “Universities cannot simply stick extra lectures on at the start or end of the day and think they are dealing with the problems of increased student numbers or staff workloads. Plans for lectures outside of normal hours have been met with protests from staff and students, which is perfectly understandable”

Universities are holding evening lectures to cater for rising student numbers - The Telegraph

Universities extend teaching into evening to cope with expansion - Times Higher Education

2.4 Russell Group Chief urges restoration of grant system for poorer students

Tim Bradshaw, the chief executive of the Russell Group, has urged ministers to reinstate maintenance grants for poorer students in order to improve diversity in Higher Education.  UK students from low-income families were awarded up to £3,387 a year until 2016, which has since been replaced with a maintenance loan.

This means that the poorest students – whose parents are unable to supplement their loan, or indeed help them repay their loans – face an even greater burden of debt after their studies, which could amount to about £58,000 for a three-year course.

The Russell Group, an association of 24 leading research universities in the UK, will recommend providing a “living wage” grant of £8192 for students eligible for free school meals, which will reduce the debt of eligible students by £27,800,  following criticism that the top universities do not admit enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It could be very targeted, really cost-effective and actually make quite a substantial difference to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may inherently be very nervous about taking on an additional loan,” he said. “Actually the grant could work in their favour.”

Just 6.5% of students in last year’s university admissions came from the poorest parts of the country, with Theresa May recognising that  “We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” as she announced a review into post-18 education funding and pledged to make it fairer.

Restore grant system for poor students, urges Russell Group chief - The Guardian          

Restore maintenance grants for poorest students to boost diversity on campus, university boss says - The Independent

 

2.5 Student Loans Company spied on estranged students’ social media

The Student Loans Company (SLC) has been accused of spying on the social media accounts of vulnerable students as part of an anti-fraud drive that resulted in some losing funding and dropping out of university despite no finding of guilt against them.

SLC made a random selection of 150 estranged students, part of a group recognised as vulnerable because they have no relationship with their parents and tend to be financially disadvantaged, and asked them to provide evidence that they no longer had contact with their families. According to charity workers now supporting some of the students affected, if they failed to respond within 28 days with the required proof their funding was suspended and in some cases their social media accounts were monitored to try to find out if there had been any contact with parents.

Becca Bland, the chief executive of Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people, said affected students had the third and final instalment of their maintenance and fee loans suspended. “Students who are estranged from family suffer from extreme financial disadvantage whilst studying at university as they don’t have family support, and may have mental health difficulties linked to abuse, neglect or rejection from their family or the time they may have spent in the care system.

“In this exercise, the actions of this fraud investigation have had negative consequences on students, who have had their funding cut off for many months, have been forced into homelessness or sofa surfing, and in some cases have dropped out of university.

“It is both ethically and practically unacceptable to cut off a vulnerable student’s maintenance loan and fee loan prior to finding a student guilty of fraud. The idea of a financial institution monitoring a random sample of students’ social media to determine their family relationships is unsettling, and an invasion of their privacy.”

Student Loans Company 'spied on vulnerable students' social media' - The Guardian

2.6 Study raises concerns over assessment methods in UK universities

According to a recent study, high numbers of summative assessments and modular structures of degree programmes have resulted in  a stressful assessment environment for students in UK universities. The study, published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education by Tansy Jessop, professor of research informed teaching at Solent University, and Carmen Tomas from the Teaching Transformation Programme at the University of Nottingham,compared assessment data from 73 programmes in 14 UK universities.

The study found that, although examinations are often seen as more rigorous and are useful in preventing plagiarism, having to undergo a large volume is linked to students learning to simply regurgitate facts, as well as high stress, the report says.

Similarly, although a greater variety of assessment is more inclusive and recognises the different types of learning, assessing students in a lot of different ways can confuse them and mean that they are never able to truly master what is required of them.

The problem is “systematic and structural” and results from having highly modular curricula, and students are “struggling and juggling” with assessment loads. “Lighter assessment loads would make room for ‘slow’ and deep learning.”

The report suggests that having a large number of assessments that contribute to the final degree grade, more examinations and more varieties of assessment all run the risk of “surface approaches” to learning, where students end up deploying tactical strategies to cope with the burden.

Professor Jessop told Times Higher Education that the research showed that UK universities needed “a cultural shift” towards fewer assessments that affect the final grade and fewer examinations. The problem is that degrees are made up of modules and each module must be assessed, she explained. Increasing the amount of tasks that don’t contribute towards the final degree mark, and that are more similar to an academic drafting a paper or conducting an experiment, would be a more meaningful way to help students to learn.

 

2.13. Comment and opinion pieces

 

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