Kieran Cutting emphasises the importance of university decisions reflecting student opinions, and highlights the various different ways you can get involved with the FXU.
Anyone who attended FXU’s UGM in November or the TEF event at the beginning of December will be familiar with phrases like ‘well, that’s not what our data says’. Whether it’s the mythical 75 car parking spaces an hour (I’ve never seen them either), brushing over the gradual loss of social and academic space over the next few years (back to normal by 2020) or an insistence that raising tuition fees is better for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, there’s a certain amount of paternalism in the universities’ current approach to student relations.
I’m not here to critique their individual positions. I understand why raising tuition fees to £9,250 and expanding student numbers (to only about 1000 more on campus, contrary to popular belief) would seem right to them: central government funding for teaching isn’t coming back and there are pressures upon institutions to maintain global excellence despite declining funding. It makes sense. A large part of why it makes sense, however, is that their data largely doesn’t include students. At both UGM and the TEF event, senior staff seemed perplexed at certain queries, and were unable to give meaningful answers to questions about why certain actions were being taken.
Take our mythical ’75 car parking spaces an hour’. We were told that these were identified by hourly usage surveys taken across multiple days and multiple months. We were not told at what time during the hour these surveys were taken – and at an institution where movements are generally hourly and according to timetables, it matters a great deal whether you’re looking at parking spaces at 10:50 or 11:20. Moreover, if you ask any student how many spaces there are an hour, you’re likely to get a number much closer to 0. If these 75 spaces exist, it’s not being communicated particularly well.
The first tentative steps towards action are being taken. Student consultations over the future of academic and social space have taken place – and are taking place tomorrow (Wednesday 14th), too. Too often when events like this take place, though, even the loudest amongst us wither away, or are too busy. I get that, too. They’re not the best timed – one session being 5pm – 7pm, with repeat sessions taking place after the end of term. When it comes to the future of your entire university experience, though, it becomes kind of integral to have your voice heard – otherwise the data won’t speak for you.
That’s the thing – universities can’t listen to their students if they don’t speak. We like to convince ourselves that our Facebook statuses mean something, but how many of those angry statuses turn into Make a Change ideas, which directly affect union policy? How many of us show up to General Meetings? How many of us speak to our course reps on a regular basis and tell them the myriad of course-related issues we’re having? When was the last time you spoke to an Executive Officer when you had concerns or questions about community issues, environmental issues, ideas about volunteering or frankly, anything else?
I’m not absolving the universities of responsibility. They are choosing to make changes and must face any associated consequences. Yet there are mechanisms already in place within the FXU to counteract these and ensure that any changes don’t ruin your student experience. At the TEF event, Tim Quine, DVC Education for Exeter, said he was passionate about ensuring that any rise in tuition fees made a positive change for students. It’s our responsibility to make that happen by engaging with all levels of representation – and if you’re really passionate, maybe starting a Students as Change Agents project or applying to the Student Led Events and Project Fund?