Wednesday 27th November saw the annual Union of Students representative conference. One of the events during the day is a panel discussion, with senior staff from the University answering questions from the student attendees. The panel debate is held in two parts, with academic topics followed by facilities. The Union's Part Time Officer for Education Council, Chris Winson, reflects on some of the key points from the academic discussion.
The academic section was structured around key themes of quality, support and opportunities.
Quality and value for money
It didn't take long for Brexit to be mentioned, as the first question asked how much is Brexit expected to impact the University ? Malcolm Todd, Pro Vice-Chancellor, acknowledged this is an issue widely impacting higher education and difficult to plan for while political decisions are awaited. The University is committed to the maintaining its international outlook, both in terms of students coming to Derby and for students here, via such schemes as the International Travel Award.
Tuition fees and what implications could there be if the Labour party manifesto pledge of scrapping fees was brought in was raised. Similar to Brexit this depends on political events and without the detail behind that pledge it is difficult to answer.
A question on the level of fees and award recognition for Foundation year was raised. There was also an example quoted where part-time and full-time students have differences in fees, with it reported part-time students are paying more than full-time for the same modules. June Hughes , University Secretary and Registrar, will review these examples.
Coincidently the University published a cost breakdown of tuition fees spend on the same day, the full details can be found on their website.
There was sportive feedback for support from wellbeing, although a specific issue was raised with regard to waiting times at some locations. Jo Jones advised that a review of Buxton, Leek and Chesterfield waiting times and service provision has just concluded, resulting in reallocation of team members to address. It is acknowledged that the service is meeting an increasing demand and there was a request for students who cannot make appointments to help by providing timely cancellation notice so these can be used by other students.
Support for a diverse student population
The attainment gap for BAME students was discussed, with Malcolm noting the damming statistics across higher education. This has been a key focus area of the University, who have been leading on research for the Office of Students, through the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). Fiona Shelton, Dean of Students, also commented on the need for diversity with staff and that the CELT team have been developing a project relating to student stories as a way of raising awareness and helping to consider how to close the gap.
Concern was rasied around the University transgender policy, and it was acknowledged by Jo that while the policy was correct there were issues faced by students through operations and systems, for example gender options and name changes. These are being looked exactly at by both IT and the wellbeing team.
Childcare facilities was raised and the University recognises there is a need and work required to consider options. The family room in the Kedleston Road library needs more promotion and Sue Morrison, Head of the Centre for Student Life, advised the library has expanded digital options such as iPads to help with flexible studying.
Communication of events and trips via the halls was felt to be missing out the students who commute, which Malcolm advised made up around 50% of the student population. This needs looking into to address any gap in communication in support of the student experience.
Opportunities and Careers
Brexit was mentioned again in terms of impacting post-graduate opportunities. Sue advised that the University careers service is undertaking a lot of work with small-medium companies in the local area which is leading to bespoke opportunities for graduates, with more details and opportunities to be involved through the DRIVEN initiative.
A lot of concerns were raised around work placements and additional support being required for students and a number of these placements are part of courses being regulated and approved by professional bodies. Opportunities in health and social care were highlighted as having reduced through the austerity measures which have impacted these services. Chris Bussell, Dean of College of Life and Natural Sciences, advised of discussions with the Derby Hospital and recognised that while there were challenges with opportunities with companies like Boots due to competition from the Nottingham universities, there were still research opportunities available.
Opportunities for creative art students to help with the development of University sites was raised, and Malcolm acknowledged this needed following up, as well as highlighting that there are instances where this has been done, within the library and the recent refurbishment of the visitor centre at Kedleston Road.
The Union president Daniella Quill highlighted that a new online platform will be available in 2020 which will increase visibility of volunteering opportunities, which could help with this.
A question of group work and increasing spaces where students of different disciplines can come together was raised and this is something the University is actively promoting. The recent "makerspace" project supports this and has been successfully taken up by a number of students. This trans-disciplinary approach will be a key part of the new student framework, which has just started to be developed and wll have input from future students, current students and external companies and organisation , to produce a framework for studying through to 2030.
Lastly the new Personal Academic Tutor (PAT) scheme was rasied, with Fiona explaining that students should expect a group session and two meetings per semester with their PAT. Students were encouraged to see these as an opportunity to discuss academic progress as a proactive support, not just where there are issues to be addressed.
It was an open and frank discussion, with a high level of engagement from the student representatives and this was gratefully acknowledged by the panel. The Union will continue to follow up on these points and work with the University in responding, we will update reps and students via articles on the main themes via the website.