Students’ Union Non-Educational Priorities 2014-2015
1. Increased Students’ Union Space: the Students’ Union is committed to expanding with SOAS’ expansion into Senate House North Block (SHNB).
- As the Students’ Union is losing its shop at Vernon Square (and therefore revenue), in the move to Senate House, we strongly wish to obtain the rights to providing the Shop service in the Hub of SHNB. The Students’ Union’s sustainability depends upon the income it derives from its Shop and Bar services. If we were to lose revenue due to the Shop in the Hub being provided by a private company, this would significantly reduce our income and therefore curtail our ability to serve our students. This would necessitate a much larger block grant from SOAS to the Students’ Union. Thus, if the Shop is run by a private company this will be more expensive for SOAS, which would have to pay both to hire that company and pay a larger block grant to the Students’ Union. In our 2014 Students’ Union survey, 88.7% of respondents use our JCR Shop and 70.3% of respondents used our Shop at Vernon Square. Comments on the survey indicated that students are very happy with our service and want it to expand so that it is open for longer and so that it can provide a greater quantity of the food we sell.
- The Students’ Union hopes to acquire the Staff Common Room, which would be linked to the Junior Common Room and Bar via a new staircase. We aim to work with staff to find a suitable replacement space for the Staff Common Room in the Phillips Building, among the spaces that will be made available due to the move to SHNB. Furthermore, Students’ Union space is also open to, and indeed welcomes, all staff.
- We hope to establish locking devices or card access only on the doors which separate the Students’ Union from the rest of the Phillips Building. This would be used to close off, and thereby protect, the rest of the University from the Students’ Union so that we may hold late night events without any security concerns.
- In line with the School’s access control project, which will see the removal of the entrance barriers before the opening of SHNB, we hope to create a separate entrance to the Students’ Union. This would be an accessible entrance, which would involve opening up the Students’ Union outdoor space, to the grassy space over which Tiru Valluvar presides. Around Tiru would be a seating area, which would remove the problem of smoking in the current outdoor seating area.
- In the short-term, before the creation of the Students’ Union’s own entrance, we hope to open up an outdoor space to compensate for the loss of our space which is currently alarmed due to smoking issues. This new space would require SOAS to remove the ADD fire exit ramp, which is not currently in use.
2. Additional resources for Student Advice and Wellbeing:
The Students’ Union considers the provision of additional funding for Student Advice and Wellbeing an urgent priority, which is vital to SOAS fulfilling its responsibilities for student welfare. Student Advice and Wellbeing has been running at above capacity for a number of years. It is becoming impossible for staff to meet student demand, which is increasing every year due to increasing recruitment figures, increasing student anxiety, increasing student expectation for the level of support and services available to them and an inability to implement development across the school that could alleviate case load. Both the Students’ Union and academic staff (both full time and fractional staff) are plugging the gap created by insufficient resources for Student Advice and Wellbeing.
The highly capable and dedicated Student Advice and Wellbeing staff are part-time and most of them say they are having to work overtime because of the huge demand for their services. In 2013/14 while Student Advice and Wellbeing have reported a growing epidemic of student anxiety at SOAS, on average students had to wait four weeks for a second counselling session. Students most at risk or with the most urgent needs are prioritised as much as possible, but this means that at peak times students with less critical conditions can only be offered one or two meetings.
The disability team has seen a 31% increase in disabled students at SOAS since academic year 2009/10. Disabled students now make up more than 10% of the SOAS student body. The increase in numbers of students using the service is to be welcomed. Nationally, outcomes are much better for disabled students who access support, especially the Disabled Students Allowance, than for those who don’t. However it is becoming impossible to provide this support without more staff in the disability, dyslexia and mental health teams. The number of students declaring a mental health difficulty has increased by a third this year and there has been a consequent rise in demand for mentoring support for students who have been unable to access counselling services. The service is already under-resourced and will be under increasing pressure due to impending government cuts to disabled students funding.
We believe that Student Advice and Wellbeing provide essential support to students, but are not currently being provided with the necessary resources to meet increasing student demand, which is negatively impacting student welfare. We believe this to be an urgent and deeply concerning problem which should be addressed by providing Student Advice and Wellbeing with adequate funding, and sufficient space in their new location in SHNB. This is especially necessary as demand is likely to significantly increase when the service moves to Russell Square and as student numbers increase.
3. Improving SOAS’ accessibility: we believe it is vital that SOAS becomes a more accessible and inclusive institution.
- We want to work with the School to ensure that North Block is as physically accessible as possible, and we want to take steps to improve the accessibility of the Phillips Building and Library. Examples of such improvements are better promotion of the first floor rest room, the creation of additional seating throughout the building, and the establishment of quiet, accessible study rooms on floor E of the library. Moreover, we hope for the inclusion of lists of non-accessible buildings and rooms (such as 30 Russell Square and some Birkbeck rooms used by SOAS) in the room booking system and introducing an 'accessibility' option in the system, to ensure that courses on which students with mobility restrictions are enrolled are taught in accessible spaces.
- We want to support Student Advice and Wellbeing in the work they are doing to tackle student anxiety and develop peer support, for example the SOAS New Student Scheme. We hope to obtain support and funding from the School in order to extend these across the School and to ensure that they operate effectively.
4. Improve support for international students:
- We believe SOAS has a responsibility to support its international students in relation to UK Border Agency (UKBA). A lack of such support has meant that a number of PhD students, who have had to make corrections to, or redo, their vivas, have been threatened with deportation by UKBA, and in some cases have actually been detained. Such stressful and traumatic situations could be avoided if SOAS were to sponsor extended visas for PhD students who have to make corrections to, or redo, their vivas.
- There is currently no specific budget for non-UK students with disabilities. We request that the support that is available for UK students via the Disabled Students Allowance (such as equipment and one to one support), is made available for non-UK students with a budget provided by the School. We fundamentally believe students should not be discriminated against on the basis of their nationality, and should all have access to the same support.
- We strongly believe that SOAS should become a guarantor for students renting in the private sector who do not have a UK guarantor. The vast majority of private tenancies require student tenants to provide a UK guarantor: an individual, who undertakes the financial liabilities of the tenant, i.e. paying the rent in case the tenant fails to do so. The guarantor usually has to be a UK resident in full-time, long-term employment (with a salary which usually has to total 3x the monthly rent of the property) in order to meet the requirements of a good credit score. Inability to provide a UK guarantor either leads to loss of the property, or the tenant is required to pay between 6 and 12 months’ rent in advance. This can make securing accommodation extremely difficult for some students, and can often lead to students renting properties which are in sub-standard conditions owned by landlords who do not uphold legal requirements. Moreover, if students cannot pay the required amount of rent in advance and fail to find a landlord that does not require a UK guarantor, they could be placed in extremely vulnerable and precarious positions, including homelessness or squatting (squatting in a residential property has recently been criminalised).
In 2012-2013 there were 32.1% of students enrolled at SOAS were international students and 15.3% of those enrolled were EU students. Many international and EU students do not have UK guarantors, and some home students do not have UK guarantors either because they are estranged from their parents or because they are from a lower socio-economic background.
A number of other universities (UCL, Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway, York, Kent, and Plymouth) have guarantor schemes, in which the university acts as a guarantor for a certain number of students. Currently SOAS acts as a guarantor for those students who rent properties managed by the University of London Housing Service, but these are only eight properties. SOAS has very limited halls space, and the vast majority of returning students have to rent property in the private sector.
The evidence from universities which have guaranteed their students rent shows that such schemes have been largely profitable as there have been minimal instances of student participants defaulting on their rent. We recommend that SOAS pilot a guarantor scheme for a small number of returning students. A number of steps can be taken to minimise the risk of this pilot scheme, which we would like to discuss with the School.
5. Improve staff pay and conditions:
We are concerned about cuts to staff’s pay across the higher education sector and SOAS’ increasing dependence on fractional teaching staff, who have had to take on greater workloads without sufficient pay, the 12% gender pay gap at SOAS, and mistreatment of outsourced workers by the companies to which they are outsourced. We believe that the unhappiness of SOAS staff about their pay and conditions undermines SOAS’ ethos and ethics, and contradicts the values of equality and social justice that are taught in its classrooms. This, along with consequent protest and industrial action, negatively impacts student experience.
The fact that academic staff feel overstretched by their workloads and under-supported at SOAS, is likely to have a negative impact on teaching quality. Moreover, the School has responded to the Fractionals For Fair Play campaign by instructing fractional teaching staff to not ‘over-prepare’ for teaching, to not attend lectures for the courses they are teaching, to not see or respond to students outside of office hours, and to not provide their students with references. Students expect such support from their teachers, the absence of which will reduce support for students and will negatively impact both student experience and teaching quality. Furthermore, the fact that support staff and student facing staff feel overworked, underpaid and under-supported undermines these services and limits the support that can be provided to students, which negatively impacts student experience and satisfaction.
At a time when students are expecting more from their studies and from university services now that they are paying £9,000 per year in tuition fees, they are receiving less, as university staff are not paid sufficiently.
6. Greater representation and transparency within SOAS’ governance structures:
We are concerned that many students and staff feel that there is a divide between themselves and the decision-making groups and bodies within the School. There is a strong sense that although SOAS deploys language about the SOAS community, Senior Management do not endeavour to engage or have dialogue with this community beyond formal channels, which are not sufficient due to lack of representation and transparency within existing structures. The exclusion of the majority of the SOAS community from School governance structures hinders communication and therefore prevents wider understanding of different positions and the reasons behind decision making. This fosters hostility, resulting in protest and industrial action, which negatively impacts student experience.
We strongly advocate a review of SOAS governance structures, including all members of the SOAS community, conducted internally by a body comprising representatives of all stakeholder groups. We hope that such a review would indicate areas that can be reformed in order to make these structures more representative and transparent. We believe that such reforms would bring together the SOAS community and improve communication and understanding within this community, which is particularly important at this challenging time for SOAS with its expansion into SHNB.
7. Free Graduation:
On 20th March 2014, a motion calling for tickets to be free for both graduands and two guests, and for the costs of graduation to be made clear, was passed by unanimous vote at our Union General Meeting. It followed a student petition which collected 661 signatures from undergraduate, masters and PhD Students. The Students’ Union believes that at the very least graduation ceremonies should be free for the graduating student. We believe it is essential that an institution committed to equality and inclusivity allow all graduating students to attend their own graduation ceremony, without financial barriers.
8. Finishing teaching at 12pm on Wednesdays for sports:
Across London universities’ Wednesday afternoons are set aside for sports, which are an important part of student leisure and wellbeing. Currently there should not be any courses being taught on Wednesday afternoons which do not offer alternative classes at another time in the week. However, a lot of teaching currently ends at 1pm on Wednesdays at SOAS, which is unsatisfactory as many matches start at 1pm and are often in far parts of the city, which require time for travel. The Students’ Union hopes that teaching on Wednesdays will end at 12pm to allow sufficient time for students to participate in sports activities on Wednesday afternoons.