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The student as consumer II: what happened to academic teams?

This blog has started as more of a personal reflection, but it may end up as a call to action. We’ll see.

A conversation last week with an administrator from another part of the university (let’s call her Caroline) led me to think a bit about the academic team – students, academic staff, and administrators who participate together in an ongoing project of scholarship. Some colleagues may remember, in the mists of time, when the University had academic teams.  We called them departments. Each department had at least one departmental administrator, who supported the Head of Department in administrative tasks, both teaching- and research-related, helped students navigate the course, and – in many cases – provided the quasi-familial glue that held the department together. As with all roles, some department administrators were more skilful than others, and each had their strengths as well as weaknesses, but they were, by and large, people whose jobs were to be there for the department.

Even further back in the mists of time, academic departments had their own budgets, ran their own activities, and when they needed support for those activities, they went to support teams who pitched up with what was needed, be it technical assistance, teaching innovation, or specialist printing… but I digress.

Now, much has moved on from those halcyon days – our responsibilities to HESA, HEFCE, QAA, and RCUK (and the Borders Agency, and..and..) have expanded beyond all recognition. As the sector shifted inexorably from a resource for public good to a provider of private gain, our University moved with the times. It created a belatedly Thatcherite “internal market” for support services in the late 1990s, and then – disastrously – in the new century “Transitioned” into the form we see now, in which many “departments” are virtual within Academic Units or Faculties; in which – as Caroline pointed out – administrators no longer work directly for academics, but are in structural silos according to responsibilities, line-managed and appraised by someone who may work on an entirely different campus; and in which the student is a consumer (the “student-consumer,” as one upcoming policy event now has it) rather than a participant.

When the conversation turns to the University’s (rather than Faculties’ or Academic Units’) responsibility for NSS, I frequently hear, “well, students talk to each other, so we need to make sure that everyone gets the same level of service.” From a quality assurance point of view, there is certainly a strong case for ensuring procedural equivalence (if not equality) across the University. But Transition began a process that has all but wiped out something irreplaceable to the student experience. Administrators were removed from departments and corralled into open-plan offices – this might have been seen as a more efficient way to work, but it ripped the soul out of our departments, and things have never been the same. Transition, and every successive centralising restructure, first destabilised, then demolished, then in places erased all memory of the academic team.

In many parts of the University, students begin their academic journey in contact with an Admissions Team, their local queries are dealt with at a Faculty/AU Student Office by someone at a hatch or a counter, they rock up to lectures and tutorials where their presence may or may not be recorded (don’t get me started about whether or not attendance can be mandatory, and what that means for student support…), but they do not belong anywhere particular.  Caroline told me last week that she has seen students wandering campus in tears: now that almost all pastoral support has been devolved to academics, who are busier and busier, and thinner and thinner on the ground anyway, it is not unlikely that both their Personal Academic Tutor and the Senior Tutor are teaching or in administrative meetings. Who is there for that student, especially if they are on a joint honours course? With no academic team to belong to, where do they, and where do their tutors, find their community, their tribe, and their support? There are nightlines, advice centre drop-ins, the First Support team – and they do very good work, but there is no substitute for the personal relationships that used to bind our teams together.

My own students (I am both a PAT and Senior Tutor for my AU) are privileged because we may be the one of a very few AUs that still has an administrator who sits in an office in the middle of our campus space – Music is separated from the rest of Humanities at the Avenue, so there has to be a Faculty outpost at Highfield. The students think of the staff in that office as Music staff, even though technically they are not – but in general, those administrators know all our students by name and have an understanding of who they are, what issues they might have, and even – gasp! – might have some sort of friendly rapport with them.

This may seem all very nice but not necessarily germane. However, when it comes to dealing with students (and staff, for that matter) with specific mental health issues, or those that have sudden personal crises, and even those that just want to share something wonderful that has happened to them, that relationship can make all the difference. The day before my conversation with Caroline, a student in deep crisis felt able to come to our administrator, who then was able to provide some initial comfort and guidance before coming to find me and the PAT. I cannot imagine that student feeling comfortable going to a counter or a hatch, in floods of tears, in order to talk to a complete, or nearly complete stranger. But as it was, they had immediate and personal support, and within minutes they were safely in an office where they could cry until they were able to express the problem, and by the end of the day we were on our way to identifying solutions.

That student is in the third year, and will be filling out the NSS in a matter of months. I wonder if we did a quick analysis around the University, whether we would find lower NSS scores overall in places where the academic team is most fragmented or even non-existent? Where it is impossible to place a sign saying “Welcome to the Department of X-ology” because such a place is only virtual? Where the students would not be able to name or recognise the person responsible for administering their academic progress, or vice versa?

When you think of the student as a consumer rather than a participant, your perception of their needs and wants is changed. I rather suspect the University thinks its responsibility to the NSS is to provide a better student experience through administrative efficiency, because it is measurable. In order to find answers about administrative effectiveness, our senior management have been putting their faith in an opaque consultancy process called Uniforum, the results of which have been impossible to obtain (commercially sensitive, don’t you know?).  When we ask for data – because we care about our students and our colleagues, and because we want some agency in the future of the university – we are rebuffed. But when we tell them things (because our experience should be of value), via whatever consultation or staff engagement mechanism they care to dream up, they have not yet listened.

The big question is, of course, is there a will or a way of turning back the clock? Or can we do it in a move forward, rather than a move back? If this is a moment of great change in the university, why should we not take the opportunity to make it as positive a change as possible? What do you think? Would the re-establishment and repair of fractured academic teams make a difference? To the student experience? To the staff that bear the the day-to-day responsibility for making the student experience better?

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