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A comment on Student Support Services and mental health provision at UEA

A big part of my role as a Disability Liaison Officer is talking to and supporting advisers in my department, and liaising with other colleagues across the university. I am also in contact with a lot of students who have used and continue to access the support available at Student Support Services. There is a familiar pattern to all responses that people have given me about their experiences of SSS. The following are some of my thoughts about where we are and where we need to get to if we want to improve mental health and wellbeing provision at UEA. I write this in the spirit of openness and in the hope that we can begin a university wide dialogue with staff, students and the executive team to find a new way forward in dealing with mental health and wellbeing provision at UEA.

We all acknowledge how hard the staff in Student Support Services work and work in the best interests of the students they seek to help. Staff I have worked with have been incredibly helpful and are passionate about helping students. However, it is clear to all staff and students who engage with SSS that pressures on staff have reached intolerable levels and that SSS is at breaking point. Simply put; they do not have the funding or resources to deal with the increase in demand and the mental health crisis on campus.

To deal with the increased demand, the University introduced a system with significant flaws. Students requesting support now fill in a triage form that is appraised within 24 hours. Students are told they will receive a response within 72 hours, but we are aware of a number of cases when this deadline has been missed. This triage system gives the appearance of engagement, but actually produces no tangible outcome for the student, many of whom are eventually given an appointment months after their initial request for support.

We are told that these forms are triaged according to need, but the system is impersonal and opaque. For some students, filling in a form may help them focus on the kinds of help they want and need. For other students, they need to talk to someone face to face in order to feel that they are being listened too. Metal health is complex and a one-size fits all model of accessing support is not sufficient and in some cases will act as a barrier to seeking much-needed help.

It is clear that staff in SSS are under pressure, with academic staff reporting that their attempts to chase appointments for advisees have revealed that delays are often being caused by staff sickness and colleagues leaving the University at short notice. Students have also reported being seen by staff in SSS who are not specialists in the areas they have sought help. We also know students appointments are being cancelled at the last minute, leaving them in considerable distress.

Simply put it is not clear to students or advisers what can be reasonably expected of the SSS at UEA. It is understandable why SSS say they are not a ‘crisis service’ and that in some cases students should seek help external to the university. Furthermore, it is clear that the university and SSS cannot solve all of the mental health problems students face. Nor should the wider contexts that have resulted in an increase in mental health in society at large be ignored. But the University must recognise it has a duty of care to students (and staff) and that they cannot claim student fees, whilst offering mental health and wellbeing services that are ineffective. Local community services and charities are also incredibly stretched and are not adequately funded to support the large increase in vulnerable adults that a university the size of UEA brings to Norwich.

The pressure that this situation puts on academic staff and support staff as well as those who are in daily contact with students in their accommodation must be considered. It is therefore very worrying that recent statements from SSS claim they are ‘training academics’. We should not be against academic staff having mental health first aid training and advisers should be educated about various mental health conditions that may affect their advisees, but there is a very big difference between being aware and being a qualified therapist or mental health professional. This is often what students want and when they do not get that support from SSS they come back to their advisor for help. When colleagues have raised this with SSS, the burden this places on staff is not adequately recognised.  Colleagues are told to ‘know your professional boundaries, stop the conversation and point them to SSS or their GP’. But if we do this we know they will often be lost in the system and without support for weeks or months. It is very hard for staff to simply switch off and not worry about students they see on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. It is also very hard for this not to have serious impacts on the mental health and well being of staff being put in this position.

What is needed is an open dialogue between staff, students, and the university about what support services are needed on campus. We need the Executive Team to listen to the concerns of staff in SSS and all staff that work with students on a daily basis. We need to restore the faith of staff and students in the support that SSS can offer before this relationship is irrevocably broken.

We cannot have a SSS that adapts to the funding model it is given. We must have a SSS that adapts to student need and is funded accordingly. This is not a finger pointing exercise. It is about realising there are huge challenges and we need to come together to find solutions that will work. After all, when staff raise concerns about mental health provision on campus it is a demonstration of how much staff at UEA care about the wellbeing of their students and colleagues. When we see something is not working we must work together to find solutions and not get lost in hierarchy and defensiveness. We must act, and we must act now.

Mark Hobbs, Vice President UCU@UEA.

 

**I encourage any colleagues who have been affected by recent events to contact the staff counselling services (https://portal.uea.ac.uk/student-support-service/wellbeing/staff-counselling) or the Education Support Partnership (https://www.ucu.org.uk/educationsupportpartnership) for support. Please do get in touch with the UCU office (ucu.office@uea.ac.uk) with any comments or concerns that you may have on this issue.**

Acclaimed author cancels university appearance over pensions row

Prize-winning author Jon McGregor has pulled out of an appearance at the University of East Anglia due to the ongoing dispute over pensions.

 

The author was due to appear at the UEA Spring Literary Festival on Wednesday (7 March), but has said that he will not cross the picket line. Instead, he will headline an evening of readings at the Students’ Union in support of striking staff.

 

The ‘Writers for the Strike’ event will run from 5 – 7pm on Wednesday and will feature readings from leading authors including Sarah Perry and Megan Bradbury, as well as inputs from staff and students. It forms part of the ‘Alternative University’ – a programme of teach-ins and discussions organised by members of the University and College Union (UCU) taking strike action.

 

Author Jon McGregor said: ‘Although I had been very much looking forward to reading at the UEA Spring 2018 Literary Festival, I will not be able to do so while strike action in defence of university staff pensions is ongoing. I fully support the UCU action, and – in common with a number of university vice-chancellors, government ministers, and the opinion pages of the Financial Times – call on Universities UK to return to meaningful negotiations immediately to avoid any further disruption not just to students but to the role universities have to play in the wider cultural life.

‘I have never crossed a picket line in my life, and am not about to start now. Instead, I will be joining staff, students, and writers for an evening of readings and discussion as part of the Alternative University being put on by the Student Union.’

 

The pension dispute centres on proposals to end the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – a move which UCU says would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.

 

In the recent strike ballot UCU members overwhelmingly backed industrial action. Locally, 87% of UCU members at UEA who voted backed strike action on a turnout of 66%.

 

UCU UEA branch spokesperson Ben Little said: ‘We really appreciate the support of all the writers and students who are making Wednesday’s ‘Writers for the Strike’ event possible. Strike action is always a last resort, but the threat to our pensions is so serious we have been left with no choice. We hope the university will seek to minimise any further disruption to students by ensuring that Universities UK commits to proper negotiations to resolve this dispute.’

 

UCU@UEA USS Strike 2018

UEA branch voted overwhelmingly – and on a record turn-out – to take strike action to defend the DB pension.

While there is debate over the financial implications of this, there is no evidence that maintaining a DB scheme is impossible. We believe that negotiations should resume to look at ways of managing the scheme.

The proposed change from UUK will disproportionately affect those at the start of their careers, or those intending to enter the profession in the future. We do not believe it is right that those colleagues should have worse work benefits than those later in their career; this would not be an act of solidarity, and is contrary to the communal ethos that underpins a university.

It is in this spirit that 1,000 professors – likely to be relatively unaffected by these changes – signed a letter to the Times Higher stating, “we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with all our colleagues, and especially the next generation, to defend our profession”. Similarly, we reject the current proposal on the grounds of its abandonment of early career staff, which will damage those colleagues as individuals, and the profession more broadly.

The planned strike days are as follows:

Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days);
Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days);
Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days);
Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

There are strike FAQs here https://www.ucu.org.uk/uss-action-faqs

If you support the defence of pensions, and want to take strike action, it’s not too late to join UCU – https://www.ucu.org.uk/join

University pensions

UCU is opposed to the proposed change to the pension scheme and is balloting its members – more information here

UCU@UEA asked local MP Clive Lewis for his support and here is his statement:

“I echo the concerns voiced by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner in her statement on the USS pension scheme changes which have been proposed, which would leave staff at older universities – such as University of East Anglia – significantly worse off in retirement.
UEA is one of Norfolk’s jewels – boosting the county both economically and culturally, so its future as a top-class university brings the region positive benefits.
UK Higher Education is world class, and UEA is competing on a world stage, increasingly successfully. But it’s vital that it retains its staff who are crucial in building that reputation.
I also know that the students in my constituency are caught in the middle of the dispute, and support the NUS joint statement with the staff union UCU saying that students benefit from a university sector where staff are properly paid and know they will receive a fair pension in retirement.”

Brexit: Our letter to candidates and press release

UCU seeks support for EU staff from Norwich general election candidates

 

The UCU branch at UEA recently asked all the general election candidates in Norwich North and Norwich South to sign up to a pledge to try to get the next government to grant existing EU nationals the right to remain in the UK.

UCU@UEA wrote to all the candidates on Friday 3 June, asking for replies by 6 June.

 

The branch issued a press release to local media, describing the challenge. The release was copied to the UEA press office, the SU, the UEA student paper/website ‘Concrete’ and to campus unions.
The story was published on the website of the Eastern Daily Press: http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/education/university-staff-call-on-norwich-election-candidates-to-eu-workers-rights-pledge-1-5045876

 

The effort was part of a campaign ‘Our universities are international – let’s keep them that way’, which UCU is running at UEA. This is linked to UCU’s national efforts on this theme: https://www.ucu.org.uk/we-are-international

group of international staff

 

By 1.30 on Tuesday 6 June, we had received supportive responses from all candidates except the two Conservatives, who had still not replied.

 

Norwich North

Green Candidate             Adrian Holmes                  Support

Tory Candidate                 Chloe Smith                        No reply

Labour Candidate            Chris Jones                         Support

Lib Dem Candidate          Hugh Lanham                    Support

Pirate Party Candidate   Liam Matthews                 Support

 

Norwich South
Green candidate              Richard Bearman              Support
Labour Candidate            Clive Lewis                          Support

Tory candidate                  Lana Hempsall                    No reply

Lib Dem candidate           James Wright                     Support

 

Support the campaign at UEA!

 

UCU@UEA is considering ideas for further activity in support of our EU colleagues. If you would like to join this campaign and offer ideas and support, write to us. We will send you  a pack of posters and stickers, a copy of UCU’s Post-Brexit guide and ideas for what you can do. Write to:

ucu.office@uea.ac.uk