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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.**

Meeting of the Norwich and District Trades Union Council

Anyone who is a member of a trades union that is affiliated to the TUC is entitled to attend Council meetings.  This month the meeting will hear from George Deacon who will be talking about the Norfolk Against Universal Credit campaign.  UCU members are welcome to attend the meeting, which will take place in the Angel Gardens Public House, Angel Road, NR3 3HT on Wednesday, 27th February 2019.  The meeting begins at 7:30pm and members are advised to use the left hand door if they wish to avoid the main bar area.  The meeting room is on the first floor.  Please contact the NDTUC directly if you have any questions about the event.

Review of Nae Pasaran

‘Many small people, in small places, doing small things, can change the world’, said the late Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano. In his tremendously powerful and moving film Nae Pasaran (Chile, 2018), Felipe Bustos Sierra shows how just a handful of Scottish workers and trade unionists, in an East Kilbride Rolls Royce factory, did small things that changed political events in a long and narrow South American country on the other side of the world.

On 11 September 1973, Chile’s ‘democratic road to socialism’ came to a violent end with the death of the constitutionally-elected president, Salvador Allende, in a US-backed coup that installed the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Immediately, Allende supporters, trade unionists, the working-classes and shanty-town poor were redefined as ‘subversives’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘enemies’ to be eradicated. Thousands were rounded up for detention, to be held without trial, tortured and killed in improvised concentration camps. In a country of 10 million inhabitants (in 1973), academic Elizabeth Lira writes, it is estimated that 2,000 were killed, 1,200 ‘disappeared’ (their bodies likely thrown from planes into the sea), 200,000 forced into exile, and 50,000 tortured. Actual figures are probably far higher.

In 1974, Avon engines from British-built Hawker Hunter jets, belonging to the Chilean air force, arrived in Scotland’s East Kilbride Rolls Royce factory for repair and maintenance. In protest against the atrocities and human rights violations of the Pinochet dictatorship, engineers risked their jobs and livelihoods by refusing to work on the engines. Despite their bosses’ mounting pressure on them to do the job, workers ‘blacked’ the engines and left them outside to rust. They continued their boycott until the engines disappeared one night four years later, but they never knew what impact their actions had had in Chile.

In Nae Pasaran, Felipe Bustos Sierra, himself the son of a Chilean exile, investigates the very real impact of the Rolls Royce engineers’ actions. As he does so, he shares the unfolding story with four of the trade unionists involved in the boycott; Bob Fulton, Robert Somerville, Stuart Barrie and John Keenan. With humour, dignity, integrity and enormous modesty, these now-elderly men discover what their actions meant for Chileans during the Pinochet dictatorship. Towards the end of the film, one of the workers brushes off words of thanks from a Chilean former political prisoner, and instead highlights other words uttered by the Chilean: ‘I’d have done the same for you’.

Nae Pasaran is a powerful and moving portrayal of workers’ solidarity, across the world.

Hazel Marsh

(The film’s UK broadcast premiere is Sunday 24 Feb 2019 on the new @BBCScotland channel.  The film will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.)

Local response to the pay dispute

Dear colleagues,

As you may be aware, we narrowly failed to reach the 50% turnout threshold in the pay & equalities ballot nationally and were 33 votes short at a local level. I’d like to thank Reps and members for all their hard work over the past few weeks.  As well as working to increase democracy in our union, these discussions have raised important local issues that will shape our priorities over the coming year.  In particular, we as a branch will continue to pursue local issues around pay and working conditions to ensure that all colleagues, but especially those on temporary and casual contracts, feel represented by their Branch and their Union.

Pay ballot – wider context and where next

UEA: turnout 47.5%

Strike: 64.6% YES (210); 35.4% NO (115)

ASOS: 74.2% YES (241); 25.8% NO (84)

To put these results in a wider context, only seven institutions achieved over 50% turnout, with UEA placing in the top 25 in terms of turnout.  As you can see from the results above, of those members who did vote, the majority supported strike action and the vast majority supported action short of strike.  Unfortunately, the Branch and the wider Union has fallen foul of a combination of unprecedented growth in membership and stringent anti-union laws enacted by the current government.

We recognise, as well, that there are obvious differences between this pay dispute and the massive degradations to the pension scheme being proposed last year.  For many members, that action, since justified by a range of financial experts, signified resistance to concerning trends in higher education that went beyond a single issue.  We believe that the strong support for ASOS signifies that this concern about our sector remains beyond the establishment of the JEP and we will be talking with members to identify areas of local concern that we can work to improve.

We are particularly concerned that some of our Early Career and casualised colleagues have understandably interpreted this result as a sign that their Union and their colleagues do not support them in their fight for fairer contracts and pay.  As a branch, we are committed to ensuring fairer conditions and work practices for all of our members and recognise that colleagues on precarious contracts are often hit hardest by the continuing erosion of our pay and conditions.  While this ballot may have precluded industrial action on the current pay proposal, there is still a range of positive steps we can take at a local level to improve the working lives of members.

The recent staff survey highlighted significant dissatisfaction in terms of pay and benefits, excessive workloads, and persistent gender inequalities.  As a Branch we have set up working groups to spearhead campaigns on the following issues:

  • Anti-casualization
  • Gender inequality
  • Workload

To ensure that these groups represent the membership and have the capacity to enact real change, it is vital that their membership reaches beyond the current committee.  Please get in touch with the UCU office (ucu.office@uea.ac.uk) if you would like to get involved in these campaigns locally.

What can we do now?

  • For those missing the solidarity of the picket line, our first common room event takes place this Thursday 25 October 5pm in Scholars bar.  This is your chance as members to guide branch priorities and suggest topics that you would like to discuss in a collegial forum.  If you have any suggestions for future events, themes, and venues and are unable to make the meeting, please contact the UCU office (office@uea.ac.uk).
  • Our Ordinary General Meeting will take place on Wednesday 31 October, 1pm in LT3.  If you would like to propose a motion to the branch, please email the text to office@uea.ac.uk by the 30th October so that it can be added to the agenda.
  • The next branch committee is Tuesday 13th November.  If you would like to raise an issue to be discussed by the committee, then please email it to office@uea.ac.uk by Monday 5th November.
  • While the JEP has reported and supports the arguments made during or industrial action, we would still strongly encourage members to influence the USS consultation (which closes 2nd November) to ensure that our views continue to be represented.  You will find a template letter and more information on our website shortly.  If you have any resources that you have found useful on the USS campaign, please do send these to office@uea.ac.uk and we can make these available on the website for other members to read.
  • If you are interested in helping fellow members by becoming a caseworker, then please contact office@uea.ac.uk as we are currently in the process of organising some additional training with officials from regional headquarters.

The committee wishes to ensure that UCU@UEA continues to meet the needs of its members and focuses its efforts on issues that have a material impact on the lives of colleagues.  We hope that you are able to contribute to the events above and encourage you to participate in whatever way you are able.

Yours,

Ben Jones (Chair, UEA UCU)

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.’