Improvements in the Business Improvement Program: Dean lobbies to keep wellbeing position another 17 months; students express frustration at lack of consultation
Dean Carolyn Evans has confirmed that the university has made the decision to keep an in-house wellbeing and disabilities support officer temporarily at the law school, but the rest of the “Business Improvement Program” (BIP) will continue as scheduled.
As details of the BIP began to emerge last week, law students wasted no time in expressing their concern at the proposed cuts. Not only did students send in their stories and thoughts to De Minimis (a selection of which is available in this edition), many also took the time to contact the LSS, the dean and even the office of the vice-chancellor. There have been many developments in this ongoing issue, and they are in part due to the efforts of law students.
On Wednesday, university staff met to hear the details of the BIP, which has now been approved by University Executive. Following this, Acting Vice Chancellor Prof Margaret Sheil sent students an email which outlined in very general terms the objective of the BIP - to “help improve the student experience”. Importantly, Prof Sheil stated that the university was seeking student feedback on the changes, and that an invitation to provide feedback would be sent out this week. What form this will take, and whether it will contain enough information to allow students to give their informed opinions, remains to be seen.
On Friday morning, law school Dean Prof Carolyn Evans sent MLS students an email explaining that she had raised students’ concerns with higher management, and that as a result, the law school’s wellbeing officer would remain at MLS at least until the end of 2015. Whether the wellbeing officer will remain at MLS beyond 2015 rests on a future decision that will be made after the new centralised wellbeing support has been established and tested.
Prof Evans also invited students to attend a meeting later that day with the dean, the head of University Services Paul Duldig, and Academic Registrar Neil Robinson. Each spoke briefly at the meeting, which was attended by about seventy law students. Students were given more than an hour to ask questions. Although many students expressed they were glad to hear that the wellbeing officer was safe for the time being, there was still concern at the possibility of the role being centralised. Some students vocalised their concern that wellbeing support needed to be tailored and approachable, and that students should not have to deal with university bureaucracy at a time when they are most vulnerable.
One student stated that over time law students had come to trust the current wellbeing officer, Kate Van Hooft, and that such trust would be difficult to maintain in a centralised system. Although there was sympathy from the panel, Prof Evans clarified that the changes were being made to the structure of the position and not the staff member who currently occupied it. This means that if the role was centralised, the current wellbeing officer may still work in the centralised structure, but would need to reapply for the position. Prof Evans urged students not to immediately discount the potential quality of centralised services, and Mr Robinson claimed that although there would only be four wellbeing officer roles, they would be supported by 120 staff across the whole of the university.
Career services was another central concern of students and Prof Evans stated that contrary to what was published in last week’s De Minimis, there would remain two dedicated careers staff at MLS. It was confirmed that the Student Centre would be closed, but Prof Evans said that there would still be administrative staff at the law school to manage internships, exchanges and the mentor program. Neil Robinson, who is in charge of administrative services, said that his portfolio included library staff and that this left open the possibility that the library may be used for the provision of other administrative services. He also mentioned that along with a centralised “Student Services Village”, there would also be a number of satellite locations operating limited hours. When pressed for more information, Mr Robinson could not confirm where those locations would be or how many there would be, stating that it was still undecided.
Some law students have been understandably resistant to the thought of any reduction in support services, given the high cost law school students pay for their degrees; however, Mr Robinson and Mr Duldig insisted that part of the savings would be reinvested back into the faculty from which they came. They said that they were unable to invest more into wellbeing support until the student centres had been streamlined. Prof Evans confirmed that, whilst some would need to be spent on the centralised careers service, any other savings that were given to MLS would be spent on academic staff.
The final issue that was raised was the lack of student consultation. Mr Robinson and Mr Duldig both claimed that student consultation and input was very important to their “adaptive process”, however many students remained unconvinced, given the lack of information that had been passed to them. One student pointed out that students would not disagree with every aspect of the BIP, such as a reduction in paper forms, but without access to information they were left with little choice but to be concerned. When asked why there had been such little regard for the student voice, the panel pointed to the fact that the BIP was an industrial issue that necessitated a degree of secrecy. They also mentioned that students had been consulted in early 2013 through the “Melbourne Experience Survey”; however, this did not provide consolation to some students since few, if any, were aware of the purpose of that survey.
By the end of the meeting, the panel members indicated their willingness and desire to have more student input on the changes. Prof Evans in particular seemed to be at a genuine loss over the best method of consulting students and halting the influx of emails clogging her inbox. It is worth mentioning that aside from the dozens of emails sent by law students, complaints received from the rest of the university student body totalled only seven.
The final result was that Prof Evans resolved to email all students this week to provide them with general information about the BIP and an email address where they could voice their concerns. She was also willing to explore other avenues of consultation, including monthly meetings, depending on how many students were interested in that type of forum.
Concerned students should keep an eye out for two emails: one from Prof Evans, the other from Prof Sheil. These will provide students with at least two ways of expressing their opinions. First year students should perhaps be more concerned, since many of these changes will affect them more than any other group. There seems to be several aspects of the BIP that are still being decided and which have the potential to be influenced by student consultation, such as the satellite student centres and wellbeing support services.