It has been more than a month since news of the Business Improvement Process (BIP) prompted student outrage and sent ripples all the way to the Vice Chancellors Office. There were many objectionable aspects in the BIP, but the battle lines were clearly drawn at the abolition of the Law School’s Wellbeing Officer. Now, in an email to students, Dean Carolyn Evans has confirmed that the battle has been won by the students.
In their initial attempt to placate the law students, the University offered to extend the Wellbeing position until the end of 2015. Presumably, it was thought that by that time most of the existing cohort would be gone and that the incoming students and the current 1st years would not resist the change. However, that move did nothing to pacify students who continued to make their objections clear both in person at the first ‘town hall’ meeting, and through emails to the Dean, the Provost, and the LSS.
The Dean continued to raise the student concerns with higher management as students continued applying pressure through the newly established feedback page (Melbourne Law School> Current Students> University and MLS Change). Another essential catalyst for change was an email written by LSS President Nick Jane to Prof Margaret Shiel, the acting Vice Chancellor, which advocated for the retention of the dedicated Wellbeing Officer at MLS. That email highlighted not only the unique stresses that MLS students face, but also the prevalence of depression and mental health issues in the legal profession more generally.
The victory means that the Wellbeing Officer is now a secure ongoing position at MLS. The role is expected to be modified to fit in with the new centralised structure of the University. What this will involve, however, remains unclear. The Law School has also been asked to get rid of another position in exchange for keeping the Wellbeing Officer. Although we are yet to learn which position will be removed, unconfirmed reports suggest that it will not result in the abolition of any particular service, but rather, a reduction in the number of people in particular branch.
However, as Nick Jane aptly put it “this should not be the end of student involvement in the BIP”. Over the past month, the willingness of students to engage with these changes has not only resulted in the retention of the Wellbeing Officer, but also in the establishment of new channels of communication including the feedback page, ‘town hall’ meetings and an upcoming student services survey. What else will be changed by the BIP remains to be seen but other student services, such as the Mentor Program, may come into the spotlight next.
Although there are still many valid criticisms of the BIP and the corporate management of the University more generally, we must also recognise its positive elements when they exist. At the first ‘town hall’ meeting the head of University Services, Paul Duldig, urged us to judge him by what he does next, and to their credit on this occasion the University has shown its willingness to respond to student input.
However, despite their willingness to accept feedback from students the flow of information has remained one-sided. The Dean, true to her word, has been providing updates on the BIP, but they are generally after the fact. Students are rarely kept in the loop at the proposals stage, perhaps out of fear that we might object again.