Members of the University of Exeter Students’ Guild Welcome Team have expressed concerns with regard to changes made to the initiative’s organisation both prior to and during Freshers’ Week 2017.
Welcome Team participants, known for their bright pink presence throughout Exeter from Arrivals Weekend until the Freshers’ Fair, disclosed a dual concern to Exeposé about last-minute recruitment of paid staff to oversee the scheme and increased pressure to commit more time to voluntary roles. The Students’ Guild’s recruitment page for Welcome Team notes that “The Welcome Team role is purely voluntary and is therefore unpaid.” A worker’s experience review conducted by the Guild in the wake of Freshers’ 2016 indicated that Welcome Team staff wished to see the initiative driven in a more student-led direction. As a result of this feedback, temporary paid roles were created for students, whose core duties were liaising with permanent Guild staff and overseeing the running of the initiative.
However, Welcome Team members who also participated in last year’s project have voiced the feeling that the Guild did not act upon the majority of the recommendations which they submitted in response to the survey, and that consultation with Welcome Team volunteers to inform the creation of the new roles was insufficient.
Voluntary members of 2017’s Welcome Team were told about the introduction of the new tier of staffing in training sessions held in May and June 2016. However, Welcome Team volunteers have explained to Exeposé that the idea was presented in formative terms, with no announcement of recruitment numbers or an explanation of how their role would differ significantly enough from voluntary positions to warrant being paid.
All applicants for these temporary staff positions were invited to an induction on 14 September. When they arrived at the appointment, candidates were given the work without the formal interview which they were anticipating.
No further training was given to these paid team members, as Arrivals Weekend began the following day on 15 September. No Welcome Team training – except for Team Leader and Triage specific sessions – needed to be completed in person as it could be done online. Team Leaders have expressed the opinion that Guild training for all roles was “inadequate” and did not properly prepare participants to deal with various situations which likely would, and did, occur during Freshers’ Week. They felt that this presented an unnecessary breach of welfare concerns for both team members and freshers.
Welcome Team volunteers have said that the last-minute instalment of this extra tier of staffing caused a degree of disorder on the first day of Arrivals Weekend, with casual staff left to provide structure for the project in lieu of formal provisions from the Guild. On 15 September, a meeting between casual staff was arranged for 3pm followed by a further meeting with Team Leaders at 3.30pm, with the aim of clarifying the 2017’s team vision and expectations. No minutes exist of this meeting, as it was not an official Guild event placed on the Welcome Team’s calendar. Welcome Team is an initiative run by the Students’ Guild, whose website states that the student group “moves students into their halls of residences, answers questions, provides information and makes sure students are safe both on and off campus”. The role is temporary, ending with Freshers’ Week (this year on Saturday 23 September), and is intended to provide flexibility; as the Guild’s recruitment page states, “We welcome applications from those who are involved in all different areas of student life – you set the shifts you can do.”
However, some of this year’s Welcome Team participants felt under pressure to commit to more shifts and in different timeframes to those they had signed up for. In a Team Leaders’ meeting held at 5pm on 16 September – the Saturday of Arrivals Weekend – a decision was made to switch from scheduled time slots to an AM/PM system, which saw Welcome Team members put on a rota with less flexible time options. However, shifts still had set start and finish times. Minutes taken from the meeting in which this decision was announced read, “Shift system promotes an ‘I’m not doing 1 minute over 4pm’ mentality and then stranding students and team leaders without help. This is causing problems with whole teams leaving.” The new rota was published in the evening of Saturday 16 September, coming into effect at 8.30am the next morning. Welcome Team participants have expressed to Exeposé that the ethics and practicalities of this alteration deterred them from participating as much in Welcome Team work as they intended to. The Guild’s Volunteers Charter states that all volunteers working on Guild schemes have the right to “not to be exploited – volunteers should not: have unfair demands placed on their time”.
Team Leaders have reported to Exeposé that the decision to switch to an AM/PM shift system was made unanimously at the meeting on 16 September. It was resolved upon as a compromise between accommodating volunteers’ wishes to work at specific times and staffing shortages which Team Leaders have linked to what they feel was insufficient support from relevant Guild staff. A member of casual staff has told Exeposé that “unfortunately this year due to organisational deficiencies from pre-existing staff, the organisation of Welcome Team was very last minute and sometimes request would be made for people to volunteer to do more. These requests were always made prioritising the welfare of team, and stressing they were volunteers who did not have to do such things. People were even stopped from doing shifts when it was thought it would be bad for their welfare.”
Welcome Team volunteers and team leaders have expressed that they felt insufficiently informed by the Guild to go ahead with the role, and one of last year’s volunteers decided not to participate at all this year because of how the initiative was organised. Another member of the casual staff team gave the following statement to Exeposé: “There was poor communication with those on Welcome Team before Freshers’ Week. The casual student-staff and team leaders ran the show and made it a success at the last minute, but there were some small issues along the way which we inherited from the bad organisation. We didn’t ask any more of volunteers than what was reasonable, and we made Arrivals Weekend and Freshers’ Week a success with very little support from the guild staff in charge of running welcome team.” A second Team Leader agreed, stating that “unnecessary pressure was placed on casual staff and team leaders as a result of the Guild’s poor organisation.”
A Student’s Guild Spokesperson said:
“We evaluate all of the feedback received from volunteers, students and staff with the aim of always improving the volunteer and leadership opportunities the Students’ Guild provides to students. Whilst we value all feedback received it isn’t always possible to act on every point for a variety of reasons. We will be evaluating everyone’s experiences of this year’s team to learn from it and further improve the experience.”