Exeposé spoke to VP Education Bella Enoizi, breaking down what she does in her role on a daily basis, supporting students after COVID-19 and how things might change due to the pandemic.
É: Can you tell us a little more about your role and what work you’ve been doing recently?
BE: So, I am VP education which means my remit covers anything to do with students’ academic experience here, so anything from delivery of your course, to exams, to the library. I have a very close relationship with the University Executive Education team, so we talk about academic policy and teaching manuals. A lot of behind the scenes work. Majority of work is about changes to mitigation and extension processes. I have done a lot of reviewing of the personal tutor system which is being supported by Student Reps and colleges. I hope to flip this next term and get the staff perspective to get a more rounded view. I am also working on how we gather student feedback and how we act on it; I am in negotiations with the University to get funding for a new system.
É: Supporting students after COVID-19 was mentioned in your manifesto. Do you believe that students are being properly supported in this post-pandemic world? Do you believe they have access to recorded materials and seminars regardless of health or accessibility issues?
BE: I think last year was such a period of experimentation and we have definitely come a long way. A lot of people are used to the new normal. The work we have to done around the changes to the mitigation processes, this year students have four weeks’ worth of no evidence extensions. It treats students more like adults and recognises the unpredictability of life at the moment. So I think that is a really positive thing. There have been other significant changes to the manuals about which you will be receiving communications from the University this week as well, I’m really excited about it and it gives recognition to students about what they have struggled with in the last year. In terms of the provision of online resources, I think it is still an area that can be improved. There is a massive disparity between departments. I think obviously this year has been slightly different as we have returned to an in-person model and staff want to encourage in-person teaching because that is the best way to teach and learn. For some courses, the online model isn’t as effective. If we are going for value of money, that isn’t what we are paying for. Some people prefer that but that isn’t what we signed up for. I think the accessibility side of the pandemic should be something we try to maintain.
É: We have heard reports that students with ILPs are struggling to get mitigation and extensions as their ILPs no longer count as evidence. Has the process changed. If so, why?
BE: I haven’t heard those reports. I know that the ILP system can be slightly clunky at times. That is another piece of work that is hopefully going to happen in January around how this system can support more students, bringing student carers or student parents into the ILP system. I think it is a good system, but needs an overhaul. I think it’s disappointing that students aren’t able to receive the support they are entitled to. I’d be interested to hear who they have been speaking to; if they have been given an ILP it should be pretty smooth sailing.
É: When we interviewed Marion, she mentioned the possibility of introducing more hybrid rooms and lowering thresholds for hybrid teaching. What work are you doing to ensure that this happens as quickly as possible? Do you think that these improvements will benefit the current student cohort?
BE: In terms of the capability for hybrid teaching, some colleges are more equipped for that than others. The Business School is years ahead of other colleges, just because of financials and tech installations that haven’t happened in other buildings. The University of Exeter’s strategy is a 2030 strategy but the times we are in necessitate more hybrid teaching. It is something we continue to pressure them on.
É: Does this mean there is a financial disparity between faculties?
BE: That is not what I meant. The Business School is a newer building so when it was designed it was designed in that way because it is a lot more future facing. A lot of other buildings are older and not designed in that way. A lot of rooms and the way they are configured are not suitable to have those cameras that show everything. Physical limitations are there. The Business School was obviously designed a lot more recently.
É: Why does the new normal for in-person teaching continue to look so much like the old normal in regards to not supporting students who may not be able to attend contact hours?
BE: We do have a lot of students who are currently studying remotely and that provision has been successful. Next term the University is hoping to move even more students to in-person. Obviously we have recently heard about a new variant and the University are just going to react, as it is we have weekly meetings. We already said to them in terms of communications we need to have drafts for every outcome so we can send them out as soon as possible. As for support for those who cannot attend, it varies from course to course. There are so many different reasons someone might not have that access so it can be really difficult to mitigate all those reasons when planning.
É: In light of the rise of the Omnicron variant, what are the specific contingency plans in place if we were forced into another lockdown?
BE: I think, while last year wasn’t ideal, the fact we already have done it shows we can do it. People will be much quicker to adapt as they have already done it and we know what it looks like. There aren’t any specific contingency plans worth divulging as we are in weekly discussions and as I said we have Comms prepared for any eventuality. An awful lot could change over Christmas. It’s just a case of being reactive, it’s a really difficult thing to plan for and foresee; we will just react to the student consensus.
É: Last year, students were angry about not receiving the same level of education and wanted fee compensation. Do you think, between the last lockdown and now, online teaching has improved? Is the Guild working to help improve online teaching if we had to go back online?
BE: So, obviously the Guild don’t influence how teaching is delivered or what is taught. We are the students ‘representative body.’ If I got an influx of student feedback that would be where I then apply pressure to that specific department. The current Guild SABBs, we all suffered through strikes and all that good stuff, are fully able to empathize and give our outlook on that. I do hope there are less bumps in the road after the last 18 months. If students need support lobbying for something they want to see change then we would work on that.
É: Do you think the University has improved in light of student feedback?
BE: I think there has been an improvement. When COVID-19 first kicked off no one was sure as to what that was going to look like. Two years in there is a respect for the student experience. To be really blunt, that is what effects the University’s ratings. If the students are unhappy the University don’t really have the ability to not listen. It’s not really up for negotiation in that sense, it’s discussion about what can we do about feedback and they are receptive of that. They are under no illusion of what the students have been through.
É: Other changes last year included a safety net, no evidence mitigation etc. Are these changes going to become permanent in order to improve the quality of life for students? If not, do you think they should be?
BE: So last year I did a lot of work around the ‘borderline zone’ being expanded and the group I lobbied with. We were successful in that. As I said earlier there will be communication about what has been kept on and what has been changed. I feel positive about what has been kept on. I don’t feel it is necessary for a lot of them to be kept on, but I think the University is becoming a more compassionate and human institution, such as the four weeks for free mitigation. I think that has the potential to stay on after COVID-19 if that is used well and not abused. We are having chats about the percentage of students using it and how it is impacting feedback time. Students don’t enjoy how long feedback takes but if 25 per cent of students are mitigating then it delays feedback for everyone. If we continue to hear that feedback time is really long we will have to reassess it.
É: Furthermore, do you think the safety net last year went far enough given the circumstances?
BE: From a student perspective, when I was lobbying for it we hoped to get a lot more, and other universities did varying degrees of similar provisions. But in the end I spent an awful lot of my final year in university meetings and being told about the calculations behind it and the reasons behind it and seeing how that all plays into each other. It explains a lot more. I think that transparency and explanation to the wider student population was lacking. We are definitely at the more lenient and generous end and while the students will always hope for a lot more I don’t think the University will be any more lenient.
É: Do you think the University needs to be more transparent?
BE: It could have gone some way to alleviate concerns. The group I lobbied with published a lot of information — what we were allowed to publish. We tried to do our part and that information is still all online. Going forward that is what I am trying to improve as I think it’s really interesting and explains so much more than an email ever can. But there is a lot of legality and process around it. Now having been a SABB I understand why more students can’t be in these meetings. I have a newfound appreciation for that difficult line they have to toe. Allowing students access to exams results is a really grey area and could be questionable. More could be done but I fully appreciate the risky balance that would need. I’d be happy to hear from anyone who thinks that more could be done.
É: Another educational issue that was impacted was exams, with many exams going online for 24 hour or even longer periods. Do you think this was a positive change that should be carried forward? Do you think exams put unnecessary stress and strain on often overworked or busy students?
BE: I’m quite a traditionalist so this might be an unpopular opinion: I think exams and forms of assessments are a fact of education, that is the way of measuring success. But I don’t think the same exam or assessment should be applied to every course. A three hour exam for an English student where you have to memorise quotes and critics is not a reasonable example of my ability, I would just brain dump for three hours. 24 hours meant I could brain dump have an hour break and then go back and refine it which is much more representative of my ability and what I have learnt over the course of the year. 24 hours is still a push for a Humanities student, so I think that model worked really well for me. I know some students struggled as they saw 24 hours and thought they had to spend 24 hours on it, or chose to. That’s a concern of the University: that students were burning themselves out. I thought more clarity about how to use a 24-hour exam would be helpful. There was an enormous amount of academic misconduct for science and maths with access to the internet. So a lot of them decided to return back to the traditional model of in-person exams in January. Other departments that struggled with finding right ways to assess were languages. I think there is definitely work to be done, but I think returning to traditional model of in-person exams which are timed would be the wrong solution to that for many courses.
É: Exams this year seem to be different from faculty to faculty, with some returning to in-person midterms whilst other will remain as online exams. Do you think this is fair, and means some students have it harder than others? And won’t a return to actual exams across the University leave certain year groups disadvantaged? What is the Guild strategy to address this?
BE: With departmental difference, I don’t think it’s unfair. You are only being assessed alongside the people who are sitting the same exam as you. It’s down to what is the right decision for that course and that subject, if there is an exam where there is a yes or no answer and you can Google, is that fair to be an online exam? No, I don’t think it is. For more subjective exams no matter how much information you can gather online, you typing that exam rather than writing doesn’t affect your ability to construct that argument. The skills your course is teaching you are still being assessed in those two models. So I don’t think the differences in departments is unfair. I think the only ones who could know the right way to assess a subject are the experts, those who teach it. The University is aware it could be stressful for current first years if they have their exams online this year but next year could be traditional. Also on the University radar is the fact that many students won’t have sat public exams during their education. In terms of long term there will be a transition back to more traditional exams but I think the review as to how subjects are assessed was coming but COVID-19 sped it up. Some subjects might scrap old ways of assessing. In terms of disadvantaged students, we need to return to normality as some point, and the Guild’s function will always be to represent the student voice.
É: Following on from the topic of exams, are there any measures in place to support those students that fail their exams or do not proceed to the next year of study?
BE: I’m not involved in the provision of that support, I would only get involved if they get in touch with the advice service. If people are needing a sounding board or talk through of the next steps I would really recommend getting in touch with them. I’m sure the University have contingency plans for those situations.
É: We also know some students have received varying quality of communications from the University in regards to being told whether they can progress or not, which can have dire financial consequences for those informed late in the process. Is this an issue the Guild are aware of? What steps are being taken to hold the University to account on this?
BE: That’s an interesting question. I have not personally had any students coming to me with that particular issue. I would be happy to discuss it with anyone who wants to reach out. In terms of the University being timely enough, that would depend on whether they had mitigated anything or deferred an assessment, or too many to progress. When deferring they should have been informed that it can affect your progression. It may not have been explained clearly enough. If thinking of deferring speak to your module convenor or advice hub about it so you know the full consequences of that.
É: In a policy paper from a council meeting from February this year regarding fees compensation, the Guild VP Education was assigned the task of creating a working group to determine a campaign which addresses different types of tuition fee arrangements. Is this work being continued this year?
BE: It was voted on so we still have the mandate to do so, it has not been brought to me as something students are interested in continuing. We joined forces with the Falmouth Guild as part of a student campaign started at LSE [London School of Economics], I believe, however, I have not heard very much noise on the issue. If students wanted to campaign on that then we would support them in campaigning for that.
É: Do you think students might not be aware about how to go about it? Could the Guild be more active in encouraging students?
BE: I think our ability to enable student activism could be highlighted more clearly. It is something I always signpost students to. As the Guild, we represent all of our members and unless it is a representative view of all of our members then we cannot take a stance on it ourselves. The onus is on students and if they feel passionate about something then they will find the time to do that.
É: On the topic of money and fairness, the UCU have balloted for industrial action as they did in 2019, and are planning to ballot again next year. Does the Guild have a strategy in place to support students who have already had much of their university and general education affected by current events? If it does, can you share what this strategy is and when it would be made available to students?
BE: Obviously, it was really disappointing to hear the UCU were considering balloting. although Exeter didn’t achieve the mandate. The earliest industrial action could happen is 31 January but the UCU need to give the University two weeks notice, so we have a three week planning period. Due to the first round of balloting we have already done a lot of the groundwork and we do have a strategy in place, as do the University. Everyone is ready to respond and support students as much as possible. I was a student in 2019 and I know how disruptive strikes can be, and we will keep our finger on the pulse as to how students feel about it.
É: Does the Guild support UCU action, or do you support it on a personal level? Could it be put to a student ballot?
BE: In terms of when the Guild will take a stance either way, I think we would be keen to avoid doing so as to not alienate any of our membership. If pressed to do so we would hold a vote and our view would be the majority view, but I don’t think students would gain anything from that. In 2019 pulse surveys went out and we got high engagement with that so we know about whether students supported the cause or action or both or neither. When taking a stance, people may support a cause but a majority might not support an action, so if our stance is supportive it might conflict with what students think which is why I don’t think an official stance is important. If students want to support the staff, we will support them with whatever steps they choose to take.
É: Following Black History Month earlier this term, it’s clear that there are still plenty of miles to go in terms of decolonising the curriculum. What is the Guild’s long-term strategy this year to help address issues of colonisation in the curriculum, and do you think there have been enough changes in recent months and years to ensure an accurate curriculum focused on fairness and equality?
BE: No, I don’t think there has been enough change recently. I know there is an awful long way to go. I know some colleges have had success with publishing alternative reading lists with a diverse range of texts and voices. I would like to see this in other colleges. In my manifesto this was something I would like to see enabled. In terms of a long-term plan we do have Marion, our VP Liberation and Equality, who ensures that all voices are represented. Academically, I don’t have much influence on content of courses — I would have more if subject chairs gather feedback from students on courses who were disappointed by lack of diversity, then they could feed back to me and I could take that up higher. But without that course to course knowledge, I wouldn’t be able to really influence anything.