Lily Margaroli and Georgi Griskeviciene discuss the cost-of-living crisis with university’s Senior Leadership Team
On 15 November Vice Chancellor, Professor Lisa Roberts, Lily Margaroli, President of the Exeter Students’ Guild, and Georgi Griskeviciene, President Exeter of the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union (SU), led a panel discussion on the university’s response to the cost-of-living crisis, potential strikes, and the coroner’s report following the death of Harry Armstrong Evans.
Professor Lisa Roberts started proceedings by outlining the complications of operating with the current political instability. While the government grapples with issues like inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, education does not seem to be high on their policy agenda in the near future. Nevertheless, as a member of the Universities UK (UUK) and Russell Group Boards, she is trying to connect with government about the cost-of-living crisis impacting the entire student population with the aim of increasing nationwide student support.
With such issues impacting students across the Devon and Cornwall campuses, Professor Roberts mentioned that the entire leadership team “understand what a truly challenging time it is for many students at the moment” and how they are “working hard to support students” during this period. Provost, Linda Peka revealed the university has put an additional £1,000,000 into the “Success for All Fund” which can be used for accommodation fees, course expenses, living costs, and travel amongst other areas. All registered undergraduate and postgraduate University of Exeter students can access this fund regardless of fee-status, although priority is given to first-degree students who may come from low-income backgrounds or lack family support. £870,000 has also been added to a one-off “Winter Support Bursary” for students whose family income is below £30,000. There will also be a 13 per cent increase in PhD stipend funding after lobbying of the government by a number of UK Universities including Exeter. The University of Exeter has also matched this increase for university-funded PhD studentships. All this financial provision is on top of the £5.5 million bursary support package for home students whose household income is below £25,000.
Professor Roberts mentioned that the entire leadership team “understand what a truly challenging time it is for many students at the moment”
University strikes were also discussed following the announcement by the University and College Unions (UCU) of strike action on the Thursday 24, Friday 25, and Wednesday 30 of November. Mike Shore-Nye, Registrar and Secretary, mentioned that “the action will not include a marking and assessment boycott”. Approximately half the university’s academic staff are members of the UCU, although it is difficult for the university to identify who will act as academics don’t give advanced notice. Mike mentioned that students should “continue to attend timetabled sessions and submit assessments by their due dates”. Further information on the background of the strikes and FAQs can be found on the university’s industrial action page.
Student wellbeing was also addressed following the release of the coroner’s report exploring the suicide of Harry Armstrong Evans last year. It outlined that the university must review its approach in five main areas; training for academic staff on mental health awareness and suicide prevention, the ability of the wellbeing case management system to capture concerns, the university’s suicide prevention response, the limits applied before sharing information with emergency contacts, and the means by which students can contact pastoral tutors if they have well wellbeing concerns. The university is conducting a full review and an overview of the steps taken will be published once this has concluded. The university has also committed to responding to the coroner’s letter and will communicate the outcome to its University Governing Council for an independently chaired review. Mike added that since Harry’s passing in 2021, the university has “reviewed and made improvements in many of the areas identified by the coroner” and “welcomes and supports the recent UUK guidance on suicide prevention and their recommendation on trusted contacts where there are serious mental health concerns”. A Wellbeing and Inclusion Board has been set up to align staff and student wellbeing services.
The university has also committed to responding the coroner’s letter and will communicate the outcome to its University Governing Council for an independently chaired review
An additional Student Experience Partnership Board has been set up to respond to students’ concerns. The cost-of-living crisis is at the top of the board’s agenda but tutor support and students’ sense of belonging within their academic departments are also areas of focus. Attention is also being given to assessment and feedback procedures. Professor Tim Quine mentioned “that while we know we have robust processes for assessing your work, the experience of being assessed does not always live up to student expectations”. The board is trying to ensure that advice and guidance for coursework and exams is clear in terms of “how you are being assessed….and how your work is being marked” and that feedback is received in a timely fashion.
The Students’ Guild outlined that their four key priorities are wellbeing and support, help with the cost-of-living crisis, belonging and inclusivity, and campaigns and engagement. Based on these areas a Cost-of-Living Working Group has been set up which has resulted in increased hardship funding, bursaries, and the £2 meal deal on Streatham Campus. “Give it Go” programmes have also been increased, offering free or low-cost extracurricular activities to support student wellbeing and experience. Lily is also working with UCL and other Russell Group universities to lobby the government to make changes to the student loan system and overall student support. Campaigns by VP Education, Jack Liversedge, and Georgi have seen the introduction of financial circumstances as a means of academic mitigation with work continuing on “referencing for academic success” which is a current area of concern for students. Guild cafés and other events are also being run for students who would like to get in touch with the Students’ Guild directly.
Campaigns by VP Education, Jack Liversedge, and Georgi have seen the introduction of financial circumstances as a means of academic mitigation
The Students’ Guild’s four priorities are also shared by the SU. Local initiatives are being set up to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, with the union securing a space for a community pantry and discussions going ahead with the university’s commercial partner, FX Plus, to secure cheaper food options in cafeterias and shops across all campuses. Additional work by Kira Orchard, President Welfare and Inclusivity, has seen free period products placed in toilets on Penryn and Falmouth campuses to tackle period poverty. Efforts are also being made to handle the accommodation crisis with high rental prices in Cornwall and low availability given the travel market. Talks with FX Plus Accommodation Team are being held to mitigate this impact on students and the President’s team are creating more opportunities to provide feedback on accommodation. More information on the SU’s work can be found on their website.