Highlights from our Share a Sofa event

In November, you were invited to share a sofa with your Deputy Vice-Chancellor and five Full-Time RUSU Officers, for a chat about how they’re working together to improve your student experience.

It was good to see so many of you take a seat, and have a conversation about the issues that are important to you.

Below, we’ve gathered some of the highlights from the afternoon. Read on to find out more information about what was discussed!


Q: The University emphasises diversity and inclusion to students. What is it doing to promote these values for staff?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] Really good question. A couple of years ago, the University appointed two Deans of Diversity and Inclusion to lead our agenda for this across the whole of the University. That in itself shows the value that we place on diversity and inclusion.

Also, for the past few years, we’ve been looking at our mix of staff – on committees, working groups and councils – and pursuing balance. Not just gender balance, but balance in all areas. We want diversity and inclusion to be represented at all levels.

We’ve also been working on our curriculum, through our Curriculum Framework programme. We are working to ensure that the content of our courses is fully reflective of what we expect in terms of behaviours and expectations for the diverse range of experiences that our students are exposed to. Staff are integral to this as they are involved in putting the programmes together.

In addition, we have something called the People Plan, that’s being run by the University for our staff, to ensure again that our values are very clearly spelled out. This very much ties into the LGBT+ agenda. We have a very large population of staff and students living here – around 20,000 – and we’re all very different. We appreciate that, and want to work together positively. And I believe that we’re doing it.


Q: How can students that haven’t received student finance (in the context of a change of circumstances) deal with these delays?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] The first thing I would say is that it’s really important that the student alerts the University to the fact that they are in difficulty as soon as they can. They should do that by going to Student Services, in the Carrington Building, and following the process there for reporting problems. If they feel uncomfortable with doing this, certainly they should raise the issue with their Academic Tutor, and of course with RUSU’s advisers. We can’t do anything until we know that there’s a problem, whether it’s to do with finance, their wellbeing and mental health, or some other issue outside of the University that’s affecting their studies, I really would encourage students to make us aware of a problem as soon as is possible.

We have mechanisms for helping, specifically with the financial element. We have a hardship fund at the University, which has been available for many years. It is used by students, but it’s not used as fully as we would expect it to be.

If the hardship fund is not available for that particular student (and there are some instances where it won’t be), there will be other mechanisms available to help them get through that difficult period.


Q: Is the Library going to be on track, in terms of schedule? Is it a year’s time that it’s meant to be finished?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] The current and expected end point for the Library refurbishment is autumn 2019 – this completion date has never actually changed. There have been a number of unforeseeable issues, as is common with any large-scale building project. For example, more asbestos has been found than was originally anticipated. In these instances, we have been working with our contractor to manage the issues as they arise, without seriously affecting the timeline for delivery. As things are now, I don’t have any reason to believe that the work will extend beyond autumn 2019.

As you already know, at the beginning of this term we opened the Ground floor and First floor of the Library, providing additional study space and a café. It’s a fabulous facility and I encourage students to use it.


Q: What’s your favourite part about being Deputy Vice-Chancellor?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] I love working at the University. I’ve worked here for many years. But I think the best part of working in a university is engaging with the students. It absolutely is. That’s why we’re here as an institution, training students for the future.


Q: How are you looking to engage with students?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] As you know, we do a lot of work with RUSU, particularly this year in looking at new ways to engage with the wider student body. As an institution, we’ve always worked very well with the Students’ Union. We’ve worked well with our Course and School reps as well.

The challenge, however, is that there are many more students than those individuals, who are really valuable in terms of giving us feedback. What we want to understand from the wider student body is what really worries you? What are the issues? What can we do to improve your student experience? What do you like about being at Reading? What can we make better?

So we’re looking at mechanisms for doing that. Obvious routes are via the annual NSS and UKES surveys as well as mid- and end of module feedback. But there will be other routes, too, so any ideas that you have, or other students have, in terms of mechanisms that we might be able to achieve that, would be very welcome.


Q: How will you choose the new Vice-Chancellor?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] That’s a very good question. It’s not an elected position, as some of the others are in the University. When appointing a new Vice-Chancellor, we work with a head-hunter company, and we provide that company with detailed information about the type of individual we believe would be right to lead this great Institution.

Those head-hunters then go worldwide, and search for candidates for us to consider. We then decide on the ones we’d like to take forward for further consideration. We have a group of academic staff, independent Council members, and the President of RUSU who are appointed as the panel who will interview candidates.

Now, the final decision isn’t made by only that panel. It will involve the short-listed candidates meeting the students, a wide range of staff, and external stakeholders. Everybody will have an opportunity, in these different areas of a very wide community, to feed into the decision-making process of who we should appoint.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have an existing member of staff apply, of a certain seniority. The normal appointments of Vice-Chancellors, particularly for an institution like Reading, would be drawn from at least a Pro-Vice-Chancellor level, but more likely a Deputy-Vice-Chancellor or even a Vice-Chancellor in another institution applying to us.


Q: I’m currently a third year Pharmacy student, and I am aware that a new Health and Life Sciences building is being built.  What advantages do you think that this will bring to students at the University in the future?

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] First of all, I’m pleased that you’re a Pharmacy student – I was a Pharmacy student myself once! And I also was the first Head of Pharmacy at Reading. So I’m very interested in the development of that particular area.

The HLS building is replacing facilities that are now simply life-expired. They need upgrading, they need to be improved, and the capacity of those labs needs to be increased as well.

By providing a new building that is purpose-built, with teaching space as well as research labs, to support the types of work that pharmacists and biological scientists are involved in, has got to be the way forward to give the best experience for our students. If we didn’t do that, I think we would be doing them a disservice, and not providing you with the best facilities.

The idea will be, when this new building comes on-stream, which is in a couple of years’ time – it’s already making great progress – is that it will have a lifespan of around 30 years. So, we’re providing state-of-the-art facilities for you to train in, and investing in the future.


Q: We have a question regarding counselling and there being six hours per person. The students do not feel this is enough, and are wondering if funding can be put in place to enhance our existing counselling services.

A: [PROFESSOR BROOKS] I think that’s a really important question. Hopefully you and the wider student body have seen that the University has done a lot to support mental health and wellbeing for students and staff. Recently of note is the creation of our new Welfare Team of six specialists, who are able to provide support to students particularly suffering with their mental health.

We’ve already seen significant engagement with this team. They’ve only been operating for six to seven weeks, but we’ve had 300 students already engage with them.

When it comes to the six sessions, this is quite a standard offering that’s given, even by the NHS. If you go to your GP, very often six sessions will be the maximum that you’re given – at least in the first instance. There will always be different levels of need, though, and for us in some instances, based on evaluation, there will be a referral on to another team that might be outside of the University. It may then be that the particular student may benefit from a different approach – so there are a number of different provisions. What I would say is that the earlier that a student engages with the services, the better, because there’s more chance of getting some benefit early on if you engage when there’s first an issue.

Mental health and wellbeing is one of our top priorities, and we need to keep it as one of our top priorities. We always have to balance the total amount of money and resource that we have available, with where the money should go to support the overall student experience.

We have absolutely put more money into our Student Services over the last couple of years, because we’ve seen student numbers grow. Irrespective of that, we could still put more money into this area, because I think there’s very much an awareness that there are many more students that require support in a way that they perhaps didn’t do a few years ago. We’ll continue to consider what the best services are that we can give to our students. And we’ll work very closely as we always have with the Students’ Union and the wider student body to deliver on that.


Q: What does the University offer LGBT+ students?

A: [NOZOMI]: In starting this job, I’ve realised how much the University does in this area, and I think it’s really important to be able to communicate that to the whole student body, and show that we are taking the right steps towards a totally inclusive environment.

[PROFESSOR BROOKS]  What I’ve certainly noticed here in the last two or three years, is a significant improvement in awareness and general support of such activities that are going on. We expect that not just from our student body, but of our staff as well – which links to what I said earlier about our Deans of Diversity and Inclusion, and the People Plan.

[NOZOMI]: A lot of what we want to do around LGBT+ history month is also in collaboration with the University. Within that we’ll be launching pronoun badges, and taking a look at intersectionality within the LGBT+ community. Myself and Ellie Highwood – one of the Deans for Diversity and Inclusion – have looked at the idea of bringing more cultural history into LGBT+ history month as well, because we’ve noticed that sometimes we only hear about the news happening in this country, or in the west generally. During LGBT+ history month, we’ll also be looking at things that happen globally as well.

[PROFESSOR BROOKS]  And also, as Nozomi says, the University does a lot of work with RUSU in this area, and it will be putting on its own public events that will be promoted on the website, and across the University campus. But we do a lot of this particular activity with RUSU, and it works very well.

[NOZOMI]: I think we hear a lot of student feedback about what kinds of events they want to see, or like, and what students think have worked really well. That’s really good for us at RUSU to hear, so we can feed it back to the University knowing that they will take that into consideration and help us with it.


The next ‘Share a Sofa’ event will be hosted in the spring term, with more details to be released soon. We hope you will join us then to continue the conversation!

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