Report from the SEER Committee

Late yesterday afternoon I received a communique from Dr Mossy Kelly, Director of Student Experience for the School of Mathematics & Physical Sciences. As a School Representative I was invited to attend a meeting of the Student Experience Enhancement Review team. It was a very short notice arrangement, but thankfully my only lecture of the day finished just as the meeting was due to commence. Joined by a first year course representative and several of the senior faculty, I was tasked with pouring over the National Student Survey results for the previous academic year.

Far away from my usual classrooms, the panel assembled in the Nidd building at the edge of the business school. Several attendants were delayed by the difficulty of navigating their way through unfamiliar corridors. Rather poetically this would become a major topic of the discussion.

Looking through our survey results, we found that our mathematics courses were almost entirely red on academic support, organisation & management, and student voice, while the learning resources section came up mostly green. We deduced that both of these features could be down to the fundamentally generic nature of mathematics as an academic discipline – one cannot easily make it visually interesting in a brochure. Whereas physics could be represented by it’s lasers and pulleys; chemistry by its test tubes and fume cupboards; biology by its petri dishes and gerbils; computer science by its, well, computers; mathematics consists almost entirely of standard lectures in standard rooms. There are no special objects or equipment that would be required solely for mathematics and not other subjects. This factor works to our advantage in terms of resource evaluation; so long as the university’s library and information technology systems are sufficiently-endowed (and Hull is far from quiet in proclaiming its fulfilment of these criteria), the students will report that their needs are satisfied, without the departmental staff being required to make any further effort.

The downside of our flexibility, however, is that we become a school of nomads. While the other subjects can confine themselves to their dedicated environments we are free to be unceremoniously scattered across all and any spare spaces, so that we are without a secure territory to call our home. A potential result of this is a loss of departmental identity within the faculty. There is no obvious place to go to find one’s teachers to lobby for changes or to request help with assignments. It is not inconceivable that this could lead to a lack of engagement between faculty and students, which might in turn cause the support networks to be weaker than in other disciplines. It would be interesting to compare the survey results for other subjects to determine how much of a difference the presence or absence of a distinct departmental headquarters can make to the effectiveness of the organisation.

No further engagements in this capacity appear immediately on one’s horizon, but communications from administrators foretell some sort of forum being held before Christmas. Perhaps the badges will have arrived by that point!

Student-Staff Forum (October)

We’re in unanimous agreement!

A newcomer to the institution, I approached my first student-staff forum with some trepidation. Armed with nothing but the pre-written agenda printed off the intranet, I arrived several minutes early at an empty meeting room with multiple small desks pushed together to approximate a long conference table.

When the time came some others arrived, but not as many as I had expected. It became apparent that our forum comprised no course representatives from the second or third years, owing to a bizarre timetabling decision which delayed their training until next week. Some of the staff representatives were unable to abandon their classes, which further thinned our ranks.

Those of us who had made it to the meeting sailed swiftly through the planned agenda. We were supposed to review the action register and end-of-year report from our predecessor forum, but it seems they neglected to produce one. Our attempt to study the National Student Survey results were also stalled by the absence of the staff-member with the relevant files.

Rapidly we reached the stage of choosing our objectives for the first semester. Unsurprisingly our key aim was the recruitment of more course representatives to give a voice to the higher years. We also talked about programme experience and how students felt about their courses so far. Anecdotes were recounted regarding past exam papers and revision materials, with staff stressing the importance of learning the material itself rather than simply the test system.

With our unexpectedly small discussion concluded, we opted to adjourn until December. One can only pray that we draw a greater company next time.

FSE Chair Training

I may have gotten here a little bit early.

Barely a day after being introduced to one another for the first time, the school representatives for the Faculty of Science & Engineering regrouped for a second training session. Each of us will be the chairman of a staff-student forum, in which course representatives and members of the faculty will discuss issues with their respective courses, possible changes to teaching methods, feedback and general improvements to be made. We in turn will relay the outcomes of these meetings to higher representatives and organisations to be processed and acted upon. Crucially we also needed to give correspondence on staff-student relations for statistical purposes, including the National Student Survey.

At this session we were asked to explain how we would deal with potential problems in our fora, such as lack of contribution on an item, overlong conversation without progress and attendees airing personal grievances. It was generally agreed that we would have to develop tactical methods of telling certain forum members to shut up.

On the way out I inquired as to when we would receive the badges and “other items denoting the position” as hinted by the union website. It transpired that they might their delivery had been delayed a few weeks to reduce transport fees.

Training for School Representatives

Last week was election season at the University of Hull, with various representative positions going up for grabs as the new academic year gets underway. Though a few hundred votes were cast it was not unusual for a candidate – such as myself – to be co-opted unopposed.

On Friday I received a message from Hull University Union congratulating me on becoming the School Representative for Mathematics. This afternoon I attended a training session in student central where I met my new colleagues and was briefed on what the job would entail.

First we were addressed by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Lea. She told us she would be happy to talk with anyone encountered her, provided she wasn’t rushing to a meeting.

After having our official portraits taken, we split off into faculty groups to discuss our priorities for the year. Steven Storey, the Faculty Representative for Science & Engineering, told us about the work involved in lobbying teachers, managing student expectations and getting reforms delivered to schedule. We were also given copies of the National Student Survey to review and discuss areas of improvement for our schools. There seemed to be a general consensus that our success as representatives depended on how regularly we could get students to check their e-mails.

With the original meeting completed, we were led downstairs to talk with some of the senior staff. It appears that I arrived during a long transitional phase at the University, as most of my new colleagues remembered the system being rather different last year, as well as a different system of names and abbreviations. Some said my status as a newcomer might be an advantage in that it saved me from having to learn everything twice.

Tomorrow I return to student central for “Chair Training”. Hopefully that will be more important than it sounds.

…and hopefully I’ll get to the buffet earlier.

Council Report for Trinity 2017

P1000849

Eight days after completing my final examination, it was time for my final corporation meeting. As a student I was finished with Wilberforce, but as a governor I still had one last job to do.

My report for this term was rather shorter than were most of its predecessors. Whereas a year ago we had spent most of this term fretting about an end of year event (which was originally envisioned as an elaborate outdoor festival, but which after months of deliberation was reduced to a sweet stall at the back of a lunchtime musical performance), this time we had that responsibility lifted from us by the PE department. Their sports presentation evening doubled as the summer ball for the year, which left us as councillors fast running out of business. We were also running out of people.

As the weeks flew by and examinations eclipsed schooling as the primary reason for one to be present at college, we found that attendance steadily declined as councillors devoted time to urgent revision, or found that their examinations clashed with meetings. Before the end of May our president (Sohaib Muhammad) had actually finished his courses altogether and moved to Manchester. With the dawning realisation that our council would go extinct before it was dissolved, the decision was made to prorogue ourselves before the half-term break and not hold any meetings in June.

We did get some things done, though: After the announcement of a general election, we stepped up our efforts to get students registered to vote. Already this had been a project recommended to us, but at that time it seemed the only elections this year would be the local ones – and not even in our area. With Mrs May going to the country (coincidentally the 56th parliament sat last on the same day we resumed our meetings after Easter), this key to democracy took on new-found importance.

I  personally erected several large posters at key positions around the campus with the date of the registration deadline and the web address for the digital service. The college also sent group emails to students to reinforce this, as well making paper registration forms available from the main reception desk. On 18th May we forwent our penultimate plenary in favour of directly handing out such forms to students during the lunch period – although a breakdown in communications meant that this did not quite achieve what we had planned.

At our final meeting before adjourning sine die, we discussed possible measures to improve the effectiveness of the student council for future cohorts. Looking back at the previous two years, it was decided that recruitment should begin early, taking advantage of prospective students appearing at welcome days in June and July. We even floated the idea of setting up a shadow council during the early summer which could then hit the ground running come September. We also suggested to ditch the coordinators and subcommittees which, from our experience, existed only in theory and even then very faintly. There was support for having council meetings scheduled as an enrichment activity, giving it a full hour in a student’s timetable rather than being hastily packed into a lunch break. Finally, I was insistent that it had to be students themselves who did the majority of the talking – for in review of my minutes I found that invariably it was the staff-members who would dominate the dialogue.

I was given a round of applause after my presentation and thanked by the governors for my submissions at this and the previous five meetings. It has been mentioned to me several times that earlier student governors have rarely if ever attended so many corporation meetings during their tenures.

Membership of the student council – and attendance of the corporation – has been one of the defining features of my time at Wilberforce. I can only hope that my successor gets as much out of it as I did.

Election Debate at St Mary’s College

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Ten days before the general election, I attended a debate at St Mary’s College between four parliamentary candidates: Victoria Atkins (Conservative, Louth & Horncastle); Claire Thomas (Liberal Democrat, Kingston upon Hull West & Hessle); Diana Johnson (Labour, Kingston upon Hull North) and Mike Hookem MEP (United Kingdom Independence, Great Grimsby).  It was not my first experience to the latter two and neither was it my first experience with Look North, as I previously presented a segment as part of BBC School Report in 2011.

Peter Levy appeared to host the event. Before filming began he led a practice debate on the issue of whether or not The Great British Bake-Off would survive its transition to Channel 4. The general consensus was that it would struggle.

The debate proper began, with the usual topics – the National Health Service, social care and immigration.

Victoria Atkins insisted the NHS was critical and said her party were spending an extra £8bn over the next parliament. Levy wondered how these spending pledges were compatible with caps on VAT and Income Tax. Atkins said they were a low tax party which would create a strong enough economy. Claire Thomas said the Liberal Democrats would increase income tax by 1% in order to pay for the difference. Diana Johnson suggested increases in corporation tax on big businesses, prompting an audience member to ask how that would be defined. Hookem suggested diverting £9bn from the Foreign Aid budget. He highlighted the amounts currently sent to China and North Korea. He then had a heated exchange with another audience member who claimed Paul Nuttal had spoken in favour of privatising the service. Hookem assured us that privatisation was not and had never been UKIP’s policy. When asked about the recruitment of general practitioners, Atkins pointed to the £20k “Golden Hello” given to new GPs in the area by Lincolnshire County Council.

The discussion neatly transitioned to social care. Hookem said new legislation should be brought in to integrate care with the health service. Atkins took some flack for her party’s manifesto difficulties. She praised her leader for having the gall to tackle what she described as a great challenge. She was then criticised for her earlier comments on low tax, which a questioner said meant poor public services.

The next question was from a student, a Conservative supporter disappointed with his party’s rhetoric, who asked if the Manchester attack would lead to more stringent background checks for migrants from problem countries. Johnson said she believed all markets should be regulated including that for immigration. Hookem suggested an Australian-style system and highlighted his time among the Calais “jungle” speaking with British lorry-drivers who feared for their lives. He said we needed immigrants with useful skills but that we had enough low-pay low-skill workers already. Atkins insisted there was no “silver bullet” to solve the problem. Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary was noted for her failure to restrict movement in line with Conservative election pledges. Claire Thomas rejected the assumption that immigration caused terrorism. Atkins reminded us that the Manchester murderer was born in Britain – though Hookem remarked that he had recently gone for training in Syria. The panellists were then asked who would stay or go after Brexit. Hookem was clear that all legal immigrants from before the referendum could stay. Johnson said that to guarantee their rights would send a good message in negotiations.

Victoria Atkins said that the way to get the best deal in European negotiations was to have Theresa May as prime minister. She highlighted Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses in controlling his party – many, including Johnson, had resigned from his frontbench after the referendum. Thomas and Johnson dismissed any suggestion of May as a strong leader, instead calling her a weak and wobbly character who had gone back on manifesto pledges. Hookem invoked his experience on European committees to say that “they don’t want us to leave” and that parliament should have swiftly repealed the European Communities Act 1972. His rant was curtailed, however, as the debate had run out of time.

After the debate had ended there was some milling around to talk to the candidates off the record. I persuaded Hookem to pose for a photograph to use on his Wikipedia page. Sadly the low light and movement of several people in the background meant the picture was rather a blurry mess. I got a candid shot of Atkins which likewise suffered.

 

Revision Conference at Hull University

Does anybody have the key?

Just one month after my Applicant Experience Day, I found myself again visiting the University of Hull. Announced just six days ago, this visit took was supposed to give all of Wilberforce’s advanced level students a crash course in revision and examination technique. The day had a less than auspicious start as it emerged that a rather high proportion of students had opted to boycott the event. Whereas the college and the university had been expecting hundreds of students, only a few dozen actually turned up.

Following a brisk ride in an unexpectedly spacious bus, we were ushered into a new conference hall to be presented with gift bags (including the 2018 prospectus, a branded paper pad and a non-functioning pen) and given an inspirational speech. Our first workshop focused on time management, with each of us making a tally of how many hours per week we spent on work, sleep, revision etc. In the second workshop we were taught about the different techniques for improving factual recall. This naturally involved being shown a long list of terms and challenged to remember all of them after a few minutes.  The third session took us to a computer suite at which we made revision timetables to follow. As we had no student accounts on the university’s servers, each of us received a free memory stick on which to store the files.

We returned to our original meeting point for the buffet lunch, which had been advertised to us in the automated email (perhaps in the desperate hope of enticing a few more visitors). There were no flapjacks this time, but the triangular sandwiches were as numerous as ever. When that had concluded we were, for reasons not entirely clear, taken on a tour of the Brynmor Jones Library, after which we were gathered for a few minutes in a small classroom and asked to fill out satisfaction surveys for future such visits.

Had this excursion been undertaken months earlier we might have seen the merit of it, but by launching it at such short notice and after the Easter holiday the university probably stripped the event of most of its usefulness because at this stage most people had already devised all the revision routine they were going to follow and many, if anything, resented the trip taking some hours out of their actual revision time.

Campus Tour of Bristol

Dear Elliot

Today I completed my fourth and final university inspection. Whereas the visit to the University of Hull ten days prior had been a trivial pursuit, Bristol would prove a far greater struggle.

Though the university had offered several applicant experience days during the previous two terms, their timing would most likely have required another three day trek reminiscent of that for Cambridge – with the difference that Bristol would not be providing any accommodation. Rather than expend the necessary school time and parental money for such an excursion, I settled for a student-led campus tour which, though not allowing me access to the academic facilities, would at least give me first-hand experience of what it might be like to live there for three years.

It was a very long day – though the tour itself lasted only two hours, the journey from Holderness to Bristol took four hours each way. Should I end up studying at Bristol I would likely take the same journey six to twelve times per year by train – each trip being closer to six hours long. We were initially assembled at Beacon House, where two students were waiting in red jackets. Applicants were divided into two groups depending on their subject combinations and taken for a lengthy walk around the city campus.

We were shown the student union building, and around an example of the accommodation at Clifton Hill House. Though the interior was fairly Spartan compared to its external grandeur it at least seemed liveable (and the bedroom was bigger than my own at home). We were then shown inside the Wills Memorial Building, and told that the university had been set up to provide a fall-back for Wills’ son who had been rejected from Oxford (a legacy no doubt continued by many Bristol students).

A white room with a helical staircae

Inside the student union

The tour continued through the science departments (I could only look through the windows of the School of Chemistry but another applicant assures me that it left little to be desired.) and into the student gym. Along the way we also saw the reception area of the School of Engineering and a lecture theatre shared by multiple faculties, then wandered through the Literature block.

After an uneventful return journey through some of the leafier roads, we arrived back at Beacon House and promptly dispersed.

I would have liked to see the university in more detail, and in particular to see the laboratories in which I would be working, but my assurances from other students and Bristol’s reputation give me no great cause for concern.

Soon I will have to make a decision. With Cambridge and Durham out of the game, it becomes a binary choice between Leeds and Bristol for my first preference (Hull will be the backup in either case). Both are highly-regarded and both appear welcoming, I just have to make up my mind on which ultimately trumps the other.

Oh, and then I have to pass all my A-Levels, of course.

Yours, Robin.

Council Report for Lent 2017

On Wednesday I made my penultimate appearance before the college corporation to present a report on what the council had done since Christmas. When I do this for the sixth and final time in July, my Wilberforce days will effectively be finished.

We only had one normal meeting in January – the most memorable business being a question about Panini provision in the canteens – the other three were given over to outsiders. One week we were given a lesson on British values, and asked about what we considered to be integral to national identity. In the next we were given safeguard training – our assistant principal Ben Wallis took us through the college’s security procedures and taught us how to identify signs of radicalisation. The month was closed out by a visit from representatives of the University of Hull, who wanted a focus group to review their latest prospectus.

In February Mr Wallis returned to brief us on the Area-Based Review (this I learned at the previous corporation meeting in December but certain information was still classified). Having rejected the incentives offered by the government to convert to academy status, Wilberforce will instead be teaming up with Franklin, Wyke and John Leggott colleges to form a new federation (though I am told there is still a dispute about the name).  We also began planning for a fundraising event for Comic Relief.

At the beginning of March the Council assisted with a voter registration presentation – handing out leaflets instructing students on how to join the electoral rolls. Our major triumph of this term was Red Nose Day, on which our sweet stall and archery competition raised just over a hundred pounds.

Aside from this, the persistent topic of debate during our weekly meetings was the problem of littering and vandalism on campus. In the previous year the litter problem had been far worse – certain communal areas being continually strewn with food waste and discarded packaging – but although the staff had taken measures this year to tackle the problem – repeated offenders being made to clean the college in high-visibility jackets – there were still frequent complaints from students who struggled to find tables not strewn with filth, and some of the boys’ toilets have been closed for months due to heavy damage. Sitting in on one Council meeting, the senior management told us that hand dryers were being kicked off walls, mirrors smashed, pipes bent and drains blocked with severe financial consequences for the college.

I confessed that we could not find any viable solutions beyond what had already been tried. Some councillors suggested greater use of closed circuit television and card scanners on toilet doors, but this was rejected on the grounds of expense (personally I also found the idea rather Orwellian in its implications). What staff (and governors) suggested to us was that students themselves needed to collectively enact a culture shift, and to act quickly when they saw their peers misbehaving. Doubts about this system were immediately apparent: Fundamentally the problem lies with the way that a sixth-form college is constituted in comparison with a school – the “ethos” as my old headmaster would say. Whereas a school environment is highly structured and controlled, with clearly defined boundaries of acceptability and an obvious presence of authority, a sixth-form college is by nature more open and decentralised. The lack of form groups or assemblies means that the didactic approach is unavailable (indeed, distributing any information to the whole student body usually proves an unreliable and cumbersome endeavour), and the resulting lack of any close-knit community, amplified by the high turnover of students from one year to the next as a course only runs for 2-4 years rather than 5-7, means that establishing any values in the collective student consciousness will always be an uphill struggle. The only remaining idea was to have lectures given by the learning progress mentors in the style of those on British values, though we cannot guarantee that sessions would be attended and attention paid.

Following my presentation, I was addressed by another governor, Diana Palmer, with a notice about Brain Tumour Research. She expressed a hope that the council could organise an event at some point in the Trinity term to raise money for this charity. I agreed to move the item at our next meeting – which was yesterday. In our twelfth and final plenary of the Lent term we agreed to stage “Wear A Hat Day” on Friday 12th May.

Our council now prorogues for the Easter holiday, to sit next on Thursday 27th April. Most likely our sessions from then on will be for another end of year event.

Not long left now!

Applicant Experience Day in Hull

Dear Elliot

With just one month to go before the UCAS deadline for university choices, I find myself hurriedly scrambling around for chances to visit all of the places to which I have applied. Having visited Leeds in November, then interviewed (unsuccessfully) for Cambridge in December, I still needed to look around Bristol and Hull, both of which were happy to give me offers before Christmas without any further demands. Durham, in case you had wondered, rejected me in February, so there will be no visit to log here.

A far cry from the rampant road rage through Leeds and the tumultuous train journey to Cambridge, this university sits just five miles from Wilberforce, so today’s events could be booked at just a few days notice and accessed with a fairly short commute. It was also the least novel of the lot, given that I had already visited the campus for a UCAS fair last June, as well as attending the Top of the Bench competition twice and doing five days work experience at the Department of Chemistry in July 2013.

At the end of the winding concrete path from the car park I found myself at a brightly coloured tent where organisers in red hoodies scanned my ticket and gave me a transparent plastic folder containing a several leaflets and a branded pen. I was then essentially left to my own devices for the rest of the day – there were multiple activities on offer but I was never actively ushered from one to another. This meant I could find time to reacquaint myself with the environment.

My first visit was, naturally, to the Brynmor Jones library. When last looked it was undergoing a major refurbishment, with the result that scaffolding and dust sheets were visible on several floors while others were closed off entirely (the lift doors would open to reveal just a blank white wall barring one’s disembarkation. Four years on the work had been concluded and the library resembled the lovechild of a business-class departure lounge and a luxury hotel. There were even moulded metal water fountains just beyond each set of lifts.

Having finished browsing the collection I went back outside to join a guided walking tour of the campus. Our guide avoided covering many specific details, preferring instead to point out generic landmarks and walking routes that could apply to the majority of students. I then went to the Middleton Hall for a lecture about the student experience. In the tall chamber of curved wood and distant spotlights (perhaps resembling a cinema more than a lecture hall), we were shown a film about the weekly routine of an average student, narrated by a recent graduate. He was keen to emphasise the wide range of sporting activities and social venues available, as well as highlighting Hull’s City of Culture status this year.

The lecture finished just before midday, so I headed to the Chemistry block for the start of the course-specific afternoon events. Whereas four years ago one could simply press a contact button on the exterior door to alert the receptionists and have it opened, I now find that it is accessible only by card. The students conducting the afternoon events (themselves stranded on the doorstep) explained that the reception had been relocated to another building, and indeed I saw that the reception office had seemingly disappeared altogether.

After an extensive buffet lunch (featuring the triangular sandwiches, loose crisps, large jugs of juice and trays of flapjacks which only ever seem to appear in this specific situation) we were given a tour of the complex – our guide (Dr Mike Hird) explaining that the really dangerous experiments were kept on the top floor – and shown the £300,000 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance scanner. At a smaller lecture hall downstairs another faculty member (Dr John R Williams) talked us through the timetabling and content of the course, as well as his techniques for retaining information.

Our last activity was molecular modelling, guided by one of the PhD. I have dealt with model kits before, but these were different, coming out of small plastic bags and being generally more fiddly. We were asked to make the most complicated hydrocarbon we could manage (I ended up with 2,3-dimethylbutane.), then to model glucose and fructose (I ran out of oxygen atoms, and had to cannibalise the alkanes for hydrogen.), then to react them together as if for a dehydration.

When all this had finished we returned to the entrance hall for a formal goodbye from the faculty. Dr Williams wished me well in my studies – a somewhat paradoxical encouragement given that he knew Hull would most likely be my insurance choice – and I made my departure.

Four down, one to go.

Yours, Robin.