The Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts took part in a question and answer event with students on 29 February on the topics of global society, wellbeing and student support services, the campus and domestic education policy. Student concerns that were raised during the session ranged from mental health provision to the cost of campus accommodation.
The university’s recent supportive position of the government’s green paper, particularly with regards to the exemption of universities from freedom of information (FOI) requests, was highlighted by students. Although the university does not implicitly agree with all aspects of the green paper, Lamberts defended its standpoint regarding FOI requests on the grounds that universities would be left at a competitive disadvantage to private institutions that are exempt from FOI requests. When asked to elaborate on this disadvantage, he said: “we might be asked to disclose information about programmes that we are interested in developing, about student that we would like to recruit and…we could be asked to disclose information on staff salaries, which would make it easy for competitors to recruit key staff from the university.” He also raised the risk posed by competition from private institutions offering courses that only require lecture space, with far lower running costs than a research intensive university such as York.
Current campus development includes the construction of teaching facilities in the Spring Lane building and biology phase two. The future expansion of Heslington East will see the creation of shops and a new doctors’ surgery on Field Lane, and the Piazza building, which will house the International Pathway College and catering facilities. Lamberts defended the expense of such projects as: “we know that there are students who are reluctant to commit to York because of the quality of some of the buildings and the state of some parts of the campus.”
On campus accommodation fees for the academic year of 2016/17 range from £106 to £150 per week. It was suggested during the meeting that the profits from the universities York Conferences business could subsidise the cost of on campus accommodation. The Vice Chancellor claimed that this would be considered but only following a significant improvement in the conference business. He would not commit to saying that accommodation prices will remain the same and emphasised the high demand for ensuite accommodation, which will be considered in future development.
According to a recent YUSU survey, 75 percent of British University of York students ‘feel part of a community, compared to 64 percent of international students from outside the EU. In response to this, the Vice Chancellor said: “We have to ensure that people are encouraged to mix and that they generally take part in that diverse community…through colleges, by ensuring that they have balanced populations and…encouraging student societies that have a bigger geographical focus or origin to engage the entire student body.”
The Vice Chancellor explained that the university will not be taking a ‘campaigning stance’ towards the EU referendum. However, he reiterated his personal view on Britain leaving the EU, claiming that this would pose a “great risk to this university.”
Several questions over the university’s position on their Prevent Duty, outlined in The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, were asked. Concerns were raised over the university’s implementation of their Prevent Duty after a member of staff was nominated to “complete an on-line tutorial detailing the Channel process.” Lamberts responded by stressing that the legislation covers all varieties of extremism, including Neo-Nazism and doesn’t target one group and that he is “terrified” for the potential for this to happen, stating: “we have to as a university do what we can to ensure that we respect diversity.”
The provision of mental health services by the Open Door team was acknowledged by Lamberts as not being enough to meet demand, with 200 appointments per month. He outlined the creation of a mental health working group, who will produce a report on the campus mental health support by the end of March and following a suggestion by a student, will look into the concept of the Open Door team providing drop in sessions.
Lamberts claimed that lessons have been learned from the university’s handling of International Men’s Day, stating: “What it taught us I think is that we need to be clearer in the messages that we send out…it doesn’t mean that we necessarily buy in to somebody else’s campaign and all the values and hidden issues that we might not understand at the university.”
YUSU President, Ben Leatham said: “I thought the Vice Chancellor Question Time went really well. It gave students the opportunity to have an open dialogue with Koen and really put some quite tricky questions to him in what was the first event of its type at the University. We hope to create a series of events like this, with the overall aim of demystifying the University Senior Management, improving transparency and ensuring students’ voices are at the heart of decision making at York.”