Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Universities Respond: Part Six

Keele University:

Thank you for your letter of concern surrounding sexist themed events being put on during University Freshers’ Week. Please allow us, both the Students’ Union and University, to put your mind at ease by highlighting the inclusive approach we take to supporting and welcoming our new and returning students to Keele University.

Having read Laura Bates’ article, which was flagged up by Welfare and Community officers from other Unions, we understand and share the concerns surrounding women and female students during their time at University. We also agree with the point that you make on lasting consequences of your welcome to University life throughout your degree programme. As Students’ Union and University we share the aim to deliver an inclusive welcome experience for all students. We are acutely aware of the detrimental impact of a ill-prepared and poorly delivered induction programme. At Keele we are committed to ensuring that the opportunities presented to our students during the first few weeks of Semester make clear the safe, engaging and cohesive community that we strive to provide and maintain.

The University has worked hard in recent years to ensure that the Induction experience - which we view as commencing long before our students actually arrive on campus – is relevant to all students. Activities for particular student groups, across all levels of study and which provide choice are all delivered with one thing in mind -our students.

The University has recently appointed a full time Student Transitions and Support Coordinator. This new post highlights the University’s commitment to ensuring that our students are effectively supported as they negotiate their transition into University.. With increased and dedicated staff provision we are looking forward to ensuring that the good practice delivered in supporting and welcoming our new students is upheld and that constructive feedback from our students, parents and other service users is considered and used to further improve what we do. The Welcome Week/Induction programme that we currently operate at Keele covers a wide range of student activities. With the Union utilizing its high quality evening entertainment facilities available, such as our newly redeveloped alcohol free space and four bars, we are able to host both Alcoholic and non-alcoholic events including club nights, quizzes, stand-up comedy and live music nights. You can find our evening entertainment here: http://www.keelesu.com/tl_files/content/Ents/Wallplanner.pdf. Our bars have also been accredited by the NUS run ‘Best Bar None’ scheme: we’ve been finalists for the past three years, winning the award outright the past two years. This award covers a range of criteria including Drink awareness campaign visibility, mystery shopping and adherence to NUSSL policy and procedures on alcohol. KeeleSU also offers daytime events during Welcome Week including our Society and Sports Club sign up fairs, which includes a combined 140 clubs and Societies, including LGBT, Women’s and multi faith groups, which takes place over 4 days. We also have our own helpdesk, which includes information on Keele and the wider community, ran by our Advice & Support unit, ASK. These Students’ Union led events are, delivered alongside the University’s Welcome Week induction programme, which includes daytime activities such as days out to IKEA, the local cinema, Academic programme inductions and helpdesks in a central location. They also host evening entertainment at University run venues such as Talent shows, quizzes, console and games evenings, and Chapel services.

Focussing specifically on sexist events, the fancy dress themes we are hosting at the Students’ Union, as you can see from the above wall planner link, are gender neutral with fancy dress themes such as Rock Stars vs Party Animals, and Gangsters and Flappers. Our Entertainments department are always happy to take constructive feedback from our students and provide events and themes that students want at the time, which shows the fluidity of the team and department. These events also have to be approved at an Operations meeting, upon which the full time Elected Officers sit, so issues can be raised by the Vice President (Welfare) before any information is released. We are also fortunate in that the well-known external student event Carnage is no longer active on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent. After speaking with the Women’s Officer at the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union, we understand the problems they have recently had with the ‘Pimps and Hoes’ themed Carnage that has risen. As a Students’ Union, providing effective representation is a core reason for our existence, alongside looking out for the Welfare and Educational needs of our members. For our Female Students, we have an active Women’s Society, as well as a Female Gender Representative on our Student Council. The Society exists to campaign on issues directly affecting women, as well as to provide a platform for issues at a local and national level. The Female Gender Representative is both a campaigning and support role in that this student is elected to the role by the Student body and is therefore held to account through our democratic structures in place. Pre-emptively, as a Students’ Union, we run campaigns on a range of gender related issues such as Sexual Health and Guidance, LGBT, Women and Movember (Breast/Testicular cancer). Such an example of a campaign from this year includes a joint Safety Campaign with the Borough Council and University Security, where we targeted three safety strands: Domestic abuse, personal safety and drink spiking.

The University also has a range of Equality & Diversity campaign as part of its Unity programme, and campaigns this year include a Dignity & Wellbeing Week, LGBT History Month and Women’s Week, of which the Students’ Union is an active stakeholder in many of the groups created to organise these events and campaigns. We hope that this has put your mind at rest for gender and sexuality equality at Keele University. Please do not hesitate in getting in touch with either of us for more information.

Birkbeck University of London:

Thank-you for your letter of concern about "Freshers’ Week" activities – I have also copied in Sophie Thomas, our elected Women’s Officer here at Birkbeck.

Neither the Students’ Union nor any of its recognised clubs or societies have promoted or been a part of any of the degrading and exploitative events that were described within the article in the Independent. Further, the Students’ Union actively promotes a safe space environment, has a Zero Tolerance Policy on sexism and has other policies blocking media or events which are sexist – including burlesque dancing, poll dancing and one of the policies specifically cites the "Pimps & Hoes" events which are "for sale" to students’ unions in off-the-shelf packages. Indeed, Birkbeck Students’ Union has led the fight within the National Union of Students (NUS) for NUS to stop promoting sexist and/or homophobic/transphobic events packages and negative depictions of people within the media.

University of Dundee:

The Principal passed your email to me and I will of course ensure our union is made aware of your concerns. Here we in Student services work with the union, student representatives and staff to produce a welcome week programme which is broad, inclusive, diverse and supportive. Our activities focus on positive integration into the city and campus. Feedback each year shapes the next year and I am happy that our feedback does not indicate any concern around your correspondence.

Buckinghamshire New University:

Dear Karen, thanks for getting touch about the article in the Independent, which I had previously read. We do not recognise the types of activities outlined in the article as a part of the Freshers' experience at Bucks.

Bath Spa University:

Thank you very much for your letter. At the Students’ Union we feel strongly about this matter too.

We work closely with the National Union of Students and are aware of their research on students being sexually harassed which is mentioned in The Independent. We work hard to tackle issues of discrimination and harassment on and off campus.

In order to do this, we firstly have a women’s liberation representative, who sits on our Student Council. We also have a number of full-time elected positions, me being one of those and I am responsible for welfare.

Our women’s rep is currently planning a campaign looking at low level sexual harassment within our University and our city. She will be supported by our Equal Opps committee and our staff.

Furthermore, at the Students’ Union (SU), we do not encourage themes such as ‘Pimps and Hoes’. Our elected representatives (full time sabbatical officers), who all happen to be women this year, oversee our events programmes. This year, we worked extremely hard on creating an inclusive freshers’ programme; for example we did not have gender specific themes, we had non-alcohol events such as a food fair, and we provided safe welfare messages to the students regarding alcohol harm, safe sex etc.. We also have policies that protect our students; for example, we don’t kick people out and send them home alone and we don’t do drink promotions which generally leads to bad experiences on a night out.

Beyond our building, I sit on the Night Time Economy Steering Group which allows me to influence those same messages and programmes throughout the city and encourage commercial venues to address the issues we’ve been talking about.

Of course, we are constantly re viewing these issues and our Deputy CEO is soon to meet with stakeholders to review who we invite to hold stalls at our Freshers’ Fair and what messages they promote. If you have any specific suggestions feel free to get in touch.

Couldn't ask for better than that really - kudos to Emma Weskin there. If I was to email again, I would ask Student Reps to follow her example of sitting on the 'Night Time Economy Steering Group' - or whatever the equivalent is in various cities up and down the country - so they can similarly attempt to positively influence external venues.

Royal Holloway University:

Thank your for your email and attached letter regarding the start of the new academic year within universities and The Independent article by Laura Bates.

We too were horrified by the experiences reported within this article at other universities and I am pleased to be able to advise that no such activities would ever be sanctioned here at Royal Holloway. This year we purposely moved away from the term ‘Freshers Week’ and all it’s stereotypical connotations. We have rebranded the first few days of our new academic year as ‘Welcome Week’ which we feel is a more all-encompassing term that reflects the growing diversity of the student body and which is inclusive to all students. We are well aware we have a large proportion of students who choose not to drink alcohol, not to enter licensed premises, not to enter into a sexual relationship etc for religious, cultural or personal reasons (amongst others) and their needs and expectations must be equally represented in any activities we offer. Over the first few days of term the College and Students’ Union offered a wide range of activities alongside club nights in the SU. These included the UniSmart presentation (www.rhul.ac.uk/ecampus/welfare/unismart.aspx), Sports & society taster sessions, the Abnormally Funny comedy show (http://www.abnormallyfunnypeople.com/), Dangerous Minds (a night of spoken word and poetry), local walking orientation sessions, trips to the local towns and tourist spots, quiz nights, movie nights, the student media fayre and so much more!

Another example of enforcing a positive evolution of the term 'Freshers' Week'. Like.

We keenly recognise that for the majority of new students it is their first time away from home and that it is a vulnerable and difficult time that can take some time to adjust to and so we work hard to make students feel settled but also to make sure they know where they can get help or support if they are struggling for whatever reason –socially, financially, through homesickness or any other reason. Like all universities the promotion of healthy lifestyles and safe sex campaigns is part of this, and whilst I see the dichotomy with universities who promote highly sexualised nights out, here we see these promotions as part of the all round package of welfare support and advice.

The SU also have an anti-sexual harassment policy – the Zero Tolerance Campaign – which was created as a response to the Hidden Marks campaign. The students here voted at an SU General Meeting in favour of this approach. The policy imposes a reasonable but automatic penalty for any act of sexual harassment with the aim to wipe out the unacceptable behaviour displayed by a small number by not dismissing any of it. It defines sexual harassment as any sexual behaviour that makes someone feel uncomfortable including unwanted sexual comments and inappropriate touching. For discrimination the result is a minimum six month ban from the SU. The College also has a Code of Practice on Personal Harassment and we are active in ensuring students are not in breach of this in any way and that they understand the importance of this and why it is in place.

As a whole, the College and SU also put a great deal of effort into relevant messages to students about all aspects of acceptable behaviour and we consider this part of the education and, for want of a better phrase, ‘growing up’ process of university. Our historic roots as a pioneering College for women shows how deep our desire for equality, and respect goes and is I am certain still reflected in our ethos and thinking today.

I hope this answers some of your questions and reassures you that in no way do we condone the style of student events reported in this article. Please do let me know if you have any further questions.