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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Letter to Editor of London Student

Sir

I read with interest your interview with Martin Burchett about the University of London’s proposal to remove wardens and vice-wardens from the intercollegiate halls of residence.

Wardens are life-in staff who work part-time in the halls, being also employed as academic or senior academically-related staff elsewhere within the University. We help to provide students, especially first year undergraduates, with a safe, friendly and supportive home-from-home in halls by maintaining discipline, resolving conflicts, supporting students with difficulties, and organising community and social events.

The University of London Strategic Plan for 2009-14 states that “the University has a proud tradition of providing services to Colleges which add to their students’ experience of University life, both educationally and socially.” Wardens are one of the main ways in which the University maintains this tradition.

Students in halls are often living away from home for the first time. In my experience, they can encounter problems with loneliness, social isolation, bullying, conflicts related to religion or sexuality, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, as well as antisocial behaviour, noisy neighbours, theft, and damage to property. Wardens have a wealth of experience in offering front-line advice and support for students wrestling with these problems.
The University’s stated reason for cutting wardens and vice-wardens is to create up to 52 extra student rooms from the conversion of wardens’ flats. The University asserts that the cuts will not cause a reduction in the level of pastoral support or community building because the wardens’ functions will be taken on by volunteer senior students and the halls’ administration staff. They further argue that private halls of residence and some other universities’ halls do not have wardens.

We certainly recognise the need for more student accommodation in London, but degrading the quality of existing accommodation is not the way to do it. The University’s plan is akin to making more seats on an aeroplane by taking out the pilot: it won’t get off the ground. We can identify numerous means by which more accommodation can be created in the halls, without shedding staff or cutting services.

Of course removing all of the currently employed, dedicated, and experienced welfare and community-building staff out of the halls will lead to a reduction in the level of support and social events. There is nothing in the cuts proposal to guarantee otherwise.

It is true that private halls of residence often do not have wardens. But we are, after all, a University: surely it is our responsibility to provide academic and pastoral support for students? Students who are more independent or who require less of a social scene in their residence may well choose to live in private halls; but the University should make provision for those who wish or need to choose a more supported or more social living environment.

It is also true that some other universities do not have wardens in their halls. But if you look at the top ten UK universities, nine of them have wardenial systems similar to ours; and nearly all of the elite Russell Group universities have wardens. These are the institutions that the University of London is competing with. Moreover, residents in the intercollegiate halls can be relatively disadvantaged by the geographical and organisational remoteness of their college welfare services, unions, and health centres – especially those from smaller colleges or colleges outside of central London. I believe a robust pastoral and social support system within the halls, led by wardens, compensates for this.

We have been greatly encouraged by support from doctors, counsellors, chaplains, and other bodies involved in student support, as well as many students, hall residents, neighbourhood groups, and local councillors. Almost 1,000 people have signed an online petition (petition.hallwardens.org) supporting the wardens, and many students and their parents have written to the University (mail@hallwardens.org) to express their opposition to the cuts. A Facebook group (group.hallwardens.org) and Twitter profile (@SaveTheWardens) have been set up by hall residents.

The University’s consultation on this proposal ends on Friday 17 June and the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group will make a decision on 29 June. I hope your readers will agree with me that they should reject the proposed cuts and look instead for positive ways of creating more student accommodation in London.

Yours faithfully

Adrian Clark
Warden, Connaught Hall