WORCESTER STUDENTS ASK WHERE IS THEIR UNIVERSITY’S DUTY OF CARE?

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The Hive, housing the University of Worcester’s Library the Worcester city library and the Worcestershire County Archive and Archaeology Service
[Elliott Brown: CC BY-SA 2.0]






The issue of the mental health and well being of students is increasingly understood as a critical element in the management of our universities. Indeed, the mental health charity Mind states on its website that recent research suggests as many as 1 in 5 of students has a diagnosed mental health problem. That figure of course does not include students with an undiagnosed mental health issue. The Law is also clear on the matter. The Health and Safety at Work Act imposes a clear, legally binding, duty of care on every employer, including universities to take all practical and reasonable steps to protect their employees and others affected by their actions. This led the then Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, to write to university leaders in September 2018, telling them,

Collectively, we must prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of our students – there is no negotiation on this“.

However, there is disturbing evidence that during the process leading to the closure of the university’s highly regarded Archaeology courses, the University of Worcester may not only have failed in that duty of care to prioritise health and well being, it appears to have missed a series of opportunities to exercise that duty. Indeed, critics argue that the actions of Worcester’s Vice Chancellor Professor David Green and other senior managers at the West Midlands university, mean that, instead of supporting students mental health under the most trying conditions, the university authorities may have actually created the conditions to exacerbate stress, anxiety and other conditions impacting on their students mental health.

Although the University of Worcester had suspended recruitment for its archaeology courses shortly after the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2020 the first the undergraduate and PhD students knew of the ending of archaeology at Worcester was a series of posts and direct messages published on Social Media in the late afternoon of 17 August [2021], soon after the university’s archaeology team were told of the closure decision in a meeting with the Head of the School of Science and the Environment, at Worcester, Professor Peter Seville.

A letter written by Professor Seville claimed subsequently that students finding out about the end of Archaeology at Worcester was a “regrettable” result of postings on Social Media and interviews with the Press following a “confidential meeting” with the Archaeology team, which meant that the University had not had a chance to contact students directly to inform them of the situation.

However, staff present at the team meeting held on 17 August are clear that at no point were they told the meeting was confidential and neither did Professor Seville offer any explanation as to why the University had not prepared any formal communications to staff or students to explain the situation ahead of the decision to end archaeology teaching being made public.

Indeed, thePipeLine has seen the content of an e-mail sent by Professor Seville on 18 August [2021], the day after the decision became public, in which he stated that,

I will write to the students over the next couple of days.

Up to the time of writing [2 September 2021], while individual students have discussed the situation with Professor Seville and others, no such formal notice has ever been sent to the student cohort as a whole. A situation which many staff and students find to be, at best, deeply discourteous.

Responding to the situation students sent a letter to the Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Worcester, Professor David Green. The students told Professor Green that the whole way the process of ending archaeology teaching had been undertaken, including the apparent failure of the University to put in place any support and information packages had led to,

“…significant distress across the student cohort with measurable impacts on mental and physical well being that compound pre-existing illnesses.”

Recent research into the mental health of young people would appear to support the experience reported by the students at Worcester.

A review by the Education Policy Institute observed that the average age of students, under 25 years, and additional stress factors, such as money worries, and concerns about future employment prospects, mean that the incidence of mental health conditions among university students may be higher than found in the wider population. While mental health charity Mind state that anxiety disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health issues among students. These disorders manifest as as fears for the future, particularly things that are about to happen or could happen.

It follows that any management body about to undermine the future expectations of a cohort of students and the staff who teach them by closing courses and placing jobs at risk, has no excuse for not being aware of the potential for their decision leading to anxiety, possibly to the extent that interventions by mental health professionals become necessary and factor that potential into their decision making.

There is a further reason for the University managers at Worcester to have taken this issue very seriously.

The same research report by the Education Policy Institute which identified a rise in mental health issues among students, found that students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds might be at additional risk of developing a mental health condition. This is the very demographic which can be attracted to more locally focussed, non Russell Group, universities like the University of Worcester.

As part of the research for a previous article about the situation at Worcester thePipeLine asked the university if the University Executive Board had seen any form of written health and safety risk assessment, prior to taking the decision to end archaeology, or any impact assessment discussing the potential effect of the closure on diversity and those with protected characteristics under the Equality and Human Rights Act.

The university did not respond to the questions.

Against that background of an apparent failure of university managers to plan for the consequences of the closure of Archaeology courses, or to protect the rights of students with protected characteristics, thePipeLine has been shown the details of an existing complaint being made to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) citing alleged discrimination on the part of the university against two Worcester Archaeology students with disabilities. 

The students claim that, regardless of the decision of the OIA, the abrupt termination of the Archaeology Course, without consultation with them, or anyone else in the department, leaves them with no options left to enable them to complete their degrees.

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One of these students, Mr Nigel Uzzell, says in particular,

“I am being held back and told I must sit the modules again with attendance.  Let’s be clear, these modules are not running this semester because they have cancelled the future of the Archaeology degree, so my degree attempt has effectively been killed.”

Mr Uzzell, who is also facing significant physical health issues requiring hospitalisation, claims, 

“The only reason the Uni is saying that everyone can finish their degree is that they have kicked off the 2 disabled students.” Students who have been prevented from revisiting modules with attendance which would enable them to complete.

The University of Worcester disputes this interpretation.

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In addition to the letter sent to Vice Chancellor Green, a number of students have claimed to thePipeLine that by closing the Archaeology department without consultation or warning, and without any apparent planning for the existing cohort of students to complete their degrees with the modules they believed in good faith would be available when they joined the course, they have been put under undue and completely avoidable stress. Stress which poses a risk to their overall mental health and well being.

In particular Students claimed that anxiety for the future began when the University denied them information when they asked for reassurance following the suspension of recruitment for the Archaeology Course in the Autumn of 2020.

In that regard, thePipeLine understands that students on the archaeology course first sought information and reassurance about the future of the course from archaeology course staff during course committee meetings in the Autumn and Winter of 2020, after recruitment for the archaeology course was suspended by the University in September 2020.

A member of staff who was present at the meetings states that the staff team did their best to reassure students in particular that the University would look after their interests. However, this appears to have been in an informal, pastoral context, with no formal intervention by senior management providing either information or support.

The same source is adamant that no students or staff were consulted about the course closure process until staff were told on 17 August that the course was to close.

This account is backed up by the student campaign #SaveWorcesterArchaeology which claimed in a Tweet that students were not represented in decision making around the course closure and are not currently represented in course closure planning. 

This is in apparent contravention of the Universities own Procedure for Course Closure.

Section 5 of the current document, updated in 2019, states that,

“Students must be kept informed of any changes that may affect them in relation to the closure and student representatives should be involved in planning and managing course closure. This may include arrangements for teaching and supervision, support for placement/WBL, PSRB requirements, reassessment and plans for retake modules and for temporarily withdrawn students.”

Students claim none of these things have been done.

The document adds [our italics],

“Students should be informed in a meeting so that they can be given reassurances about arrangements to ensure the quality of their experiences through the ‘teach out’ of the course, ask questions, raise any concerns as well as receive written confirmation of arrangements if necessary.”

Here students point out that far from the offer of a meeting to share information and give reassurance, the University could not even be bothered to write to them to explain the situation.

In all this there remains one fundamental question related to the process adopted by senior managers at the University of Worcester in ending archaeology teaching.

It is a question which demands full investigation as it goes to the root of the motives and competence of those managers. That is,

Why, given the lead time between decision to close the course being made in July and its announcement to staff, and the news becoming public on 17 August, a minimum period of around three weeks, did the University apparently make no attempt to draft notices explaining the decision and its consequences, or put in place a comprehensive package to support the mental health and well being of students and staff?

To the reasonable observer, not to have made such preparations ahead of the announcement might be seen as, at best, lazy or incompetent.

At worst it might be interpreted as indicating a culture among senior management at the University of Worcester which prioritised secrecy and imposing their will without question or accountability, over the university’s own due process which they were meant to administer, natural justice and perhaps even the Law. A culture where the University might seem to be utterly careless of its responsibilities to the welfare of its staff and students.

Most serious for Professor Green, and his colleagues on the Senior Management Team at Worcester, is the suggestion that the University may even be in breach of its legal duties.

The Health and Safety Executive offer this statement on their website [our italics],

“Whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it, employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees. Work-related mental health issues must to be assessed to measure the levels of risk to staff. Where a risk is identified, steps must be taken to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable.”

As we have seen, the university will not say if it risk assessed the decision to close archaeology courses in those terms, leading to the suspicion that it did not undertake any such assessment.

This is about as serious as it gets for university managers and not just because the university’s conduct may have put it at risk of legal action by either students or staff, on account of the apparent failure to take reasonable and practical steps to protect them by risk assessing the closure decision itself, and the manner of its announcement and implementation.

One academic source, not at the University of Worcester, who was consulted by thePipeLine said starkly that they feared that if the UK’s university managers continued to treat the mental health of staff and students with such apparent carelessness, we could see the increased reporting of mental health issues, perhaps cases of issues such as self harm, “…or at worst a Caroline Flack.”

That being a reference to the Television presenter who, an inquest found, committed suicide after a long struggle with her mental health, was exacerbated by the stress of an immediate crisis. The comment was made also against the background of student suicide rates rising by 52% between 2001and 2016.

Asked to respond to these allegations that the University of Worcester had failed in its legal duty of care to its students and staff under the Health and Safety at Work Act, and its responsibilities under other legislation such as the 2010 Equality Act, a spokesperson for the University repeated an earlier statement, which claimed Archaeology as a subject was no longer viable because of falling numbers of students wishing to take archaeology as a degree.

The spokesperson then emphasised the following line from that earlier statement which relates to the support offered by the University to students and staff following the decision to close the archaeology course,

“The small number of students who are currently completing their studies will continue to be supported to gain their qualifications.”

Regarding the specific allegations made in this article the spokesperson for the University said,

“The University disputes the truthfulness and accuracy of the widely misleading allegations put to thePipeLine and has no further comment to make.”

We replied that it was in nobody’s interest to publish untrue or misleading information and invited the University of Worcester to state which of the allegations were, in its view, untrue or misleading.

The spokesperson for the university responded,

“We have no further comment to add.”

When told of the university’s response to our questions Archaeology PhD Candidate Jack Rowe, who has been heavily involved in the campaign to save the archaeology at Worcester, told thePipeLine that, in his judgement, there is nothing that has been levelled against the university by thePipeLine in this account that is misleading or untruthful.

Mr Rowe explained that he feels,

“The university has catastrophically failed in all of the aforementioned regards, and it is sickening that a series of detailed and serious allegations are swatted away with such short shrift.

It is my belief that its briefness is due to the fact that the university in fact recognises these allegations to be true, but possess no satisfactory responses to them that will not damage the image and reputation of the university.”

Mr Rowe added,

“To suggest that the students are making allegations of this nature that are untruthful, inaccurate and “widely misleading”, would in turn suggest that we are demanding more than we deserve and are owed. This is emphatically not the case; what we are demanding is the treatment owed to us as individuals and as a group as stipulated in the university’s own guidelines which they have utterly failed to deliver thus far.”





If you feel your mental health has been affected by events at Worcester, or anywhere else, please don’t keep it to yourself.

Someone to listen and confidential
, impartial advice is available from,

the Samaritans (open every day of the year) – phone 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

and

Mind, the mental health charity






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thePipeLine
thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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