Petition launched against proposed replacement of Warwick’s RLT system

The University of Warwick’s Resident Life Team (RLT) is responsible for the wellbeing of students who live in halls of residence. It responds to major and minor incidents that occur out of hours, including – but not limited to – noise complaints and students locking themselves out, as well as mental health crises, sexual assault, and suicide. Yet the current system, which was established in 1965, has been reviewed by the University, and now, the University of Warwick is intending to replace the system with a Residential Community Assistant (RCA) scheme. 

The review and changes, which were headed up by Dr Hannah Friend, Director of Wellbeing and Safeguarding, will come into effect from the next academic year. The changes include: changing the team structure, moving from volunteer contracts to employee contracts, paying RCAs for set hours and charging them rent, and removing staff members from the system, meaning the RCAs will consist of third- and fourth-year undergraduates in addition to postgraduate students.

A petition against the overhaul has already been signed by more than 600 people.

However, this proposal has been met by significant opposition. Current members of the RLT system have launched a campaign against the proposed changes. A petition against the overhaul has already been signed by more than 600 people. Likewise, the Warwick Students’ Union’s Student Council unanimously passed a motion opposing the changes.

Jacob Jefferson, the Democracy and Development Officer (DDO), said: “We can confirm that at Student Council, an emergency policy was approved unanimously to support our students and staff campaigning against the changes to the Residential Life Team. We have been in discussions with the University about this for a week, and hope to come to a positive outcome.”

The campaign and petition by current RLT members says:  “The University of Warwick is attempting to change this model by replacing most of the RLT, including all of the most experienced members of the team (University staff who also serve as RLTs), with 3rd year undergraduates who have comparatively limited experience in this context, and will also be contending with exams and the pressures of planning for their lives after graduating.”

They also say that “out-of-hours support will be greatly limited. Currently, RLT staff are available to support students 24/7. The new model will mean Residential Community Assistants (RCAs), will only be available in shifts between 17:00-23:00, and on a very limited night duty rota of only two RCAs for the entire campus. Team managers will live up to 30 minutes away, resulting in a slow response time to serious incidents which require additional support if the managers on duty are already occupied. This will have a detrimental impact on student mental health and wellbeing, as they will no longer have access to the 24/7 support that the RLT provides, either in emergencies, or as a stopgap when accessing professional mental health services.”

Significant responsibility will pass to the Community Safety Team, who are already over-stretched, as well as being considered unapproachable by many students

– Campaign Spokesperson

The campaign also argue that significant responsibility will pass to the Community Safety Team, “who are already over-stretched, as well as being considered unapproachable by many students”, that the changes would “disproportionally affect marginalised and protected groups on campus”, “affect the studies of finalist undergraduate students if they choose to become an RCA”, and detrimentally affect postgraduate RCAs, “especially those who currently rely on the RLT system”.

They further claim that the proposed changes to the system will mean having a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) contract alongside an RCA contract, due to limits on hours of extra paid work per week by the UK Home Office, research councils, funding bodies, and universities, could invalidate students’ funding. It could also see international students’ visa status be reconsidered for revocation and potentially jeopardise Warwick’s sponsorship license.

The campaign said to The Boar that if a university or any of its departments are seen to be encouraging international students to pursue RCA and GTA contracts, the university could be seen as coercing students to break their visa requirements. Previously, London Metropolitan University had its sponsorship license revoked due to its “serious systemic failure” in the monitoring of its international student body.

Many postgraduate students rely on volunteering in the RLT system to afford the fees and living costs of completing an MA or PhD. In a letter sent to Heads of Departments by the campaign, informing them of the changes, it is highlighted that “most funding also has limitations on hours worked and what work is allowed (e.g. teaching). As such, many PhD and other postgraduates may have their funding removed for violating these changes.” The campaign said they were worried “about students who currently can only afford their studies through reduced RLT rent. Within the new scheme, these students may not be able to afford to stay on their course.”

The welfare of our students is our top priority

– University of Warwick spokesperson

Asked for comment on the changes and the campaign against them, a University of Warwick spokesperson said to The Boar: “The welfare of our students is our top priority. Our new approach to supporting students in their accommodation is responsive to changing student expectations, and provides clarity and a consistent student experience, which will in turn help safeguard our community of staff and students. Support will be more visible, more accessible, Residential Community Assistants will facilitate events and activities that provide proactive wellbeing support, and it will be clearer what students can expect from the service. 

“The current Residential Life Team (RLT) system was set up in 1965, and provides welfare and support to students, currently on a voluntary basis. We reviewed the system to examine what we do and how we do it, and conducted a broad-based consultation that drew on feedback from our community, including students and existing RLT volunteers. We looked across the sector, and incorporated best practice from other institutions into a new evidence-informed model that is peer-led.

“From September, students with relevant and recent experience in their 3rd or 4th year or at postgraduate level will be employed to help their peers, creating a sense of belonging. More opportunities will be available to our students, and this will support their transition to independence, as well as providing space for personal development and growth for residents.

“The University is hugely grateful to all members of the Residential Life Team (RLT) who have volunteered their time, and the tremendous amount of brilliant work they have done over decades. Many students will have hugely benefitted from the significant contribution of individuals within the team.

The details of the RLT Review were kept secret throughout, with those who shared any details being formally reprimanded by the University for doing so

– James Hart

James Hart, chair of Warwick SU’s Postgraduate Committee and Sub Warden in the RLT system told The Boar: “One truly struggles to fathom how, amid perhaps the worst mental health crisis the University has ever seen, brought on both by the pandemic and the gutting of Wellbeing Support Services in recent years, the individual supposedly responsible for the protection of the students has conspired to remove one of Warwick’s oldest and most effective institutions for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of students. I say ‘conspire’ because, as the backlash to these bizarre proposals has shown, the vast majority of stakeholders across the university were deliberately cut out of what little consultation Dr Friend appears to have done.”

“The details of the RLT Review were kept secret throughout, with those who shared any details being formally reprimanded by the University for doing so. The ‘community’ seems to refer to a few top-level managers and executives, whose own staff were left oblivious to what was going on behind closed doors”, he added.

Mr Hart also argued: “Despite their claims that “the University isn’t benefitting financially from this arrangement,” this plan is almost certainly to rent out the former RLT accommodation at a premium to wealthy students, for an easy profit.”

“Far from the transparency and consideration one would expect from a university with as poor a reputation for student wellbeing as Warwick, they have instead made seemingly every effort to sneak these reforms through while drawing as little attention as possible.”

He concluded by saying: “From everything I have seen, there most certainly are elements of Wellbeing Support Services in dire need of fundamental review and restructuring, but the Residential Life Team is not one of them.”

A SU source told The Boar that some university departments have expressed their concern about the changes in discussions with SU Academic and Faculty Representatives, and that many academics and staff had only been made aware of the changes because of the campaign.

Bristol University undertook a similar overhaul of their live-in pastoral care system in 2018. Bristol SU, who originally supported the changes, called on the university to address large student concerns about the new system. It was reported by Epigram, Bristol’s student newspaper, that Bristol University faced losing over £2 million in donations as alumni revoked gifts in their wills. Bristol’s new Residential Life system saw many resignations from the new roles “due to lack of clarity and new focus on shift work, rather than active engagement in student life.”  

As this story continues to evolve, The Boar shall report on further updates.

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