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We have to fight for the right to study!

November 28, 2009

Throughout my two and a half years at Warwick, I have seen a number of cases in which students seeking help from their personal tutors, or from their departments, have literally been ignored. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is the case throughout all departments in the University, merely that I have seen far too many examples in which students seeking advice or assistance have been left with nobody to turn to. In my first year a girl from my course was having an incredibly tough time coping with life at Warwick – it can be a difficult environment to adjust to – and she emailed her personal tutor asking for some advice. To be honest, I had similar feelings myself at the time and I was interested to see what response her personal tutor would give, whether there were people we could talk to or things we could do in order to become more involved and happy with life at Warwick. After sending three emails, she had still received no response. Luckily she sought advice from elsewhere in the department but by that point her mind had been made up; Warwick was not the place for her and she left shortly afterwards.

Of course this was not the fault of the personal tutor alone, but I witnessed how alone Anna felt during her first term, not having a clue who she should turn to for help. In all honesty, her experience made me seriously doubt whether there was anyone at the University who I could turn to in a crisis. The reason for this post is to highlight for you another situation that once again has me doubting just how much the University really cares about its students. One of my close friends had been having a number of difficulties adjusting to life at Warwick and, to be honest, was slightly miserable. Not only did her unhappiness go unnoticed, it also had an effect on her studies and she began struggling with her Italian, a module that the majority of History of Art students are required to take in their first year. Despite being called in by her tutor to talk about her performance on two occasions, she was not offered any practical advice about how to improve her performance. Nor was she offered the chance to change to a different module. Having grappled with her Italian for two terms, Kate was eventually sent to see a University counsellor. Although these sessions helped her to confront some personal problems, nobody from the department followed up to see whether her academics were improving. Having received very little guidance about her continuing struggles with the module, Kate failed her Italian exam in the summer term.

Of course the University has academic standards that we are all required to meet but in special cases you would think that they could show some leniency. Having had a number of problems with the Italian module from the start of the year, as well as a few personal problems at home, it seems to me that Kate should immediately qualify as one of these people… She also emailed the secretary of the History of Art department, asking whether she might be able to take an exam for a different module, one that was more focused on the History of Art course itself. The email was sent around to a number of tutors and yet no reply was sent. Having spoken to the same secretary about what might happen should she fail the retake, she was presented with a number of possible options. The possibility of her place being completely withdrawn was not mentioned. In early September, Kate returned to sit the Italian retake (her degree course is History of Art and in all papers directly related to the course she passed with flying colours). Although this exam took place at the start of September, Kate was not informed of her result until the end of the month, a week before term officially started.

When Kate received her result and discovered that she had not passed and would not be permitted to proceed into her second year, she received no email from her personal tutor offering any advice about what she should do next. A girl on my course had gone through a similar experience the year before and I therefore knew the basic details about how we could appeal the decision and fight for Kate’s place at Warwick. Kate immediately emailed her personal tutor seeking his help and asking exactly how she should go about making an official appeal. After an initial reply from her tutor, suggesting that they arrange a meeting, Kate received another email stating that her personal tutor would be unable to help her at all as his position on the Examinations Board meant that he had ‘conflicting interests’; he gave no suggestion as to who she should turn to.

After several visits to the department, Kate was directed to another Professor in her department who merely emailed her a copy of the University’s official policy on appeals. Other than that she received no help from her department and was left to organise her appeal without any real idea of how it would be processed and what she was meant to do during the potential 2 months it could take for the appeal to be processed. In truth, the only person who really offered any guidance or support was the welfare officer in the Student’s Union. As you can imagine, Kate was left in an incredibly difficult situation – as her place at the University had been withdrawn, she was not enabled to a student loan, leaving her unable to pay both her rent and her bills. Torn between returning home and earning money and remaining on campus to pursue her studies whilst waiting for the appeal decision, the past few months have been unbelievably hard for Kate. In spite of these factors, she remained determined to prove that she belonged on the course and that she was prepared to battle on for her place at Warwick. She followed the module outlines and kept up to date with all of the work so that she would be prepared should she be allowed to return to the course, relying entirely upon the notes of people on the course and her own personal research. To be completely honest, I think Kate spent more time working away in the Library than me, a clear demonstration of her hard work and positive attitude. It was certainly obvious to me just how much Kate wants to be here, and having put everything into her appeal, she was just left to wait for an answer.

This answer arrived a few days ago via email and we learned that Kate’s appeal had been rejected on the grounds that she had provided ‘no new relevant evidence’ to the University. It is this that I find completely astounding – all of the evidence that Kate gave about the personal reasons behind her struggles with work had never before been given to the University and I’m therefore left wondering whether the department actually read through the appeal in any real detail. It seems to me that they have given no consideration to Kate’s situation and have viewed her more as a statistic rather than as an individual student. We have here a clear demonstration of the University’s major flaws; throughout Kate’s entire time at the University, her department have failed to follow through with any support or advice. It is true that they offered the help of a counsellor but no follow up was done to check whether these sessions had been at all helpful in an academic capacity. Kate will continue to fight her case and I will continue to support her. I’m hoping that this blog will encourage many of you to do the same. Having begun another appeal that will this time go before the University Ombudsman, we must now wait up to 5 months before we hear a decision. As for what Kate should do during this period? Once again the University have little to offer in terms of advice. I have seen so many people at this University who don’t really seem to appreciated the incredible education that they can receive whilst here and it seems so unfair that they should still be here when someone with as much passion for their subject as Kate is denied a place. Watch this space for news on Kate’s appeal and if you meet anyone from the History of Art department, make sure you mention her name!

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