The Power of Student Voice: 'Inclusivity at University' Panel

On 15th February the FXU Don’tDisAbility society hosted a panel event during #DDAWeek2018 titled ‘Inclusivity at University.’ The themes for Don’tDisAbility Week 2018 were ‘Inclusivity and Collaboration,’ championing support systems on campus with the goal of insuring that all students feel included on campus here in Penryn and Falmouth.

The panel was attended by:

  • Tony Sanders, Managing Director at FXPlus
  • Mark Goodwin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at University of Exeter
  • Harry Bishop, FXU President Community and Welfare
  • Chris Slesser, FXU President Falmouth
  • Dean Pomeroy, FXU President Exeter

The byline for the event displayed on the screen above the panelists read “Does my university care?’ At a first glance that appears to be a shocking question, but then you realise it’s a worryingly common concern. The opportunity to openly address such questions to senior members of staff doesn’t come around very often, which accounted for the slightly nervous atmosphere in the room. Important questions were about to be asked, perhaps too important to be appeased with a short, simple answer.

(Image credit: Don'tDisAbility Society and Priya Mistry)

The first question posed to the panel was “what are your priorities for addressing the increasing demand for mental health services by students?”

  • Tony Sanders responded that FXPlus – our main service provider on campus – were reviewing their services and hope to offer increased online support to students based on a prioritization of their needs, while also reassuring us that their external support links to the NHS, Mind and Samaritans were still strong.
  • Harry Bishop reiterated Tony’s call for an increased online presence regarding mental health, stating his view that the “future is digital” and that our student services should reflect that through such platforms as ‘Tell Me.’ At the same time, however, Harry affirmed the strong “ground-level resilience” of physical, in-person support available on our Penryn and Falmouth campuses.
  • Mark Goodwin acknowledged that the University of Exeter recognise the centrality of mental health concerns across the student population and are always aiming to increase both their professional and peer support systems, as well as insuring that staff members are informed on how to signpost students to the relevant services.
  • Dean Pomeroy agreed that signposting is vital, and has personally been pushing for increased personal tutoring on Exeter courses so that students can have a member of staff who is familiar with their situation and can flag-up potential concerns.
  • Chris Slesser also agreed that a course-based attention to mental health is needed at Falmouth University, and is aiming for necessary curriculum reforms for creative students whose mental health can deteriorate when their work and hobbies overlap too much through their chosen subject area.
  • Overall, all panel members were positive that both universities have the means to respond to the increase in mental health concerns, and are optimistic that the increased discussion around mental health will remove the stigmas that stop students from asking for help.

The panel was then posed the question of “why is it that students are still excluded from major aspects of their courses such as field trips?”

  • As an issue that Dean felt particularly strongly about, he told us that he has been pushing for a review of field-trips in terms of accessibility and affordability, two issues that are often pushed into one but need to be considered as two distinctly important concerns for students if they are to gain the “global experience” the University of Exeter aims to provide. 
  • Tony Sanders claimed that more and more students are aware of the resources available to insure they are engaged with all aspects of their courses, giving an example of the funding recently offered to a student with hearing disabilities to ensure a support worker could attend a field trip to New York as their companion.
  • Chris again returned to the structures of academic representation at the university that are vital to insuring student voice regarding accessibility is heard, noting the increased number of course reps who give feedback on such issues.
  • Harry noted that greater equality is needed across courses given the unanimous fee paid by all students, stating that the same opportunities must be made available and accessible to all.
  • Mark Goodwin closed the panel’s response to the given question by reiterating the universities emphasis on “extending the global experience of students”, maintaining that the university will “always explore reasonable adjustment” on a case-by-case basis to insure students can have the possibility of traveling or studying abroad.

The final address to the panel questioned “what training is given to staff on how to approach issues of accessibility, health, and gender?”

  • Mark Goodwin asserted that all University of Exeter staff must complete an induction of “equality, diversity and inclusion training” before becoming full employees, and must also complete a refresher course every three years to accommodate ever-evolving concerns regarding the mental health and safeguarding of students.
  • Tony Sanders confirmed the observation that our campus is dealing with “more serious cases than we’ve ever had”, but that changes are constantly occurring within our support services to deal with the increased demand.
  • Chris noted that while staff are trained to address such issues, a student’s personal tutor should be treated as a “coach” and not a “counselor”, someone trained to signpost rather than overstep professional boundaries.
  • Harry also agreed that the correct signposting by staff is key, but that student-led training for both staff and fellow students is the way forward, taking the recent Inclusivity and Diversity training offered to FXU committee members by Don’tDisAbility, Deaf Awareness and BSL and FXpectrUm as his example for how impactful such sessions can be.
  • Finally, Mark Goodwin noted that 20-25% of Exeter students are post-graduates and so experience the most isolation within the student community, remarking that greater training is needed for post-graduate supervising staff to deal with the difference in concerns compared to undergraduates.

The initial discussion was followed by a Q&A session in which attendees could present their own questions to the panel:

  •  One student expressed concerns over rumoured alterations to the mitigation application process for academic assignments, to which both Mark and Dean responded that any alterations made were only to insure that the mitigation process is the same across all academic disciplines to remove certain inequalities.
  • A question seeking clarity on what training is undertaken by FXU staff was then posed, with Harry assuring the speaker that the frequency and levels of training are ever-evolving and increasing.
  • Alexa Webster, our FXU President Community and Welfare, then took the time to praise ‘Voices’, the collaborative project between FXU, The Falmouth Anchor and Her Campus Exeter-Cornwall, as a testament to the power of student voice.
  • Concerns raised by an attendee over a perceived discrepancy in the expression of free speech at the university were assuaged by all panel members, with Mark Goodwin declaring that “freedom of expression should be placed above everything else”, followed by a reminder that any and all experiences of discrimination should be reported. 
  • The Q&A closed with the final observation by an attendee that the panel consisted entirely of able-bodied white males, a remark that was acknowledged by the panel as unfortunate but also the result of a democratic system. Each of the FXU Presidents restated that they act as a voice for other students of all identities, not simply for themselves.

When asked for a comment reflecting on the discussion that took place at the event, the Don’tDisAbility Society responded that:

“As a society we are proud to have been able to create an event on inclusivity for students with such senior and prominent figures. The panelists answered honestly and gave good advice. They all showed a sense of mental health awareness and support rising, advertising support available and encouraging students to ask for it. Along with the panelists, our key message is speak and you will be heard, you will supported and you are not alone.”

If you are interested in joining the FXU Don’tDisAbility society or would like to keep updated about any upcoming events, you can find their details on the FXU website and follow their Facebook page