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Open Letter to VCO from Student Body

Please read and sign!

 

The Student Union have written the below Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor's Office at the Royal College of Art, (Paul Thompson, Naren Barfield and Heather Akif) to request clear commitments to better management and accountability in a minuted meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, Student Union and student reps on the 25th October 2021. We are asking for them to fulfil the following actions to address problems;

 

  1. RCASU or student representatives on CARGO (Covid Academic Response Group)

  2. Consultation of students in future decisions and transparency with students around decision making

  3. Overhaul of the internal student complaint process

  4. Utilising the student body in co-designing and collaboration with College’s projects wherever possible 

  5. Concrete commitments over next term arrangements and access based on projected scenarios of COVID with different traffic light scenarios laid out.  E.g. if numbers are high this would result in X level of access.  This should also be made at least 4 weeks before fees are due to be paid to avoid misleading communications prior to fee payment as seen this academic year. 

 

In this meeting, we want to hear directly from the Vice-Chancellor's Office how they will rectify the below listed failures, and display clear plans to enact the above demands for the next academic year 2021/2022. We ask our members (RCA current students) and anyone else to sign in support of this letter. Signatures will be collected and presented alongside the open letter to the RCA’s governing body Council and the Office for Students. 

 

________________________________________________________________________

 

Dear Vice-Chancellor's Office (Paul Thompson, Naren Barfield, Heather Akif)

 

Since March 2020, we, Royal College of Art students, have continuously suffered at the hands of poor management. Whilst paying some of the highest fees for Higher Education in the UK, RCA students and the Student Union have repeatedly expressed the deterioration of our experience and have been continuously ignored. Calls for change have been disregarded, mismanaged and students have been subjected to a complete lack of effective engagement. We have asked for change, through;

 

  1. Forming a student pressure group (RCA Action Group)

  2. Initiating multiple student surveys and sending data to the Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson*

  3. Sending various open letters to the Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson

  4. Filing two student complaints against the College, which were signed by 2000+ RCA students collectively and are some of the largest student complaints in OIA’s history  

  5. Hundreds signed in support of the UCU’s 2020 Vote of No Confidence in the Vice- Chancellor’s Office ** 

  6. Participating in a nationwide Fee Strikes the scale of which has not been seen for decades

 

We have experienced many failures this year, abundantly clear in the below examples;

 

  1. Lost and damaged thousands of pounds worth of student’s work and created an unreasonable compensation method.

  2. Failure to increase staff capacity *** and resources for professional services in light of a pandemic, causing poorly designed and limited access to campus for students.

  3. Blanket refusal to engage with student fee refund calls and not-fit-for-purpose complaints procedure.

  4. Delays in Battersea South development project, profoundly impacting the study arrangement of 220 students on Leave of Absence.

  5. Continued profound lack of care to address students dissatisfaction and staff concerns.

 

The RCA Student Union and its members want to see accountability taken for this year's failures. We are asking for you to fulfil the following actions to address problems;

 

  1. RCASU or student representatives on CARGO (Covid Academic Response Group)

  2. Consultation of students in future decisions and transparency with students around decision making

  3. Overhaul of the internal student complaint process

  4. Utilising the student body in co-designing and collaboration with College’s projects wherever possible 

  5. Concrete commitments regarding next term’s arrangements and access based on projected scenarios of COVID-19 with different traffic light scenarios laid out.  E.g. if numbers are high this would result in X level of access.  This should be published at least 4 weeks before fees are due to be paid to avoid misleading communications prior to fee payment as seen this academic year. 

 

We formally request that the Vice-Chancellor and your office outline clear commitments to better management and accountability in a minuted meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, Student Union and student reps on the 25th October 2021. In this meeting, we want to hear directly from the Vice-Chancellor's Office how you will rectify the above listed failures, take accountability for the impact that they have had on students, and present clear plans on how you will fulfil the above demands next academic year 2021/2022.

As we saw in  2020, UCU’s Vote of No Confidence had an overwhelmingly high response.  If we do not see clear improvements this coming academic year 2021/2022 then we will have no choice but to take similar action and hold you accountable; to ensure that RCA student’s satisfaction and morale does not deteriorate even further.

 

Further details can be found below. 

Signed,

RCASU Co-Presidents

Marnie Hamilton and Chenyu Shen

ADD YOUR SIGNATURE
 

* In the RCA Action Group’s March 2021 Student Survey, 88.9% expressed that they are dissatisfied with the level of empathy and understanding for the challenging circumstances faced in 2020/21 from the RCA Senior Management. 90.7% of respondents said Senior Management has not presented the level of responsibility for academic wellbeing that they expected. In the RCA Action Group’s 2020 student survey, 85.4% (1080 students) of students said they weren’t happy with the quality of care the RCA Senior Management has shown to its students. 78.7% of students said that their mental, emotional and physical health has been negatively impacted by RCA’s handling of the pandemic. 

 

** 76% staff turned out and 86% voted to say they had no confidence in the Vice- Chancellor's Office (specifically Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson; Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost Professor Naren Barfield; and Chief Operating Officer John Worne). The public vote received 643 votes in total with many of those being RCA students as well as established artists, professionals and RCA Alumni. 

 

*** In two of the four RCA internal Schools there was 1 teaching staff member to every 15 students in 2015/16, that figure rose to 1 teaching staff member to every 30 students in 2020/21.

 

 

  1. The College Lost and damaged thousands of pounds worth of student’s work and unreasonable compensation policy

As reported in The Guardian on 20th May 2021, when the Government closed University buildings due to Covid-19, the Estates and Campus Operations team were not equipped to pack and store student belongings. Over 130 postgraduate students' precious and expensive degree projects were smashed, broken, stuffed into the wrong box or lost completely when the work was outsourced to an external company. The Vice-Chancellor’s Office should have recognised the importance of this task and taken due care to ensure it was completed to a high standard. Whether by adequately resourcing the Estates and Campus Operation team to fulfil their complex and important student-facing roles, by outsourcing work to a company that was adequately prepared and managed closely throughout.

Students are still severely affected by the impact of this, with hundreds of items still not collected, lengthy claims and collection processes, and continuing upset and stress to those affected. Many artworks left behind at Campus due to Lockdown were already (or subsequently have been) sold and awaiting collection.  After 10 months of repeated requests, the compensation process finally established for students is inadequate.  By only allowing students to claim for the cost of materials, rather than the value of the work itself or the time and energy put into creating it, it demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how the art world actually works.

The Vice-Chancellor’s Office has displayed a lack of understanding of the importance of students' work (the primary reason they are at the RCA in the first place) and the financial and physical investment put into work.  The Vice-Chancellors office failed their students by not effectively managing and delivering the mammoth task of reuniting students with their work and keeping it safe in the process. Taking care of students and their work should have been a priority concern, and valuing students' work should be implicit to Senior Management's understanding of the student body for which they are responsible. This is a clear example of how out of touch the Vice-Chancellor's office is with his student body and their priorities, values and experience at the RCA.
 

2. Poorly designed and limited access to campuses/workshops for students

Throughout the pandemic, the Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson and Senior Management have failed to consult the Student Union or student body in important decision-making processes, especially with regards to changes of teaching delivery and campus access arrangements as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The student representatives have been requesting the Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson and some of the Senior Management team members to include at least a SU Co-president and a student representative in the Campus Academic Response Group Operations (CARGO) for almost the whole academic year but constantly been refused. The net effect over the past year is that the Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson and Senior Management have unilaterally changed the content and delivery of students' education without consulting students which led to plenty of students’ complaints and dissatisfaction. Additionally, crucial student-facing services that are already understaffed such as Estates and Campus Operations, Registry, and Student Support have been working at maximum capacity to accommodate and deliver on increasing student needs due to the pandemic, making significant assignments being delayed again and again.

Students have continuously raised the inadequacy of and issues with the current “Burst Weeks” system, which allows students on to Campus in two-week rotational bursts, but they must sign up for allocated desk space as well as technical service space simultaneously two weeks prior. Many students are not in the country, so the campuses are frequently near to empty for the burst weeks for no practical reason, which most of the students regard as a huge waste of resources. Therefore students have been bringing up suggestions and requests many times since Term 2, however, nearly all of the requests to better adapt “Burst Weeks” have been ignored or rejected by the management team’s reason of “parity experience”. Some of these adaptations would involve adapting the software and reviewing processes for allocating burst mode access, something that would be relatively simple to address, but the Vice-Chancellor’s Office has not enabled their staff members to achieve this goal. Again, the Student Union requested the Vice-Chancellor to better resource this provision so that the “Burst Weeks” can be better adapted in case it would continue in the new academic year 2021/2022 but the Student Union was ignored yet (see our Letter dated 19 May 2021).

The Student Union conducted a survey on campus opening hours on 17 May 2021, which were cut drastically from September 2020 because of Covid-19, to which we shared the results at the Senate and with the Vice-Chancellor in writing. The survey result highlighted that ca.300 students (ca. 15% of the current student body) are in need of partially returning back to the normal campus opening hours, specifically, extending one or two hours per weekday and extending one or two days per week on the current basis. This has been requested multiple times throughout the academic year, as it became apparent when the Covid-19 pandemic first struck that RCA was not adequately equipped with the number of staff needed to manage a pandemic setting on its campuses. The Vice-Chancellor’s Office continues to ignore these requests to better resource his student-facing staff. Another example is the hard copy of the certificates for last year’s graduates. Despite multiple requests since last July, graduates of 2020 have still not received their hard copy of the certificates. This is particularly important for international students who rely on their hard copy certificates to attain jobs and progress with their career. 

 

3. Blanket refusal for student fee refunds and a not fit for purpose complaints procedure

 As Post-graduate Art & Design students, not being able to fully access campus and technical making workshops has significantly reduced the RCA student experience. Over 900 students signed a petition appealing for Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson to consider a fee reduction of at least 30% with the background that the RCA’s £29,000 per year tuition fee for international students are one of the most expensive tuition fees in the UK, 309 international and home students expressed their intention to withhold their fees with demands for fee reduction and better student conditions. Two open letters were addressed to Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson from the RCA Action Group on 9 January and 22 January 2021, to which he did not respond These students sent another open letter on 26 March 2021 but again were ignored. The Student Union also sent Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson an open letter on 26 January 2021 Students were left with no choice but to withhold their due fees until Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson would deign to respond to their demands, or, at a bare minimum, acknowledge them. In total, over half of the RCA student population either took part in or signed in support of the Fee Strike, which was written about in The Guardian, The Tab and Art and Education. When the Vice-Chancellor was asked to comment, he denied that there was a fee strike happening. This blatant disregard for the truth and ignoring student/staff action is also evidenced in UCU’s 2020 Vote of No Confidence, where hundreds of students signed in support**, and The Vice-Chancellor’s Office did not respond.

As to the RCA Action Group’s open letter to the Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson being immediately treated as a student complaint, the RCA Student Union has serious concerns about the RCA’s complaint process, with severe timeline delays, reports of conflict of interest on panels, and worryingly high numbers. We don’t think there is any fair process by which students can request a refund or file a complaint about their experience at the Royal College of Art.
 

4. Delays in Battersea South development project, profoundly impacting the study arrangement of 220 Leave of Absence students.

Another clear example of the inefficiency of management is the delays (from this summer to next January) to the Battersea South project. This is a £136 million project that involves building an expansive research centre as well as studio and learning spaces. Around 220 students were on Leave of Absence, largely because of the effect of Covid-19 on their studies and wanted to come back when they could be with a cohort physically and participate in a large physical show. On 20 April the Student Union were informed that students who had taken Leave of Absence and were expecting to return in September 2021 were no longer going to be invited back because the College did not have sufficient space to accommodate them until the Battersea South building was complete. This means that these students will not be able to start until January 2022, and will be completing their final term over the summer break, when most staff take their annual holiday leave, there is reduced service of technical facilities, and most importantly they need to change their life plans and will not be with their cohort or, be able to participate in a large and prominent final exhibition.

The Student Union also received several complaints from students who were accepted onto their programme in Summer 2020 were told that there would be no limitation to the time period within which they could choose to defer their study. Less than a month later the RCA changed its decision and informed students that they would no longer approve deferral requests and students either had to sacrifice their place and re-apply the following year or be forced to begin their study in September 2020. 

This complete oversight to inform colleagues of the delay to the project, and to tell students about their deferral rights earlier, is emblematic of careless management, and of disregard for students that have already paid their fees and entered the RCA system. 

 

5 . Continued profound lack of care to address student unsatisfaction and staff concerns

The international students who studied completely online and remotely during the whole academic year 20/21 complained to the Student Union that they felt being hugely neglected by the College. Especially some of the fee striking international students felt that they were treated indifferently by the Registry/Admission team warning them that the RCA would now be obligated to report their lack of student status to the Home Office if they continued to not pay their fees, and their Visa would not only be rescinded but they may remain ineligible to gain another Visa in the future. International students currently make up ca.66% of the student body and pay £29,000 per year, contributing a sizable portion of RCA’s annual income.

Another example is the student email address issue. RCA students are granted access to an alumni email address to use in professional capacities during and after their studies, and the RCA advertise this email address as something provided to students for life. At the beginning of this academic year, students were given the email address format consisting of only six numbers instead of the previous  ‘first name.surname’ format. The Student Union has received complaints from at least 50 students since October 2020 and in the RCASU’s Student Survey of January 2021, 82% of students voted that they were unhappy with the new numeric email address format. The email address as a number looks unprofessional, rendering it useless, is unrecognisable and often lands into people's spam folders, and is no better than any other email a person could create themselves. Under pressure from the Student Union and student body, the email address format was just being confirmed on 11 June that it will be changed from the next academic year. Again, the Vice-Chancellor's Office is out of touch with what his students deem valuable and important to their experience at the RCA.