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Response to our Open Letter, from Senior Management

here's the latest...

Since 30 June 2021, we have been collecting signatures on our Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor's Office, which we delivered on 14 July with 638 signatories in total, (564 RCA students and  74 others). Firstly we’d like to thank everyone who signed.

On 13 July we received a response from the RCA’s Senior Management team. We have included that response below.

On 14 July we met with a specially convened subcommittee of the Council and the Senior Management Team to deliver our Open Letter and address our concerns. The College has accepted our request in the Open Letter to have a meeting on 25 October 2022.

 

SMT Response to SU’s Open Letter

Dear Marnie, Anna Karoline and Yon Yi

Thank you for your open letter of 24 June, addressed to the Vice-Chancellor’s Office on behalf of the Students’ Union. We are responding as the Senior Management Team (members of which will be meeting you on 14 July). As SMT works as a team, under Paul’s leadership, taking the decisions collectively in response to the many and varied challenges of the College we are going to address each of the points you have raised in your open letter in turn.

 

Students’ Union Representation on COVID Academic Response Group (CARGO) Naren, Ang, and Trevor have previously explained to you that CARGO is a critical incident response group composed of a small number of senior managers from across the College, including all four Deans of School. It is not a standing committee but was born out of the Covid emergency and will cease to exist once Covid becomes a controlled or eradicated virus. CARGO is not part of the permanent governance arrangements of the College (such as SMT, Senate or Council); it does not include the Vice-Chancellor, for example, and is deliberately kept small and agile to be able to respond to rapidly changing external events. It is not a consultative forum.

The challenge which we think you rightly address, is the need to ensure an effective, swift cascade of information from CARGO down to the Schools, Programmes, SU, Student Representatives, and students in the most effective way; we have established the CARGO briefing group that you attend, usually within 48 hours of each CARGO meeting; we would like to understand better how you feed the information you receive from these meetings to the wider student body, and how you obtain feedback from them. Our Internal Communications Manager, Danny McGuire, has some ideas on how to improve our messaging and will be in touch with you soon to discuss further. Perhaps, for example, each of the school reps should attend this CARGO debrief with the SU Presidents, in order to accelerate this flow of information?

Consultation of Students in Future Decisions / Transparency in Decision Making

We entirely agree with you. Universities work best when collaborating in partnership with the student body, represented by the SU. We currently have full Students’ Union membership of Council; Senate; Academic Standards Committee; Learning & Teaching Committee; School Assemblies; School Fora; and the Postgraduate Research Student Group. We also meet 3 times termly for catch-up and progress meetings between Co-Presidents with the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (twice pre Covid), and we meet termly at Senior Management Team meetings. We have established an SMT / Students’ Union liaison meeting which meets every three weeks, and Deans meet regularly on a one-to-one basis with Students Union Co-Presidents. We also have a follow up meeting after each CARGO meeting between members of the Senior Management Team and yourselves, as referenced above. We very much hope to continue this level of engagement with the incoming Sabbaticals and were really pleased that Yon Yi was able to attend the tour of Battersea South on 30 June with the SU Chair of Trustees.

 We know that the task of cascading information and SMT decisions down to the student body is daunting. We would like to understand better how you communicate outcomes from these committees and groups to programme representatives and the wider student body and we want to ensure that Danny McGuire is available to assist you. In turn, we would like to discuss with you the methods by which you ensure that the feedback you give to SMT represents the views of the majority of the student body, from all constituencies - those who continue to study and pay their fees as well as those who do not.

In terms of transparency, we agree that we need to improve the induction process for SU Sabbaticals - in particular, explaining our capital and revenue budgets, our endowments and investments, restricted income, our cash position and annual surplus. We will ask Claudia Linden and a member of the Finance team to meet you and the Head of Students Union and Finance and keep you up to speed with how the finances work because we believe we can improve the support we give you to understand this area. For example, there are some misunderstandings about how the £54M from Government for Battersea can/cannot be spent and how the RCA reinvests surpluses back into the institution.

 

Overhaul of the Formal Student Complaints Process

We agree that this is an appropriate time to update the Students Formal Complaints Process and the College will shortly be undertaking a full review of its complaints and misconduct policies and processes. This is one of the actions identified in the RCA’s anti-racism action plan published in May (including the development of an anonymous reporting system which we anticipate will be in place in the new academic year). We look forward to working with the Students’ Union as a key stakeholder in this work. However, we cannot comment further on the specific issues that you raise in relation to the individual complaints that you reference as these are subject to ongoing review by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

 

Utilising the Student Body in Co-Designing Projects

We remain committed to this principle and have worked with you and the wider student body on a number of projects. Recent examples of successful co-design/collaboration include:

? We consulted with you on the job description for the Head of Equity and Diversity and you met the two candidates from the final shortlist prior to appointment and were invited to share your views with us;

? SU Equality and Diversity Officer, Halimo Hussain, has participated as a full member of the group responsible for developing Black and African Diaspora studentships for 21/22 entry and beyond, assisting with the criteria for award, terms and conditions and application and consideration methods;

? We have been consulting with you on the development of an underpinning statement of College values, in advance of the development of the next College Strategic Plan;

? You recommended and we accepted actions to increase student employability services. We have appointed short term careers advisors to support students as an emergency pandemic-related response and look forward to working with you further on the development of a permanent careers service;

? You have been invited to discuss, with Heidi Weeks, Battersea South project manager, the interior layout and design of Battersea South;

? Service Design students have been fully involved in developing a solution to the issue relating to student email addresses;

? Service Design students have been consulted with and co-designed a new orientation and wayfinding app for the Battersea campus, which we hope can be implemented and rolled out across all three campuses.

? Interior Design students will be involved in the design of the new Battersea campus cafe in Dyson, scheduled to open in 2021/22.

? Visual Communication students have participated in the design of online show identities in both 2020 and 2021;

? SU Co-President Lucy Bird was invited in June 2020 to present a paper to Council in relation to Black and African Diaspora students. The paper was welcomed with many of the recommendations taken forward by the College;

? SU Co-President Gabi Davies was a member of the College’s Council Statutes and Governance Review Task Force, which made a number of recommendations to improve the College’s governance which have been enacted, including the decision to substitute Statute 10 for 23.;

? A student representative from Architecture was on the jury for the international architectural competition 2016/17 for Battersea South;

? SU Co-President Benji Jeffrey accompanied College representatives to Dubai for 3 day fact finding trip, relating to the RCAs proposed expansion of PGT and Exec Ed activities and freedom of speech/expression;

We very much hope that you will participate in a range of projects that we are putting in place now, including the design of the new College careers service (which you very wisely recommended to us); design of the offering for returning leave of absence students in January 2022; delivery of the Flexible Academic Model from 2022; and of course, our new strategic plan 22-27.

As always, we are open to hearing your ideas on future areas of collaboration. We do ask however that you ensure that you cascade this involvement to the wider student body, so that they too can influence the projects that we work together on; as Students Union Co- Presidents we look to you to provide us with the feedback of the whole student body, and to keep the whole student body informed of the work that you are doing on their behalf with us.

 

I will now respond to the issues you have stated as failures in turn.

3.1 Loss of Student Artwork

The collections process remains open for students to be reunited with their belongings. Of the 132 students cited in the article in The Guardian, 30 students have already completed collections for all their items and have left with the process complete. A further 29 students have collected some items, but with small numbers of belongings still outstanding, which are still being looked for. We have confirmed to 7 students that the items they are seeking cannot be located, and are assumed to be missing, and we have advised them to make a claim for the lost items; 1 claim for lost work (which the RCA takes on good faith, because we have no record of the work being on campus) has been honoured last week with a Photography student who completed in full the claim form. Searches continue for the remaining 66 students’ items, but according to the information provided by the students themselves, only 6 of the total number of 132 students have lost or damaged items of art work. All other items are personal belongings or materials, and not works, whether in progress or completed.

However, in addition to the 132 students cited in the article, there are over 500 other students who still need to collect personal belongings and items of work which are still stored on RCA campuses at White City or Kensington. We have supported over 140 successful collections since early May, but still have many more items awaiting collection, including many items of art work. The College is now employing an additional two temporary workers to assist alongside the two agency members of staff assigned to assist with this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

As of 8 July, only 3 students have submitted formal claims for compensation for lost or damaged items, and these have been reviewed by the relevant Dean, and submitted for payment. We continue to advertise the process by which students can submit claims, and would welcome your support in directing any students who come to you with claims that work or personal belongings have been lost to that process.

The compensation process which has been agreed does allow for students to submit claims for any lost or damaged art work including for the price of any lost sale of such work, if evidence of a prior agreed sale (such as to a buyer or gallery) can be provided. The Guardian article and social media reports are not accurate in reporting that students can only submit claims for the cost of component materials, and we would welcome a correction in your open letter to make that clear, in order to ensure that students in this position are not misinformed and subject to further, unnecessary anxiety.

 

3.2 Staff Capacity

Since March 2020, c. £3.5m of extra Covid-related expenditure has been incurred, with further spending expected before the end of the financial year. This has been funded by borrowing (£10m from the Government backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme).

During this period, the College has spent an additional c. £2m on the re-setting and safe running of the College’s campus buildings, which includes funding for additional permanent, fixed-term and interim estates staff. In 2019/20 payroll for E&CO was £1.4m. In 2020/21 it rose to £1.8m. This is a substantial (29%) increase in resources in a time of financial uncertainty and it is a false charge to lay at the door of the College that we have not increased resources in E&CO.

A further c. £1.5m has been spent on the delivery of enhanced online learning and new digital materials, plus extra direct (£0.35M) and indirect financial support for students in the form of hardship, IT and materials funding. This is in addition to other forms of support that have been received from the UK Government and donors.

The College has made a substantial investment in both online and physical shows for 2020 and 2021, and continues to do so. Prior to Covid, we invested solely in physical shows, and students had no long-term web presence or profile for their work.

We should also note that we do not recognise your figures relating to Student Staff ratios; our data shows that our overall student : staff ratio is 1:14, excluding visiting lecturers, which compares favourably with other art and design institutions.

 

3.3 Battersea South Delays

The Battersea project was indeed delayed, such that the new space and facilities will not now open from September 2021 and are delayed until January 2022. We wrote on May 26th to approximately 220 students due to return from leave of absence in September 2021, to advise them that, as a result, their return date will now be January 2022; so far, 6 have responded to indicate unhappiness. We understand their disappointment and are grateful to the vast majority of students who understand the challenges that the College and its contractors are working under, as a result of the pandemic. It is frankly remarkable that with 16 months of Covid and the construction team working to social distancing rules on site, that the construction project was not more delayed. We are surprised by your assumption that this project would be unaffected by the pandemic when all construction projects across the world have been affected by Covid - and in the case of the UK, post-Brexit supply problems. Many building projects have experienced delays likely to extend several years (cf Olympic Park Cultural Quarter). We have no case or evidence that the 4 month delay is caused by ‘the inefficiency of management’; we ask that you be considerate of the pressures that all staff, including contracted staff, have worked to over the last 15 months before making claims of inefficiency and incompetence.

 

3.4 Lack of Care

We cannot comment on the issue relating to the withholding of fees as this again, is the subject of the ongoing complaint. We do however know that while the former SU President was repeatedly referring to hundreds of students withholding fees, the Finance team in the College were recording fewer than 60 students who had not completed payment by agreed Deadlines.

 

3.5 Changes to Teaching Delivery, bookings via Moodle, and ‘Burst’ weeks access

Changes to teaching delivery and content are the responsibility of the Academic Standards Committee (of which an SU President is a voting member) and ultimately, Senate (again on which the SU has two votes). The Students Union has full membership of these committees, with the capacity to vote against proposed arrangements should you choose to do so. We are very grateful to the SU Sabbaticals for their support as ASC and Senate took these difficult decisions.

In response to your specific issue relating to campus access arrangements; while these are agreed by SMT and CARGO they have been, and will continue to be, largely dictated by Public Health England and Government regulations. Of course this is very disappointing and distressing for students, and we empathise with your situation. But we have to obey the law of the land. As you will know, since March 2020 restrictions have been in place for all public bodies in relation to social distancing, safety measures for workplaces to be made “Covid- secure’ in line with government guidance and capacity, and this is the reason why we have had to put restrictions on access in place, such as the burst week system. The burst system used for Terms 1 and 3 was put in place to allow all students (MA 1 first year, MA 2 second year, MA 15 month, PGR, MRes and GradDip) the opportunity to book onsite in their burst. The necessity to implement social distancing within studio spaces reduced the capacity of the College campuses by almost 60%, such that only 40% of the spaces available prior to Covid have been available for bookings. Student numbers are much higher than the space available so bookings had to be designed to support this; we are not aware of any viable and fair alternative proposal to accommodate our students on campus.

Based on feedback from students via two direct surveys on their intentions to attend campus if that was a possibility (prior to Term 1 and again prior to Term 2), we established that circa 50% of students would not come onsite due to travel restrictions and safety. This was based on that survey feedback as well as our experience of running a campus and data from our infrastructure in Term 1. This allowed us to open the opportunity to come on campus to a much higher number than we could accommodate than if we had made bookings centrally for all students of a given MA cohort.

The bursts were designed to support students accessing the most appropriate campus for their programme, with a variable offer to meet different student needs whilst giving overall parity of opportunity to gain campus access. The reason for the need for additional bookings for technical services workshops is that the different health and safety risks level of each workshop and even particular machines within a workshop means we have to have a dedicated booking system for these workshops and machines.

This complexity is essential to ensure student safety and it is the key reason, alongside Covid protocols, that we have required booking twice (once for campus access and once for technical service workshops.) You have challenged us to provide greater flexibility within our burst week system but your feedback has also been that students prefer a system that is simpler to understand; flexibility brings complexity and we are not convinced that your requests to open up burst week access, which ultimately will require a more complex system, will be appreciated by the wider student body.

One of the biggest issues we have faced with student bookings is the campuses being well booked (to full capacity at times in both Kensington and Battersea) and then approximately 60% of students who booked not showing up. Unused bookings made by students led to the perception that the campus was not booked, when it was, and unfortunately reduced our options to implement further improvements to widen / increase access. These are the booking figures for the campuses for April-June 2021 as recorded by E&CO.

April Average: Bookings April Average Attendance per day

Percentage attended?

Battersea 130 57 44%

Kensington 219 72 33%

White City 41 16 39%

 

May Average Bookings: May Average Attendance per day

Percentage attended?

Battersea 122 70 58%

Kensington 268 92 34%

White City 65 17 27%

 

June Average Bookings: June Average Attendance per day

Percentage attended?

Battersea 152 72 47%

Kensington 200 56 28%

White City 65 15 23%

 

We have reported in the VC’s newsletter over the past three months, our surprise and disappointment at the low levels of occupancy. A range of improvements were made throughout the year based on student feedback to the burst weeks. This includes, but is not limited to

- Additional burst week added over the Easter break to increase access

- Change to the burst weeks to ensure all Schools got as close to the same number of days’ access as we could, within the time available

- Addition of 2 weeks extra access for MA Second Years (MA2s) to support completion of technical projects after the official end of term

- Addition of 2 weeks extra access for MA First Years prior to start of their Second year planned for September 2021

 

As always, we value your feedback and work to consider and incorporate it, but we do ask that you understand, and communicate to students, that not all requests can be accommodated. We will continue to review our booking systems over the coming year, and would be pleased to have your ideas and suggestions too, but we ask you to support us in stressing the need for students to follow the processes in place to ensure fair and safe access, and avoid inconvenience and unhappiness when immediate access cannot be offered. We would also welcome any support you can offer in encouraging students not to book spaces unless they are sure they will use them.

 

3.6 Degree Certificates

In relation to your complaint relating to the issue of hard copy certificates for 2020 graduates, this is not a staff shortage issue; to issue hard copy certificates each certificate needs to be hand signed, and then have the College seal affixed manually. Each student address needs to be verified, and each certificate needs to be physically put in an envelope, labelled and sent with sufficient intervening time between individuals handling the documents to minimise the risk of Covid transmission. This has not been possible to coordinate during lockdowns, when easy access to buildings and sufficient space being available for staff to work in a safe and socially distanced manner is necessary. We anticipate completing this task in July 2021; all graduating students have received a digital certificate, and we anticipate that the vast majority of organisations worldwide will understand that the production of hard copy certificates will have been subject to negative impact by the pandemic. We have had a relatively small number of students write to us to ask us to expedite the process to enable them to respond to job offers; in each case we have engaged with the students or their employers to confirm the award of the degree. We have no record of any of our students losing out on opportunities as a result of the failure to issue a hard copy certificate.

 

3.7 Email Address Protocol

In relation to email addresses, in August 2020, we made the decision to switch our email addresses to include unique student numbers rather than full names in order to meet our IT security requirements, given the fact that a number of students have the same first and last name. During the first term we recognised that this change was not welcomed by students and apologise for the unilateral manner in which this decision was taken by us. In January 2021 a consultative process was proposed and in February this was agreed with the SU. In March a group of Service Design students were invited to lead on gathering the students&; needs while external views were sought from consultants and the RCA requirements were compiled by IT. Part of the consultation was a survey, launched in April and completed by 391 students. This gave the student body the opportunity to directly express their views in free text. Needs and requirements were compiled in May and a proposed solution discussed with the SU in June, which received endorsements from each co-president. The solution was announced to the student body and has received wide support. The new email address format is due to be released in August.

The student voice is always at the centre of IT services. In this example the support of Service Design students in a wide consultation has been very effective in delivering long term change and is a process that will be adopted for further projects. However, we recognise that this process - during Covid - took longer than it should.

 

3.8 Concrete Commitments in Relation to COVID

We recognise that the past sixteen months have placed tremendous challenges upon the student body and made the job of SU Sabbaticals and staff doubly difficult. Thank you for working through this very difficult period with us. The College fully commits to informing students in advance, as far as is possible, about how we will deliver our programmes in the forthcoming year, as we have done throughout the pandemic. As you will remember, we wrote to all new students on 1 June 2020 to advise them of how we anticipated delivering our programmes in 2020/21, and wrote to all continuing students with full details of our plans to deliver programmes in 2020/21, on 21 August (5 weeks before the start of term). We will of course endeavour to advise students of arrangements as soon as we can, but we ask you to be mindful of the unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the need to respond promptly to changing public health advice and government regulation. Our record in terms of COVID 19 infections among staff and students has been exceptionally good, and life safety and mitigating against the risks of long Covid has to remain our priority. The UK Government recently announced that all Covid-related restrictions will be lifted from 19 July 2021; therefore the RCA is planning for a full ‘on campus’ experience from September 2021. In practice this means a return to studios and workshops with the continued utilisation of some elements of technology-enhanced learning to support accessibility, flexibility and a dynamic use of the College estate. That said, the College is also planning alternative academic delivery scenarios to mitigate against any further imposition of restrictions at the national or local level. These alternative scenarios will be detailed within a single document and describe protocols ranging from &; no restrictions; all the way to national or borough-level lockdown. We are finalising the draft of this approach now and will share this with you and consult with you in the coming days before it is published.

The College is committed to reflecting on and modifying approaches to any booking system that might be required next academic year by way of Government guidance in response to the pandemic. Emma Bayne is joining our meeting on 14 July and will be keen to listen to your feedback. The College recognises the shared goal with SU to make the very best use of space that is available, accessed through a system that is accessible and straightforward to use for students to access studio and workshop spaces. At this point in time, our starting position for 2021-2022 is based upon the planned lifting of all Covid-restrictions, with no need for a burst arrangement, although, as always, access to Technical Services is facilitated through a booking arrangement, which will continue. We anticipate writing to students with full guidance during the Summer as soon as we can be reasonably confident of the arrangements that will apply.

 

3.9 Blanket Fee Refusal / Complaints Procedure

As these are subject to the ongoing complaints being considered by the OIA, the College cannot respond to these points at present, but will do so when those complaints are complete.

 

Concluding Remarks The College’s Senior Management Team remains committed to working with you, to support you in representing the views of the whole student body, and to using student feedback to inform the development of long-term College strategy and in response to short term challenges. We all understand that the last 18 months have been exceptionally challenging for students and staff alike. We aim to develop a relationship with you of mutual respect, trust and challenge; we value your scrutiny and feedback, but must also challenge you to ensure that you remain genuinely accountable to the whole student body, representing the views even of those students who do not speak up or participate in student fora and who are paying their fees and are not participants in the ‘pause or pay’ UK wide action. We understand that some of the College’s actions may frustrate students, we may get things wrong and we rely on you to provide feedback when this happens - but we also rely on you to ensure that any criticism is balanced, factually accurate and mindful of the pressures that all staff are working to. We look forward to discussing with you, on 14 July and afterwards, how we can support you in feeding back the student voice to us, and how we can support you in keeping the student body effectively informed of issues of interest and concern to them.

 

Kind regards,

The Senior Management Team