Sometimes a change of job title is akin to nothing more than a rebrand, on the surface it may look shiny, new and impressive, but in reality nothing has really changed. On the face of it, the reorganisation of the college management structure being trialled in Vanbrugh, Langwith and James Colleges could just be another meaningless rebrand. But for Georgina Heath, Jonathan Exon and Mike Britland, the young College Officers taking up their roles this year, the changes represent an exciting change and a real investment in York’s collegiate system by the University.
The trio represent a marked change from previous college heads; described by Kate Dodd, the University’s Academic Registrar and one of the architects of the scheme as “student professionals, with a track record of getting things done, who understand what it is to support students in a collegiate environment”. All bring a variety of different skills and experiences to the job, the common denominator being that none of them are academics. Georgina has worked at Vanbrugh College for the past 8 years as College administrator prior to becoming college officer. Mike did his degree at Warwick, afterwards setting up a business with friends, before moving into politics, first joining the District Council before becoming a policy advisor; subsequently joining YUSU as JCRC co-ordinator. Jonathan is also law graduate with six years experience working in the University sector, focussing mainly project management, dispute resolution and contractual advice; he also spent last year as the College Dean in Derwent College. He also has diverse experience as a trustee for a number of local charities and also serves as a manager at music festivals, including the Leeds Festival, significantly all three have relatively recent experience of being University students.
The retirement of three long-standing college provosts this year provided an opportunity for the University to fundamentally alter the college management structures. The responsibilities of the College Provosts, an academic who spent just 25% of their time on college responsibilities, will now be shared by two new roles. The Principal, still an academic, will remain in overall control, but has a much reduced role on a day to day basis, becoming more of a figurehead. Much of the day to day administration and management of the College will therefore pass to the new full time role of College Officer. This represents a significant increase in staffing resources for the trial colleges and marks a hugely ambitious increase in the size and scope of what the colleges hope to achieve.
When asked what changes students would notice, all were adamant that they would notice a far more vibrant environment, “you should fine a much busier, buzzing atmosphere” Mike tells me, “there will be a lot more happening, more student led activities, there should be more to do for students, on a more regular basis”. Moreover with fewer time constraints and greater resources at their disposal they’re also looking to expand the range and variety of activities and services on offer to students as well as using their experience to assist students with putting on a greater variety of events. Furthermore there will also be a focus on greater support opportunities for students, with a greater focus on academic study skills, greater support in helping fresher’s settle into academic life, a greater involvement in societies and a greater focus on the needs of second and third years, who often disconnect from college life after they leave halls. “It’s about building student communities,” says Georgina. “I hope second and third years will recognise the community as a more cohesive whole, not just focussing on the needs of first years, but everyone, a college is a whole community”.
All are keen to stress that they are not aiming for a top down approach to management. “Activities and events should be student led, the college officers role will be to provide the expertise and support in order to make that happen, we really want to nurture anything that’s latent there, what students want to achieve” says Exon, pointing to last year’s highly successful fashion show in Derwent or Vanbrugh’s ‘Battle of the Bands’ as successful archetypes. “As full time members of staff, we have the time to find out what’s going on in the University, what’s available to students, to find contacts among alumni or in the city help students achieve their projects”.
The restructuring is, according to Dodd, in part a response to significant changes in student expectations and behaviour from students. “What students want from their experience has changed quite quickly, the change from the 2011 intake to 2012’s was quite stark, students are far more concerned with their degrees, we’ve recorded a rise in the number of first years using the library, there’s also been a fall in takings in student bars. Students are telling us what they want and we’re trying to give more of it to them. We’ve known for quite a while that there are some students who feel alienated by the party role of the JCRC’s or students would like a greater variety of things on offer, there’s been a push for a diverse range of events such as alcohol free events, but often there haven’t been the staffing resources available either in time or relevant skills on the JCRC’s in order to make these happen.”
All three officers noticed this phenomenon last year, with both Jonathan and Georgina noticing significant falls in turnout at Club D and the now defunct Vanbrugh Volume events, but they argue that this doesn’t necessarily represent a fall in students attachment to colleges or ‘college spirit’. “It depends how you college spirit” says Mike, “if you define ‘college spirit’ as the turnout at parties, then it’s a pretty narrow definition, the nature of colleges has certainly changed, and we’re hoping to build on that, colleges provide a huge opportunity for students to build up their skills and to try to share and learn from each other, we’re here to provide a gateway for students to do this”. Georgina reiterates this point, “having full time people means that we can get more feedback for what students actually want, and we can use this to generate events people actually want to go to, people don’t really want a club night on campus. It’s about sticking with the traditions that work, but not standing still and running events for the sake of running them.”
Mike’s advice for first years, is to “try a lot of things, there a lot of opportunities to try a lot of things and meet a lot of people, all of the colleges are putting on busy programmes in the first few weeks, and throughout the year, new students are of course here primarily for their degree, but will have a far broader experience if they try a lot of different things. But if you don’t have a great fresher’s week, if you don’t like who you’re living with, there’s a lot more to do outside of the traditional nights out, talk to us, if you’re not enjoying it, it’s not over, remember there’s a lot of other students who won’t be either, so my advice is don‘t give up”.
Regarding the challenges which will face them in their new roles, the three are very much approaching it with an open mind, “Its very much uncharted territory, we’ve all got big plans, but we’re tailoring our plans to what students want”, says Mike, “we’ve got a lot to achieve, and we all want to be the best college, otherwise there’s no point trying, if our students don’t think of themselves as James’s students first then we haven’t go there”. Georgina reiterates this, “there’s always the unknown factor, everything’s dependent on the students, what they want may be difficult to what we’re anticipating, we have to be really flexible, we might have great ideas now, in two weeks’ time they might have completely changed depending on the feedback we’re getting, we can’t be too rigid about it, at the end of the day it’s not what we want to do that matters, but what students want from us”.