Student safety at university is of the utmost importance, but true safety comes from policies that are integrated to promote community, connectedness and belonging, rather than policing and restricting.
GoodCourse spoke to Gerry Rice, Dean for Students at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, about the importance of empowering students to make good choices and taking intersectionality into account when doing so. Through this, Higher Education (HE) spaces can adapt to any issue, no matter the size.
My professional background is in social work, primarily with experience in working with drinkers and drug users, and finding the correlation between mental health and substance abuse. I got into HE when my organisation did some collaborative work with a university. We came in to help support their training and the drug and alcohol side of their Social Work course. I then got a full-time job at the university and progressed into an academic role, moving into Head of Department before taking up a more generic leadership post. From here it was a journey into Student Support. I found moving into the student-facing role to be a natural extension of delivering learning and teaching to the student support side.
I am absolutely committed to the construction of harm-reduction policies. Part of what we need to understand is that there’s a ladder of harm, and taking any drug or drinking alcohol exposes us to this ladder of harm in some way. Part of my job is ensuring that the students we work with are somewhere down at the bottom of that ladder of harm. We have a choice here of following a medical model that takes control away from the student and places emphasis on the physical response to the substance, or a more social model to enable and empower the student to make choices that keep them lower on that ladder.
I'm here to enable students to make good choices. This is how I facilitate change — if I'm controlling or policing it, then I’m not using a social model. In this sense, my professional background has absolutely informed my work. There is also intersectionality — recognising that different people have access to different choices, and being intentional about how we deal with this. If I don’t recognise things like unconscious bias, then I will end up inadvertently blaming the students for failing to adhere to our design of learning and teaching.
I began this role during the pandemic. At that time, it was all about working as a community with a group of people who came to university for social connection and to find an identity. It was hard to do that at a time when we couldn't connect face-to-face. We created a virtual community and did work changing how we support students as they come into university. We made a virtual platform to support this transition around introducing them to the university during that strange time, but with emphasis on creating that sense of community online, which could become a real, in-person community in the future when rules allowed it.
There was a danger with our students in residence halls that we would have to police them in terms of the Covid rules, and we dealt with that by informing students about why we were doing what we did and trying to engage them in a mutual understanding there. Then we had our off-campus students, trying to bring them into the community too.
Drawing on my experience in community development, we did try to build community continuously, and still do today. Even beyond Covid, we have the balance between online and in-person teaching, for students who commute, for example. It includes understanding the wider well-being needs of students — no students are the same, and it’s a mistake to view them as such.
We normalise connecting and community through promoting the interests of students in ways that we know help them to create a sense of identity and belonging, as well as promoting connection to one another. This is done through things like music and sport. We also have Student Life Assistants that work with students to create a sense of belonging and connection. They ran over 250 events that had over 7,000 attendees. These events varied hugely — they were brilliant too.
Make sure you work with other people in your organisation — no one is an island, and this stands in HE too. Make sure you work with others to make an impact. I’d also say to remember that we are in a privileged role in that we are paid to share ideas and thoughts. To do so, we need to have the confidence to let others challenge those ideas in a constructive way, and that is what makes a university.
Myth of Addiction by John Booth Davis. It’s about moving away from the pharmacological aspect of addiction because this perpetuates the idea that you have no control over your addiction. This book was really eye-opening for me, helping me to understand how to work with those who experience addiction.
My second one is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist; it really helped my understanding of society, difference and community. It’s a brilliant book.