Oxford student welfare “unacceptable”

10th June 2010 By Alistair Walker

With a little more than a week left in office, OUSU’s Executive has fired a parting shot at the University, publishing a series of damning reports on Oxford’s “unacceptable” standards of student welfare.

In the reports, submitted to Oxford’s governing body, three of OUSU’s six sabbatical officers have attacked colleges for “confusing, exhausting and humiliating” welfare practices. One report has promised that the Student Union would “become more vocal and more demanding if meaningful commitments and progress aren’t adopted as a matter of urgency”.

The same report includes the accusation that colleges had been illegally sharing information on its individual cases of mental health with students’ parents and friends.

Such actions contravene the University’s confidentiality policy, which states that “matters relating to the health and welfare of individuals must be treated as confidential”, and permission must be sought to pass on students’ information “where possible”.

Dani Quinn, OUSU VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, wrote: “Some of Oxford’s colleges need to look to the practice of their neighbours if the collegiate nature of the University is to be a strength, not a weakness, in Oxford’s student support structure.

“I regret to say that many – though not all – cases were due to colleges or their staff behaving in a way that represented extraordinarily high levels of legal and/or reputational risk.”

This February, The Oxford Student reported that at least 13 colleges had no specific policy for dealing with students with mental health difficulties, with 12 colleges classing such students as “disabled”. The report also revealed that Lady Margaret Hall’s mental health policy included no reference to “welfare”, “mental health” or “Fitness to Study”.

Quinn’s report also urges colleges to adopt firmer mental health and welfare practices to ensure better academic performance. She said: “Many of the best-performing colleges have strong rehabilitative measures for students who are experiencing academic difficulties, while those further down the Norrington tend to use punitive measures.

“It is frankly amazing how greatly some colleges’ approach to discipline continues to perpetuate the guilt complex suffered by those who may have experienced abuse, harassment or other traumatic incidents. Added to this is the fact that college officers often call students’ parents to tell them about their current welfare, which is infantilising, dangerous and illegal.”

Reverend Simon Jones, Chaplain of Merton College, said: “I have never personally heard of any concerns over students’ confidentiality, either in Merton or in other colleges. We certainly take confidentiality very seriously at Merton.”

The report written by OUSU’s Sabbatical Officer for Graduates, Sarah Hutchinson, added that “the devolved nature of the collegiate University means that [welfare] policy is not always consistently applied”.