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Aitken to Mix Undergrads and Postgrads

HOUSING and Accommodation Services (HAS) has amended its decision to make Aitken Wing in the Vale Village entirely post-graduate next year.

The new decision opts for a split between undergraduates and postgraduates (with block A remaining undergraduate). HAS will also use Chelwood accommodation to help handle the new population of students.

This came after weeks of work from Ed Sparkes, VP of Housing and Community, and the Aitken RA to try and amend the decision that the University had made on its own, allegedly breaking University policy and failing to understand the implications of their decision upon the residents.

Furthermore, the timing of the decision to re-open Chelwood also means that the Guild will have no input to its fees. At £6,812 per year, this will place it in the five most expensive accommodations that the University provides.

The University’s motivation for this change was so that more time would be available to renovate the Spinney in Pritchatts Park, which is entirely postgraduate accommodation, all with 50-week contracts.

The previous set-up would only have given the University two weeks to renovate. In order to find more time, they chose to swap Aitken’s undergraduate accommodation with the Spinney’s for the 2010-11 academic year. This change would allow ten weeks to renovate the postgraduate accommodation.

The University has now conceded to a split between undergraduates and postgraduates in Aitken, an outcome that saw all parties better off and took on board the concerns of the Guild and the RAs. However the concern lies with the manner in which the University initially handled the decision.

Ed Sparkes was himself only informed of the change in March, after the decision to turn Aitken fully postgraduate had been made.

He believes that the decision process violated University policy on Consultation of Students about Major Changes, which states that ‘a major change, as a minimum materially impacts on a cohort of students.’ Should any change qualify by this it must be brought forward for student consultation.

When approached by Ed Sparkes with the Policy, Lesley Stewart of HAS (General Manager of Student Accommodation) stated that ‘this is the first I have seen about the consultation process so apologies if we have not adhered to the policy’.

The originally proposed changes would have only been in place for one year, which would have lead to a complete re-structuring of the student hall community – something that has been highly contested by both the Guild and the current Aitken RA.

As the smallest hall on the Vale, Aitken Wing boasts a strong community spirit, which has historically had a high participation in student elections and social events. In a recent redbrick survey 83% of Aitken residents felt that they felt that they belonged to their hall, 24% higher than the average across halls. It was argued by the Guild that in restructuring the student demographic of the hall, this community spirit would be effectively knocked out of sync, and would take some time to recover.

Josh Swanston, President of Aitken Wing, felt that ‘it was simply the lack of consultation in the process and the way it was sprung on us as a ‘minor change’ when realistically it had a major impact on the way in which we as the Aitken RA would have to cater for our residents and ensure their welfare.’

The university did not intend to cause harm as pointed out by Josh Swanston and Ed Sparkes, and it proved this by coming to a compromise on the decision. Yet what it showed is a failure to appreciate the impact of such as decision upon the student body.

Ed Sparkes said: ‘they should never have done it in the first place, and I believe the University broke their own policy, but I’m grateful that they were willing to compromise and involve students once we had spoken out. I hope that with this compromise we can keep Aitken spirit alive and postgrads looked after.’

A HAS spokesperson stated “HAS are committed to improving and refurbishing our student residences to ensure they meet the needs and expectations of our current and future residents. In order to minimise disruption and inconvenience to our residents where possible we carry out refurbishments in the summer vacation period and a two week window at Spinney would not have allowed this.

A mix of postgraduate and undergraduate residents on Selly Oak and Pritchatts Park Villages over the last few years has been successful with the RA’s supporting both groups.

We worked closely with the Guild to arrive at a compromise on the ratio of postgraduates and undergraduates which was acceptable to both of us and we look forward to this mixed residence bringing a new dimension to the Vale Village.”

Co-written with Catrin Shi

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