Security drive came with hidden cost

The bid to monitor student and staff satisfaction is gathering momentum but at one college it backfired reports Neil Merrick.

Managers at one of the country's largest colleges were stunned to hear students criticise a security system which was set up to prevent thefts and keep out intruders.

The remarks came at a sensitive time for East Berkshire College since its quality assurance systems were censured in a recent Further Education Funding Council inspection report. The college was setting up new management systems to improve quality at the time of the inspection and felt aggrieved by the report.

Security is top of the agenda for many big colleges. A security guard system with closed-circuit cameras has been introduced at other huge campuses such as South Birmingham and Sheffield. The move has followed concern over student safety and welfare and often has an eye on a forthcoming FEFC inspection.

But the policy misfired at East Berkshire when a significant minority of students complained of intrusion. "It's an invasion of privacy," said Tracy Statters a community worker who liaises with the student services department.

But the principal Ray Sinclair-Smith said he was not aware of any concerns about private security guards. "If that sort of complaint was made to me then action would be taken," he said.

Channels for such complaints are now in place as part of the wider quality assurance system at East Berkshire. But it is bound to take time to turn things round.

The college was created by the merger of three colleges with different management styles. It has about 5,000 full-time equivalent students.

Establishing a communications network to satisfy every student and the FEFC is a daunting task, as the hiccup in the security system illustrates.

The college is trying to widen opportunities for students and staff to comment on the way the college is run. Rather than try to do everything from the centre, from next year, each site will have its own student committee and a separate staff liaison committee.

Annual surveys will run throughout the year to tease out weaknesses before they grow. The surveys will also aim to gather important information needed to assess the quality of courses.

Security is the type of issue which should be raised at the student consultative committee, says management. But performing arts student Robert Mesure seemed unaware of it. He had accused guards of interfering in students' lives. But he admitted: "A lot of people don't know about the mechanisms they've got for complaints."

The quality of teaching and support is praised by many students who say small changes could bring immense benefits in quality. "The teaching is good and tutors keep track of you in case you have a problem or need help," said Razia Rafiq, who is taking a general national vocational qualification in business.

Anyone dissatisfied with tutor response can contact the student services department and fill out a complaint form. Student services manager Jenny Chapman said: "The basic philosophy is to try and solve a problem as quickly as you can at source."

Part of the problem is with the students themselves. Robert Gray, a union representative for higher education access course students, said the general feeling was the college is well run. Security measures had already been discussed by the consultative committee, but he accepted not all students would be aware of what happened at meetings.

It is at this point that the old-style communications break down. While consultative meetings are dominated by topics such as car parking, the refectory and smoking, curriculum issues may only be challenged at meetings of course teams and boards of study.

Some of these are open to students but others are not. Mr Sinclair-Smith accepted that there was a lack of consistency across the college and said an action plan was in place to widen consultation.

"We have got to make students understand their representative role more clearly," he added.

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