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Interview

KCL VP Education Prof. Adam Fagan on the cost of living, staff strikes, mental health and more

Adam Fagan

Editor-in-Chief Ishaan Rahman interviews King’s Vice President of Education & Student Success, Professor Adam Fagan, on the cost of living, staff strikes, mental health and more. 

Professor Fagan assumed his role as VP of Education and Student Success over a year ago. Since then, he’s overseen the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, further investment in KCL’s campuses and the development of a new student app.

However, his tenure has also been marked by growing dissatisfaction amongst university lecturers and non-academic staff over pay and pensions, precipitating strikes last month. The cost of living crisis has also pushed many students to the brink financially, prompting King’s to offer an emergency “Hardship Fund”.

Roar sat down with Professor Fagan in his Melbourne House office to discuss these issues further.

Reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic, how do you think King’s performed in delivering education during this period?

“I was Vice-Dean Education in the [Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy] during the pandemic so I was really involved firsthand. I think overall we did as well as could be expected. We were very much, we worked in tandem with other London universities, I think we worked very hard on the importance of communication, keeping everybody safe, staying within government guidance even as that changed quite quickly. I think we did well.”

You worked closely with the “Keep it Real KCL” campaign who fought (successfully) for a return to in-person lectures. Was it this campaign that ultimately pushed the college to return to pre-pandemic teaching?

“I worked very closely with that campaign. I think it was really well led and I have an awful lot of respect for the students involved. I, personally, was incredibly keen to get as much teaching back on campus as soon as we possibly could.

“I think, at times, we were talking cross purposes with the campaign because they were very much focused on in-person lectures and in-person lectures are really important but they’re not as important in some subjects. If you’re a dentistry student or a medical student, you’ve got face-to-face teaching and learning in hospitals. The lectures may well be something that’s a tiny part of your course and it might be easier for you [online] rather than come to back to the Strand or Denmark Hill or wherever you need to.

“Having that as a digital resource isn’t the end of the world. However, in history, when half of the teaching learning is the lecture, if you, if that’s online, then […] you’re only here physically for three hours a week. So in history, it’s really important. Um, so sometimes it was about, you know, we really needed to kind of talk, you know, really kind of work together more.

“What I also think was the challenge was there were still higher levels of anxiety [around Covid-19] amongst students and staff. We had outbreaks. Um, we were really, really conscious that, you know, particular international students were very, very anxious. So we had to keep [online] as an option.

“But the [Keep it Real] campaign was excellent. We were never poles apart. We were just treading a little bit more carefully, and I think the focus on the lecture sometimes was a bit of a distraction because we were looking at the, the whole learning experience, tutorials, seminars etc. and that sometimes certainly got lost a little bit in the conversation.”

What are your goals and hopes for the new “King’s student app”?

“I’m so excited about this app! I kept thinking, ‘why have we not gotten an app?’ We’ve communicated very well, I think as best as we could. But we were doing it by email, the website, you know. What we have at the moment is the first phase, We’re already [working on] phase two, where we want to facilitate chat, the student chat. And there are some safeguards we’ve got to put in place around that.

“We want to get the communication as local as possible; so departments, programs, schools and faculties. Timetabling is key, it’s got to be dynamic so that if a room changes as you’re on your way in, you come out of the tube, you get onto campus and it’s already been updated.”

For students who are not aware, can you explain the main components of the Hardship Fund?

“Let me just start by saying that this is a really tricky time for students, irrespective of household income. I can’t imagine it’s easy for anyone. I was talking to a student yesterday in the lift and [they] said all of a sudden their dad’s lost his job or there’s financial tensions and that must be being replicated across the board.

“So one of the most important things we’ve had to deliver, and I think we have been successful, is that we’ve got to put together a package of additional measures that as many of our students can access and benefit from as [soon as] possible. We’ve got to do it more for the most needy. But, if we only put money in the hardship fund or the emergency part or if we only increased bursaries, we wouldn’t be responding to the real need.”

On that topic, we’ve spoken to some international students who said that their tuition fee increases offset any temporary assistance in the Hardship Fund. How do you respond to that?

“That’s a really good question. There was a lot of talk about bursaries and some of our competitors put all of their resources into bursaries. And we said no because, while we have increased bursaries a bit, it’s a very small and specific category and international students can’t benefit.

“We have a really large international student community and it goes back to my point: we have to make sure [that this is not temporary] because we don’t know how long this period is gonna last. We’re talking about getting through the winter but we are in a recession for at least 18 months, probably two years. Inflation is incredibly corrosive. We’ve committed £3 million…but we’ve got to keep it under review.

“[…] So I would say we don’t want to be having to continually [take] emergency measures but we are possibly in this for a long term and we have to keep that under review.”

So does that mean more assistance in the future and then possibly something in relation to fees for international students?

“I think the fees is a separate discussion. I’m not trying to avoid that but…I still think the measures [like] the bursary hardship and […] affordable food is what impacts on the day to day […] You know a student comes to London with a budget and that budget is shrinking in real terms. And as a university, we’ve got to do something to enable students to live in London, function, and do their studies.”

Some students have had difficulty applying for the Hardship Fund. One student Roar spoke to said “They wanted me to show three months worth of bank statements with each expense over £100 itemised but I had only just moved in [to my accommodation] and didn’t have that”. How do you respond to those issues?

“I have to say, I’m not as familiar with the details on the form. I think we can certainly take that away and look at that; we are reviewing all of these things all the time. It is really important that we emphasise that [the Hardship Fund is] designed for students who are […] in a crisis where they really need help. From talking to colleagues […] there’s a real strong push to be as responsive [as possible] and to […] support students as quickly as possible. So it’s a really important point and I will take it away.”

Let’s talk about strikes. The UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said “If university vice-chancellors don’t get serious, our message is simple – this bout of strike action will be just the beginning.” What plans does the university have to resolve this dispute and minimise the impact on students?

“We understand why there is industrial strife this term, we’ve got 11% inflation. Every sector is experiencing ballots for strikes […] it’s not just universities […] The measures that we’ve taken locally in sourcing, cleaning staff, security staff […] and [the continued work to do] around gender and BAME pay gaps are the strongest reflection of our […] genuine commitment to respond. But even if we suddenly said “tomorrow we can meet every single demand of the local union” that would not end this dispute because this is national.

“Look, if you had four lectures in a seminar on a strike date, you have lost learning. And, and there’s nothing we can do about that but what we can do […] is mitigate the impact of that lost learning.

“Now, thankfully the vast majority of our students are not impacted by strikes […] you know, it’s in two or three faculties. And even in those faculties it’s very varied in terms of the impact.

“So we know what we need to in order to ensure that [for example] if you were on track for a first class degree, you will get it. I think the main thing we’re doing is really good communication; the thing that really worries me is that is the [Widening Participation] student who lives at home, [for whom] travel is extremely expensive, they travel an hour and a half to get to that 10 o’clock lecture, and it’s been canceled because of strike action.

“But what I’m really delighted [to hear] is that even where we’ve got the strongest commitment to strikes, [there is still] the good communication. So if you’re gonna, if you’re not gonna teach on a day, if you’re taking strike action, let [your students] know […] and I think it’s about common decency. It’s not undermining the industrial action but it’s managing it in a way that ensures that the impact on students is lessened.”

If strikes do become more routine, as the UCU has suggested they would if universities refuse to negotiate, are there specific plans so that the damage to students’ learning is less devastating?

“Well, no more strike days have been announced. We know there is action short of a strike, which is, in some ways, quite tricky to manage. But again, we’ve quite a bit of experience for better or worse at managing that. Obviously, if the number of strike days increases, then we need to increase our efforts to ensure that assessments, exams reflect the loss of learning.

“I think the key message is that, unless there was all out strike, which is very unlikely, or even if there is, on non-strike days, staff are available; they’re doing their office hours, teaching their classes, answering emails, resources are on Keats. We’ve just got to make sure that students make maximum use of the resources on non-strike days. But to answer your question directly, the focus is making sure that students are assessed on the work they’ve studied, the lectures they’ve had, the seminars they’ve had and that ultimately they can progress and graduate.”

UNISON, the union for non-academic staff, has said that King’s has chosen to admit a greater number of students over the last few years without meeting demands for more staff. This has led to copious amounts of work and hours for current staff. Do you agree with that assessment?

“No, I don’t. I think it’s more complicated. I know one of the huge challenges is that we’ve got so many vacancies. We’ve got some significant challenges in terms of recruiting staff and I think that’s putting a huge amount of pressure on existing staff.

“In terms of student numbers, two years ago, A-Level results were done based on an algorithm and then, a year ago, it was based on teacher assessment, That has played havoc with our admissions process because we make offers and, if applicants meet that offer, we are obliged to give them a place.

“So I think there were two years where things were a little bit out of sorts. That was replicated everywhere, particularly in our London competitors. But I think, all being well and barring another crisis, we should be able to stabilise and to manage the overall growth in accordance with our long term plan.”

You mentioned that strike action is nationalised. However, one issue that the King’s unions (UCU & UNISON) have highlighted is local is pay. They argue that, with the surpluses accumulated over the last two years, that their demand for a pay raise adjusted to inflation is reasonable. What do you say to that?

“First, I just have to say that I’m not involved in negotiations, there are other colleagues who are much closer to all of that than I am. What I would say is, I’ve been in post [for] 15 months and one thing that absolutely has blown me away is how phenomenally expensive it is to run and invest in a university.

“You know, let me just give you one example…I come from [the] Social Science faculty so I’d never had any dealings across the whole university. But single items of equipment in the health faculties, maintaining laboratories, doing all the things, the cost is astonishing.

“We have some wonderful buildings, but we’ve got some really dilapidated ones that we’ve got plans to improve. If you take the Strand Building, [which] we’ve invested over £1.5 million in bringing it up to date with accessibility, we can only do those sorts of things because the college has been run in a prudent way.”

Speaking of accessibility, a 3rd year Music student, Naomi Stenning, has been campaigning for a more accessible campus. She’s said that the progress on this has been slow. What are the broader plans to make campus more friendly to disabled students and staff?

“I’ve known Naomi, we’ve had lots of very productive conversations. We have done a huge amount [with accessibility], but you know that there are challenges where you have historic heritage buildings.

“We’d like to do this more quickly. The delays are about compatibility. Let me give you an example: we wanted to put in a ramp that would help wheelchair users in the King’s and Strand buildings […] but actually, when we put that towards planning, they quite rightly said, you can’t do that because it would be a greater risk because of the gradient.

“There’s also a real tension around to what extent do we do things that are workarounds or adjustments. Some of those conversations are much more complicated than we thought. So instead of just making entrance and exit more accessible, do we need […] a master plan for the whole Strand campus? Can we bring some of those things forward? Is that a cheaper way?”

One issue you’ve brought to the forefront is mental health. What would you say are the main methods by which the university is working to support students’ mental health?

“It is a huge, huge challenge. We’ve got this fantastic expertise on tap; our President [Shitij Kapur] is a Professor of Psychiatry. [We are] world leading on mental health and expertise that I think, in the past, we’ve not used. We’ve not deployed that expertise as well as we should have done.

“Early intervention […] knowing where we really need to intervene, whether it’s suicide risk, for example. But I think the main thing is to ensure that, you know, students are supported in their day to day, throughout their path, through their degrees. So everything from, you know, one of the things that I’m really focused on is what’s written and said to students. All of those things have an impact on mental health and wellbeing.

“Using student engagement data, for example. So if a student has been doing incredibly well, getting high 2:1 and suddenly there’s a drop, that should trigger something. But we’ve got to do much more and that starts with induction. The minute a student says they’re coming to Kings, their health and wellbeing is on our watch.”

Mental health and academics are inevitably intertwined at KCL. A number of students we spoke to in September complained about slow responses to mitigating circumstances requests and a general lack of empathy. How do you plan to address that?

“We’ve got partly as a result of the pandemic but it was happening before as well. The number of mitigating circumstances claims has skyrocketed; I think it was 8,800*. We’ve got to address this. My own view is that there is too much assessment. I think it’s so important we start with this point of view because the burden is too high and every single one of my colleagues across the Russell Group says the same thing: there’s too much assessment.

“Actually, though one of the most positive outcomes of [Covid-19] period was that when we had to shut everything down and exams couldn’t be held, we suddenly became very focused on program level assessment. Did we need a student on a Geography degree to write five essays when they’d basically met the program requirements through the assessments they’d already done? So what I’m saying is we have learned a lot.

“I think then we’ve got to look at our process. We need to look at whether, for example, you do need to put in a mitigating circumstances form for every single item or whether we can streamline some of that. The burden of evidence is difficult. I know that KCLSU are very keen on self-certification. We are exploring that but I think we’ve got to be careful because for every student who complains about the slowness of the process, you will hear another who is really worried that some are getting extensions illegitimately. So a lot of students are not in favor of self-certification for that reason.

“So we’ve got to get this right. The last thing we want to do is when someone’s had a bereavement in the family to make this even more burdensome. I think it’s too clunky at the moment. We are reviewing this.”

*Note: Professor Fagan later corrected the figure of mitigating circumstances claims from 8,800 to 37,600 in 2021

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