Student Services: Dealing with Difficult Issues

 This week we hear from Mandi Barron, Head of Student Services at Bournemouth University and Executive Member of AMOSSHE, the student services organisation. Mandi explains the challenging nature of her role and reveals why today’s student population needs more support than ever.


There’s a perception that people who work in student support just want to help people, do-gooders if you like. But for the issues we deal with, you can’t just like to help people. You’ve got to be professionally qualified and have an understanding of boundaries .We are often faced with some very difficult and challenging students and situations and some of these we are not able to resolve. Student suicides are thankfully rare, but they are still things that we deal with from time to time. Or students who come to us with a disability, maybe Aspergers or Autism; they’re perfectly capable academically, but their personal needs can be quite challenging. We have to deal with these things on a daily basis.

In the past these challenges would have been there but would be less frequent and have been dealt with on an ad hoc basis. With the increase in mental health needs, and, rightly, a more inclusive student population, now they’re becoming the norm. So we have to have processes and procedures in place for them, and accept that we can’t always help everybody. And sometimes you’re going to have to say no to somebody: and just occasionally tragedies occur despite the support that we, and other professionals, offer. .’

Entering the Profession

Mandi Barron is Head of Student Services at Bournemouth University.  She is also an Executive Member of AMOSSHE, the student services organisation.

‘Being a member of AMOSSHE offers the opportunity to network with peers. We’re a slightly different membership organisation than some other professional bodies because of the wide and varying remit of our members. For example we have counsellors, disability support practitioners, financial support staff, careers advisors and staff who work in sports and student residences. However, we all have one thing in common – we are interested in giving students the very best opportunities regardless of their circumstances. Because of the varying roles, to join AMOSSHE you don’t have to have any particular qualifications, you just have to work in a relevant field. Whether that continues, I don’t know as we may look towards something more formally recognised. If you look at the States, they refer to Student Affairs rather than Student Services, they run Masters in Student Affairs and it’s a much more recognised career pathway.  I think in the UK it’s still emerging…  I think probably in the next ten years it may become more formalised.’

Mandi Barron had what she describes as an ‘interesting journey’ into her profession.  ‘I left school at 16 with one Scottish Higher and had a range of routine jobs.  Like a lot of people in higher education administration, I completely fell into it by accident. After working in shops and bars and then in the engineering sector for 8 years, I joined the university as a Senior Programmes Administrator.  I  worked my way round the university doing a variety of projects and roles and worked my way up the ladder. I took over the role of Head of Department in 2013. So I have no particular qualification to specifically get me into this career, but once I started working for the university I did undertake training that was of relevance. I now have a Post Graduate qualification in Strategic Management, I’m a Fellow of the Leadership Foundation, and a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. So it’s more been on the job training rather than a career aspiration I’ve worked towards.  That’s not that uncommon with quite a lot of my peers.’

Mandi is also a member of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and a mentor on their Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Administration, Management and Leadership programme.

Student Services: Understanding the Boundaries

Two of the many areas that Mandi is responsible for at Bournemouth University is student discipline and student welfare. She explained that this requires balancing the good of the university against the good of the student, and actually the good of the whole student community.

‘Sometimes we may see a student for a disciplinary issue but in reality they have significant welfare needs. If the student chooses not to accept support there can be a real dilemma.  Our students are adults and if they are saying “I don’t want help, I’m doing my own thing, I don’t want you to tell anybody” then there is little we can do unless it comes to the point when the student’s life is in danger. We have to weigh up – when does it become appropriate for us to intervene because we feel we might know better than the student does because they might not be in a mental state of mind to deal with the issue.’

‘When my generation were 18, we were pretty independent and most of us were fairly resilient, you were pretty much a grown-up. But 18 year olds now are not that resilient: much younger emotionally.’

Securing the Future

‘What is our duty of care to the students?  The vast majority are adults – they’re 18, or over 18. We’re not their parents, we’re not acting in loco parentis. So where does a university’s duty of care stop? If you ask any of our members you’ll probably get a slightly different answer, nobody’s got exactly the same definition…

I think mental health support, disability support, and funding are big issues for Student Services at the moment because you’ll be aware that government is changing all its funding mechanism for higher education. A lot of the funding we used to receive to support students has been withdrawn at a time when we are seeing an increasing need for support. So it’s how we can continue to provide the support to ensure students  still get the opportunity for a university experience, whatever their needs  that are bothering our members at the moment.’

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