“It is the attitude from above that we are a resource to be used to exhaustion”
A Glasgow Guardian investigation has revealed that students believe the University of Glasgow is increasingly taking advantage of its Living Support Assistants. In the past six years the University has been gradually increasing the expectations they place on Living Support Assistants (LSAs), and Senior Living Support Assistants (SLSAs). Interviews conducted and contracts obtained by this paper have revealed that, since 2013, the role has moved from a contracted, salary-paying job that provided stability for workers, to a “volunteer worker agreement”. The previous contract was paid by the hour for the set hours students would work per week, with an additional allowance of just under £1000 for on call hours.
LSAs work for the University to provide a link between the students living in student residences and the more senior members of staff. They are expected to help with issues of welfare and complaints, as well as to provide an enjoyable experience for students moving out of home for the first time. The current system provides a rebate of 60% off a standard Murano room for LSAs across all sites - approx £2,800, while SLSAs receive a 100% rebate.
The transference of the role type from a contracted, salary-paying job to a volunteer worker agreement means there are no longer any clear specifications when it comes to the amount or type of work that the LSAs can be asked to do, with one interviewee stating that “they [the University] can add as much extra work onto our duty as they like (in the form of events).”
Both SLSAs and LSAs from a variety of sites have told The Glasgow Guardian that they spend multiple hours a week planning and hosting events outside of the allotted shift hours they are given. LSAs typically have one desk duty shift per week, but also have numerous overnight on-call shifts and can be on-call for up to 24 hours on the weekends. The volunteer worker agreement states, “Hours of work are to be worked flexibly to meet operational needs and as detailed by Student and Academic Services.”
When compared to students in similar position at other Scottish Universities, the University's LSAs have a larger workload for less rebate; students in equivalent positions at the University of Edinburgh receive a 75% rent rebate no matter what accommodation they live in, and don’t have shifts longer than 10 hours, even at weekends. At Strathclyde University, students are given contracts with a set number of hours per academic year, and are then paid per hour.
Working under this agreement also means LSAs no longer get holiday or sick pay, and are missing out on the opportunity to put their wages into a pension scheme, which is a service they were previously offered. There is increasing pressure for students to stay on site during the academic holidays, including a recent change that means LSAs are expected to stay on site for much of the winter break. LSAs interviewed have brought up the issues that this raises for their mental health, as the respite of returning home before the second semester is, for many, not something that can be replaced by staying at university.
The current job description calls for students to act as “listeners and mediators”, but interviews conducted by this paper with LSAs and SLSAs at all sites have revealed concerns about the job changing from a part-time welfare position to a rapidly evolving entertainment position that takes much more time than initially expected. At some sites staff will be expected to attend the events they organise, including screenings of films, which can take up to three or four hours of an evening. Tasks such as handling noise complaints are still regular, leading to LSAs frequently having to face verbal abuse and mistreatment. The job runs for the entire academic year, and although there are options to move site or flat if SLSAs/LSAs feel uncomfortable where they are placed, finding new accommodation is a challenge if they want or need to leave the position altogether.
SLSAs and LSAs are also no longer required to undergo a Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) check, despite being put in a position where they are responsible for the care and welfare of under 18s.
Although many of those interviewed have attested to the kindness and support of the Wardens and other higher-ups at their sites, there have also been instances where workers do not believe they have received the support they need. One staff member has stated that the “attitude of the living support manager is that if we don’t like it then we don’t have to stay 'volunteering' as living support.” This has led him to believe he is “being exploited due to [his] socioeconomic status”, as he relies on the rent rebate to live: “For this reason I believe that the management are actively exploiting its ‘volunteers’ till breaking point and will continue to do so.”
Other LSAs interviewed have also spoken about the struggle of balancing their academic studies with the workload of being an LSA. Shifts have been called “extremely unstable” and there appears to be a large discrepancy between sites when it comes to the workload and pressure of the job, despite the higher number of workers at the larger sites, such as the Murano Street Student Village. One worker from a larger site told The Glasgow Guardian how they felt that despite the larger number of staff per shift, the balance of work across sites is not equal: “the workload we face in one shift at a larger site can take a toll on a person physically and mentally.” While it is not unusual for any part time job to interrupt studies to some extent, the instability that some sites face means students must prepare for classes much further in advance as they have little to no preparation for each shift.
When asked about being called out between 11 pm and 7 am Monday-Thursday, staff from some sites said it happened “very rarely” and “almost never”, while others claimed it can happen multiple times per night, speaking about how “this can really affect your sleep pattern, [and] there is a chance you get a shift during the week where you are so busy you are too tired to go to university the next day. It can be really difficult balancing a job as an LSA/SLSA with university.” Others have spoken about this impact on their studies, saying the instability and increasing workload of the job have had an “affect on [their] academics and wellbeing [...] preventing [them] from doing important academic work.”
Lauren McDougall, President of the Student’s Representative Council, commented on the issue: “The University has recently undertaken a review of student support and wellbeing, including the support provided to students living in University managed residences.
“Now is the prime time for the University to seriously consider whether the current arrangements for Living Support Assistants is working for all involved; I don’t believe it is and I have shared these concerns with the University.
“Over the coming months the SRC will be working closely with the University to make sure that the needs, safety and wellbeing of the LSAs and the students living in residences are prioritised as part of this review.”
McDougall asks that any LSAs who would like to share their experiences in an effort to change and improve the system contact her in complete confidence at [email protected].
A spokesperson for the University of Glasgow said: “We consulted with the Living Support team before we made the described change, which we believe represents an improvement on the previous arrangement, in recognition of the great work the team does to support students in our residences.
“We are not aware of any particular concerns within the team, but would be very willing to address these directly with the people involved.
“We are in the process of developing a new residences strategy and, as part of this, to consider future student support arrangements. It has been the subject of extensive consultation with students and will be published later in the year.”
Most of the LSAs and SLSAs interviewed told The Glasgow Guardian they enjoy the job. Despite the workload and pressure, helping the students with welfare issues is rewarding, and the benefits of receiving rent rebate and not having to deal with the stresses of living in an HMO property cannot be denied. Nonetheless, one staff member said if “[he] did not need the rebate then [he] would not be doing it."
“I do it because without it I would not be able to study, and like I said I just do happen to like doing it.”
However, LSAs have expressed concern about the changing role of the job, as they are increasingly expected to run events for the students at their site, rather than supporting them: “What is becoming more and more apparent is that the role is less about helping students in crisis and more about providing entertainment and events and activities – this was not what I signed up for, and let’s be clear, this level of expectation for the role is rising and probably will not stop.”