Opinion: A lack of support for JCRs has neglected the first-year experience at Riverside


By James Fishwick, First Year History & Riverside JCR Sustainability Rep

On Monday, Riverside JCR voted unanimously in favour of having no confidence in the University of Bristol’s Residential Life service due to not having access to over £20,000 worth of student social fees. One of the student reps gives the full account.

Forming a functioning Junior Common Room (JCR) with an enthusiastic group of first-year residents is meant to be the hardest part, but many JCRs at the University of Bristol have found it's the complete lack of financial competence and direction of the University which has caused issues. The new ResiLife system, launched in September 2018 is preventing JCRs from organising fun, fulfilling, community-building activities that can be so vital to student wellbeing and experience in the first year of University.

Riverside JCR managed to form an enthusiastic committee in the October elections, with students eager and ready to plan, carry out and organize activities. They were hampered, however, by the University, SU and ResiLife who could not fulfil their joint promises to us without passing the blame between each other.

As a residence, Riverside is home to 550 people, who each paid a £50 ‘JCR fee’ as part of their rent to go towards activities in the accommodation, such as formals, movie nights, or outings. A grand total of £27,500 comes from the students’ pockets to form the year's budget. It’s larger than most halls of residence receive, and with this Riverside JCR had plans to make the most of the money and time available.

The first struggle we had was completely valid: we had to set up a bank account so that it would be easier for us to manage our finances and access our budget. After doing so by January, we assumed the money would be transferred by the University imminently afterwards as stated in the JCR constitution. Oh, how we were wrong.

| Student reps in Riverside accommodation declare they have ‘no confidence’ in UoB ResiLife

We are still yet to see the bulk of the £27,500 paid for by Riverside residents, and for the few events we have run so far we have had to beg and borrow from other JCRs and ResiLife. From my experience organising our Christmas formal, the staff at ResiLife were very helpful.  

Without access to our budget, they accommodated our ideas and really did help it happen and we appreciate that. But we are still over £20,000 short with no answer from anyone as to when it is coming, who is responsible, and who has effectively robbed us of first year experiences.

Email after email, we have been told: ‘It has been sorted, it will be in your accounts next week.’ Yet the money is still to fathom into existence. Where is it?

Campus Houses JCR, including residences on Woodland Rd, have also passed a vote of no-confidence | University of Bristol

It has made acting effectively as a JCR more difficult than it should have been. We have only managed to run three events that required financial resources, but we have had an extensive list of events and ideas to be able to have an event every other week.

It became painfully frustrating to be told the same excuse every week and that our money would be coming, only to face repeated disappointment. It was frankly neglectful of the University, who say they care about student wellbeing and experience, to withhold money not just from Riverside, but from many of the East Village JCRs.

Many of the issues we faced this year were highlighted by an open letter in September 2019, but no solution to these issues has been carried out, or if they have, they have failed. There is still an unclear, bureaucratic method to running and approving events, the tediousness of which is enlarged when you cannot access the budget.

There seems to be a never-ending list of people who we can contact, or who contact us, but we are unsure of the hierarchy within ResiLife and the individual responsibilities. It makes planning harder for us, and surely harder for them, if we have no clear contact.

| An open letter from JCR committees on ResiLife

In any eventuality, we will struggle to make use of the full budget due to COVID-19. However, we want to know where the budget is, why it has not been transferred, and what it will be spent on now. We have even asked ourselves whether legal proceedings could be taken against the University on behalf of the 550 students, who all contributed £50 to a budget which has never fully materialised.

Our issues with the system were raised before the COVID-19 crisis though and we have made various attempts to receive the money throughout the year. There is no excuse. In the simplest terms, the money that was dedicated for student activities, and other student halls of residence, has not been received by the students it was meant for. It is unaccounted for, fails to fulfill a signed contract, and, as the JCR representing the students, we would like to know where it is.

‘In the simplest terms, the money that was dedicated for student activities, and other student halls of residence, has not been received by the students it was meant for.’

It has to be questioned whether the ResiLife system is working to support JCRs as it should, and why thousands of pounds of students’ money has been squandered from the student experience. For many of us first-years in Riverside and beyond, it has not worked. The University has failed us in its duties to provide a good first-year experience and support the JCR’s role in boosting the wellbeing and community.

What we want to see is change. Once the JCR bank account has been sorted then funds should be transferred and available for student reps as per the dates in the constitution. The details should be made clear to JCRs at their induction sessions and promises kept. East Village, the halls in City Centre, need more support given to them and a similar experience to the more traditionally prosperous West Village and North Village halls in Clifton and Stoke Bishop.

East Village residences have the benefit of being in the heart of Bristol city centre | University of Bristol

Many of the East Village residences are owned by the University but run by private companies such as Unite, and we have found inconsistencies between what Unite and the University have said. ResiLife has to be reformed, the system of booking and points of contact within staff have to be made easier and clearer, possibly by having one ResiLife member committed to JCRs this issue could be solved. We are even considering suggesting the removal of JCR affairs from ResiLife completely.

Finally, we need to know where our money is and how it will be spent. We have missed out this year, so, whether it be through a refund, or we can still organize a one-off big spend event, we best receive it somehow next year.

Featured image: University of Bristol

What do you think could be improved in the University's Residential Life service?