Vincent Lim England 0

A Formal Complaint

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College Principal Adrian Simpson recently sent around an email detail changes to the formal signup system. These included changing the system to a more complicated balloted system.

The aim of this petition is to raise awareness of the displeasure of members of the student body in the lack of consultation and the changes to the system, and to present students’ views of the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed changes.

Reasons why the student body should have been consulted more openly about the changes:

•Members of the student body pay for the lion share of the cost of a formal meal

•The formals are primarily put on for the student body, and the majority of the work that goes into organising and running formals is done voluntarily by members of the JCR and its various committees

•In a recent survey, only 3 (11%) respondents out of 27 agreed that a balloted system would be an improvement, suggesting that greater consultation would have shown a majority vote against the proposed changes

•Few to no members of the JCR have been consulted in the changes to signup, including the executive committee

•Though College does indeed arrange catering and subsidises formals, students are more aware of the work that the Social Chair and Soc Comm, Tech Comm, the Treasurer and Assistant Treasurers, student performers, Charity Comm, Green Comm, Pub Comm and the Web Team put into arranging the formals. As such, what is more or less a directive from College, with little to no consultation with the student body, may be perceived as interfering, with the potential for damaging College-JCR relations that a great deal of effort has been put into improving over the years

•This decision on an issue of importance to student experience at Durham has been taken out of students’ hands, which is a worrying precedent to be setting

Potential benefits of the proposed new system:

•From looking at the proportions of year groups at last term’s formals, it is very evident that very few members of the MCR attend formals. Though this could well be to MCR members preferring to get involved in their departments rather than their college, or there being more international students who may be more focused on their degrees, or simply regarding formals (particularly those featuring fancy-dress or seat-swapping) as more ‘childish’, the new system may result in a greater proportion of MCR members attending formals

•The proposed changes are clearly well-intentioned and, whatever people’s opinion of them, made in the interest of fairness

•It is worth trialling – without trying, it is impossible to see if there is an improvement.

•The way the current system works, one must be available on a certain day, at a certain time, to stand a chance of signing up. This is at least better than other colleges, where one has to queue at a specific place, on a certain day, at a certain time, to sign up, but formals may be more accessible with a wider sign up window

•If your internet or computer is slow, you may stand little chance of gaining a place, though this would supposedly affect both livers-out MCR (or livers-in Ushaw MCR members) and JCR members equally, but from the proportion of seats that each group gains at formals, this would seem not to be the case

•It allows six people, rather than four, to sign up together, though there is no reason why this could not be implemented to the old system, given that one of the comments many people made in the JCR survey was that they would like to sign up as a flat

•Though there is little wrong with a ballot system in theory, many finite things in life (applying for jobs, signing up for events, signing for a house in the Durham housing market, etc.) are often decided on a first come first serve basis

Concerns and complaints about the proposed new system:

(Some of these pertain to the trial, and would be unlikely to apply to the system if it were to be implemented, but many also apply to the nature of the changes and defend the virtues of the old system relative to the proposed one)

•It is unlikely that an automated system such as the current one would be in place until after the summer if at all, meaning that all future signups would be done manually as outlined in the Principal’s recent email

•Contrary to popular belief, there is no trick or tactic to getting on a formal currently; all that is required is that a user be ready at the time of sign up. Refreshing a number of second before, signing up to a higher table number – all are superstition

•The proposed signup system would not work for Sports Formal or Societies Formal, nor would it work for Returners’ Formal, as it doesn’t allow for fair representation of sports or societies at their respective formals, and does not allow for students to sign up to specific tables or groups. The old system would have to be used for thee formals anyway, creating confusion

•It would take significant time and energy to create the new, more complicated system, adding little if any more fairness compared to the current system – this point should not be underestimated, considering that the majority of the work would fall upon volunteers

•Improvements to the JCR website have been performed over the holidays to improve the sign up system and make it clearer. This includes standardising the clock time so that the website clock shows 7pm for everyone, and allowing individuals signing up to see what table they are on before they confirm their places. These changes were in response to feedback on the JCR survey

•Currently have one of the fairest and most advanced system when compared to other Colleges. Though simply stating ‘at least we’re not as bad as Aidan’s’ by no means implies that there is never any call for improvement, but given that our system automates dietary requirements and generates information with next to no need for human involvement, it might be worth recognising what we do well first

•The changes still offer an advantage to signing up in smaller groups. This is because as the tables are filled up with those winning the ballot, fewer spaces are left on tables and so only smaller groups can fill these spaces; changes should not be made if they are not changes for the better

•Part of the reason formals are popular is due to the hype surrounding signup. The new system will remove this and could reduce awareness and attendance

•In its current trial form, the new system will entail complications for catering and dietary requirements. If it is decided that the new system is to be fully implemented, these complications will continue until at least the summer, which is the soonest point at which the JCR web team will be able to create a fully functioning website. This means that much of the work will need to be done by hand

•Changing to a non-automated system puts additional pressure on college staff to coordinate the fortnightly formals

•The new, proposed system does not allow you to see people as they sign up, and where they are signed up – for instance, with the old system, you can see which table your friends are signed up to, and choose to sit with them

•With the new system, you will have to wait a couple of days to find out if you’ve gotten a place at the formal, meaning that you won’t be able to make alternative arrangements

•Student body hasn’t been made aware of the procedure surrounding the splitting of tables, i.e. how this would break down groups and result in people potentially not being sat with preferred people

•The new system also prohibits people from signing up in different groups but still being able to be seated on the same table as their friends. Even though only groups of four were able to sign up together, two groups of four could still sit together by agreeing to sign up to a specific table. With the new system, there will not be a way for friends to sit together, unless they are exceptionally lucky

•The new system is not as transparent as the old one, as you do not know if you have, in fact, been entered into the ballot. This is especially the case with the trial run, as there is no email confirmation

•With the new splitting system, those who chose not to be split could be removed from the ballot – this has neither been advertised to students, meaning that students could be signing up thinking that they are merely selecting that they want to sit with their friends without knowing that they are agreeing to the possibility of being removed from the ballot if their group does not fit into the spaces available. Furthermore, the old system did not discriminate against people for wanting to sit with their friends, and the new system could lead to preferential bias for those who do opt to split

•There is no way, in the new system, of stating how you wish your group to be split. For example, two couples could sign up and end up sat at a different table to their partner

•Of the two formals that have been chosen as the ones for which to trial this new system, Burns Formal will be held at Ushaw and therefore have fewer seats available, and Chinese New Year Formal is a ‘mega-formal’ with ents tickets, and may therefore have different demand. It could well be argued that testing these formals will not give an accurate representation of demand or likelihood of success in signing up for formals

•Although each student can only be entered into the ballot once, it is very easy to get around this, and thereby improve your chances of getting onto the formal. Say, for example, that Josephine Butler and Hilda Bede both want to go to the formal. Josephine signs up ‘Josephine Butler’ and ‘Josephine Butler – Guest’ (instead of writing ‘Hilda Bede’), and Hilda signs up herself as ‘Hilda Bede’ and signs up Josephine as ‘Hilda Bede – Guest’. In doing so, they effectively double their chances of getting through the ballot. We should not be making changes to the system if they are not an improvement

Alternative suggestions:

•Staggered sign up: it may be worth having two rounds of sign up, releasing 105 seats one day, and 105 the next, so that if you are unable to sign up at one time, you might be able to make the other

•Change the sign up time: students are busy people, not everyone will be around at 7pm on a Friday evening to sign up on a website, but this is easily mitigated by having friends sign you up instead. Though we have not received complaints about 7pm specifically, perhaps a weekend would work better in terms of improving access. This might be worth trialling, and would not require a complete overhaul of the system

•As it is clearly the case that MCR members are few in number at formals, rather than totally overhauling a system that works very smoothly, perhaps it would be worth investigating the reasons behind this and addressing them. Though new MCR members (not students on integrated Masters programmes) should be just as disadvantaged as first years in signing up for formals under the old system, this should have been resolved by the second formal both groups attempted to sign up for – namely, the Green Formal. However, while the proportion of freshers who attended the Green Formal (compared to the Halloween Formal) increased by 24%, the number of MCR members in attendance declined by 2%. Perhaps it would be worth investigating whether the MCR members feel that their formal dining needs are met by Scholars’ Suppers and monthly Inter-MCR Formals; whether postgraduates are more interested in getting involved in their departments than their College; whether they are more focused on their degrees; or whether they simply are put off by the idea of fancy-dress or seat-swapping

This petition presents students’ concerns about the way in which this process has been carried out and the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the proposed system relative to the old one, and outlines alternative proposals. It argues against change for change’s sake, and against change for little apparent gain.


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