University College finally agreed to turn on its heating today, after refusing to do so for the first weeks of Michaelmas Term. This decision has been reached after a Town Hall meeting between students and staff on 18th October, which left several students feeling “distressed, upset and angry”.
Last week, Univ students froze in “sub 10 temperatures”, while JCR representatives met college officers to discuss the cost-of-living crisis and impending energy shortage this winter. The Domestic Bursar, Angela Unsworth, sent a follow-up email to students on Monday 17th October, listing ways in which they could help to reduce college energy consumption. In the email, Unsworth admitted, “it is not going to be an easy winter”, but made no mention of plans to turn on the heating at Univ.
Approximately 400 Univ students were affected by the lack of heat, both in college and in off-site accommodation. Many contacted the Domestic Office in response to the email, prompting Unsworth to organise a “Town Hall” Q&A session for interested parties on Tuesday 18th.
Student attendance at the meeting turned out to be far higher than Univ staff initially expected, and the JCR President persuaded Unsworth to move its location to the college chapel, so more could attend. One Univ student told Cherwell: “it felt as if the Domestic Bursar didn’t want to make the meeting accessible, and she kept changing details randomly at very short notice.”
The University College chapel was filled with concerned students when the Town Hall started, for what Unsworth hoped could be a “warm and considered discussion”. However, the chilly matters at hand became heated as students started to question Univ’s “contradictory and confusing” policies.
Several attendees asked how the lack of heating could be justified, given the 11% increase in rent at Univ this academic year. Questions were raised over whether the additional rent was being used to cover a pay-rise for staff, including those on salaries of over £90,000 per year, with one student saying, “why is it a priority to increase the wages of the highest earners in college when students can’t heat their own houses?” Unsworth replied that this wasn’t relevant to energy, adding “I think we’re getting off the point, aren’t we?”
Another student pointed out that a lack of heat causes serious problems for those with chronic health conditions, reporting that their asthma had worsened due to the cold. “There’s been no recognition of the fact I wake up wheezing,” they told the Domestic staff, adding that it took a long time to even receive a reply when they previously raised this problem by email.
Unknown to many, Univ does undertake to provide electric heaters for those with long-term health problems, but one student told Cherwell, “this information wasn’t made widely available and many disabled students don’t know how to access this support.”
Meanwhile, another attendee of the Town Hall said there was no provision at all for those suffering short-term illness, such as flu. Unsworth stated that anyone who was unwell could contact her, but the attendee said: “I emailed you when I was ill and I still haven’t got a reply.”
The impact of cold temperatures on stress and academic performance was also raised. “I don’t think we need a medical diagnosis to suffer from the cold,” one student said. Another told Cherwell: “It’s striking how our negative experiences are being disregarded and refuted … Does Univ have no moral obligations to care for the welfare and wellbeing of its students?”
Towards the end of the meeting, Unsworth mentioned plans to turn on the heating for short amounts of time as of next Monday, 24th October. When pressed, she described plans to heat well-insulated rooms in short bursts throughout the day, but the overall message remained ambiguous. She concluded the Town Hall saying “you’ll have to wait and see,” causing further concern among students.
Coming under increasing pressure, University College revised its decision and decided to turn on heating today, confirming to Cherwell: “I want to assure you we have listened.”
However, one Univ student called the Domestic Office’s attitude “mean and degrading, though unsurprising considering the college’s history of disrespecting students (such as policing people’s rooms with surveillance during covid)”.
A further student, also in conversation with Cherwell, said: “College, especially the domestic bursar, Angela Unsworth, has failed us as students … They are gaslighting the student body insisting it is “warm”.”
In her email on Monday, Unsworth wrote: “With average overnight temperatures of 10-11 degrees, we are asking ourselves “would we put the heating on at home?” The answer is coming back, no; therefore we are holding off here too.”
However, a student who was particularly riled by this told Cherwell, “she’s a person who probably lives in accommodation where she can turn the heating on as she wishes, so she actually has no idea what we’re suffering.”
Some students at Univ considered protests against the lack of heating and the Domestic Office’s “utterly insensitive” communication. They are now relieved that the the college has taken notice of their complaints, although one told Cherwell, “it should have never reached this point”.
University College and Angela Unsworth have been contacted for comment. This article will be updated to reflect the ongoing situation and any responses.