News Editor Tom Leaman discusses how the future of the Selly Express, a system designed to support student safety, is being called into question in light of recent comments from the University

Redbrick Editor-in-Chief and former News and Elections Editor. Undergraduate History student.
Images by Elliott Brown

Since its introduction in mid-October, the Selly Express has become a valued resource for UoB students by helping them feel safe at night in Selly Oak. Tensions surrounding the area were a particularly prominent factor in the warm welcome for the service by the student body when it was introduced (ahead of schedule) after a stabbing took place on Heeley Road on October 7th.

However, the future existence of the Selly Express has been thrown into doubt over the last two weeks, as the Guild President Reece Patrick Roberts has demonstrated through a series of social media posts regarding funding for the service. A more thorough description of where the funding for the Selly Express has been coming from can be found in the News section, but in essence the funding dispute between the Guild and the University has emerged because the money for the service was provided through a Residents’ Association Scheme (RA) underspend spanning several years.

The RA get their money through tuition fees paid to the University, but Roberts told Redbrick that the RA is managed by the Guild, meaning that the money legally belongs to them.

The University also stated that it has been supportive of this trial since its inception

A University spokesperson told Redbrick News that: ‘The source of the funds is historic and both the University and the Guild of Students are stewards of that fund – meaning that we both agree how the funds are spent. In this case both the University and the Guild agreed together to utilise the funds to extend the pilot from one term to a full academic year.’ The University also stated that it ‘has been supportive of this trial since its inception in the previous academic year and supports the Guild in organising the Selly Express by employing a driver, providing a vehicle and co-ordinating the service – in addition to the joint decision to provide funding.’

In the midst of this, a very real concern surrounding the future of the Selly Express has become apparent, with funding being planned until the end of the academic year, when the service will be reviewed to see how much it is being used. Unfortunately, allegations from the Guild President that a University official described the project as ‘showboating’ make it seem as if the Selly Express could well be a one-year wonder. Despite this, the University’s spokesperson said: ‘No decision has been made about the success of the initiative nor its future operation, nor funding since the year-long pilot is less than half way through.’

Ironically, Roberts’ Facebook post outlining this came in the same week that the Green Heart was officially opened to the public (Friday 18th). In September, Redbrick reported that the overall cost for the a series of on campus projects including the Green Heart would be between £160-£180 million, with the Green Heart itself estimated to have cost £11.5 million on the website of contractor Willmot Dixon. Many students are rightly arguing that the Green Heart is more of a vanity project for UoB than something that serves a tangible purpose for them, such as the Selly Express.

The Green Heart itself estimated to have cost £11.5 million

That’s not forgetting some of the University’s other more expensive displays of showboating over the last few years; In March 2017, it transpired that a banner hanging over the old library (which measured 69.3 by 13.7 metres) to advertise the Green Heart project cost £27,000. Where that banner is now is anybody’s guess, but the money used for that could cover the Selly Express’s running costs for several months. The highly controversial Dubai Campus, which opened in September, is just another expensive (and ethically questionable) demonstration of the University’s inability to represent the wishes of its students.

The wariness coming from the University – led by Sir David Eastwood, a man with, according to the Times, an annual salary of £439,000 – regarding the funding of the Selly Express beyond this year is not only laughable in light of some the University’s more extravagant expenses, but potentially dangerous. The service is dual-purpose in this way: Students who use it are not only protecting themselves at night from the risk of muggings, assault or worse, but also from the feeling of being mentally drained that can come with feeling unsafe. A 2012 study from Arizona State University revealed that feeling unsafe in your own neighbourhood is directly linked to poor mental health.

With the University’s mental health policy also coming under fire (the Guild’s Welfare and Community Officer Izzy Bygrave started a petition on Monday 14th to ‘lobby the Uni to write a mental health strategy’ for the next three years), it seems irresponsible for a University official to seemingly write off something that can benefit students’ mental health.

It is as if there has been a major breakdown in communication

In terms of the disagreement between the Guild and the University about where the funding for the Selly Express is coming from, it is as if there has been a major breakdown in communication between the two, which is causing students to feel confused and uncertain about the future of the Selly Express. It also casts questions over some of the other schemes proposed by the two bodies to help keep students safe. This includes the University’s promise to upgrade ‘all of the CCTV across campus’ (as the Director of Student Affairs told Redbrick News in an interview in October).

Fundamentally, it’s vital that students are made aware of what the situation is surrounding the policies implemented to help them feel safe when they are studying at the University of Birmingham, and the clarity and availability of the information published to the student body surrounding issues such as the Selly Express must be improved. As a sign that the University listens to and appreciates the concerns raised by the student body, the Selly Express should remain a part of the University beyond this year, assuming it is used enough by students.

The full statements from the University’s spokesperson can be seen here.