After working all year to improve support for Postgraduate students here at UEA, it’s now time for us to take this to a national level at the NUS Sections Conference.
Much like in the main conference, motions are put forward by Unions across the country to be voted on by the congregation, with successful proposals being addressed by the NUS in the coming year. All of our motions have previously been voted on by our Postgraduate committee.
The first motion we are putting forward concerns maternity and paternity rights for PhD students. Unless they are already employed by a HE institution before starting their course, PhD students are currently not recognised as employees and are therefore not entitled to the same maternity leave and pay rights as other employees. Under the 2010 Equality Act, pregnancy and maternity are protected characteristics, and while there are best practice guidelines for institutions regarding maternity leave, there are unfortunately no legal obligations surrounding maternity leave and pay.
While many institutions are flexible and supportive, it is common for PhD candidates to only receive 16 weeks paid maternity leave (compared to the statutory 52 weeks, or 26 weeks for ‘Ordinary leave’) with no guarantee of an extended grant or loan after this period. We’re taking this issue to conference because I strongly believe that the national practice for both maternity and paternity leave in HE institutions needs to be more accessible and clear to PhD students, with more research desperately needed in terms of student experience of maternity and paternity provision and student maternity rights as a whole.
Our second motion relates to Postgraduate mental health and wellbeing. A lot of Postgraduate courses (particularly in the Arts and Humanities sector) involve a lot of individual study, with students getting little or no contact time with their peers and academics. With high levels of isolation, it is not surprising that the mental health of both Postgraduate Taught and Postgraduate Research students is at an all-time low. With varying levels of support across Higher Education, some institutions show little or no understanding of the mental health challenges faced by Postgraduates in their studies.
We’re taking this motion to conference to mandate the National Executive Council (NEC) Postgraduate Representatives to undertake research into Postgraduate mental health, assessing both the extent of the situation and what support students are currently receiving. If passed, the NUS will then take a lead on tracking improvements and developments, maintaining public pressure on HE institutions to tackle this problem.
Finally, we are putting forward a proposal of a rules revision on the ongoing accountability of NEC Postgraduate Representatives. There is currently no committee to support NEC representatives, and as such it has been the case in the past that representatives tend to focus on a select few motions without any transparency as to why these have been prioritised. We would like a committee to be formed, or at the very least for the NUS Postgraduate conference to be accountable for the work of the NEC representatives throughout the year, as it’s important that Postgraduate students know how they are being benefitted by the work of the NEC and how passed motions are being addressed.
I’ll be heading to the NUS Sections Conference on 13-14 May along with fellow Postgraduate committee members Charlotte Earney, Michael Kyriacou and Ruth Flaherty to put forward these motions. Look out for another blog soon to find out how it went!