As sabbatical officers are only allowed to hold their position for a maximum of two academic years, you'll be choosing someone new to take on this job in the elections later this semester. I'm in my last six months as your Postgraduate Education Officer, and thought I'd use this blog to take a look back at how the past eighteen have been. In this job, no two days are ever the same. As an officer team we're constantly responding to events and decisions, national or local, and trying to fight the corner of students whilst also holding the university to account and pursuing the goals we set out in our manifestos. It's a full-on job; in an average week I spend 22 hours in meetings with the University, committees, various assemblies and forums.
At the end of my 18 months we still have a huge way to go. I am still haunted by students we couldn't protect when courses were closed down, bothered by whether or not I am in touch with my students enough, and worried that I didn't fight hard enough on certain issues. But it is necessary to reflect in this way and keep pushing harder.
The Postgraduate Education Officer's job is to represent the interests of Postgraduates. I work as part of the Postgraduate(su) team coordinating campaigns on a number of issues to make the Postgraduate experience better. It feels strange to try and reflect on where we might have made progress, and so much of what we do is about enabling students to build something of their own. uea(su) is a run by you, the students, and so in the interests of accountability I've listed some of the work we've done over the past eighteen months.
PhD Employment Rights
Postgraduate(su) undertook a research project into the experience of our PhD students who teach, which formed a report with recommendations which went to Student Experience Committee. The recommendations now sit with the ADRP and have strict timelines. Senior Faculty Managers have been asked to account for, and report back, on the processes they have been using for ATs at UEA.
Soon each PhD student will be sent a letter declaring what basic information they should receive if they teach and what rights they have.
I have met independently with Heads of School and presented them with the report and reminded them of the Policy the University already holds on PhD Employment Rights. Work continues with HR to review both the guidance they provide for Associate Tutors, and also rates of pay.
UCU PhD Membership Campaign
I started a national campaign encouraging PhD ATs to join UCU. Over 12 other Student Unions backed the campaign, and we have dedicated a wall vinyl in the Grad Centre to demonstrate the national buy-in. We have the Employment Rights Charter permanently on the Grad Centre wall.
This campaign included a UCU visit to the Graduate Centre to promote free PhD membership & our clock logo being scattered across the university. We also ran an online campaign about what UCU can provide via social media.
Postgraduate Sports Survey
We conducted a small piece of research into what postgraduates want from sports provision at UEA. 52 respondents, mostly PGRs, informed our approach to PG sports for the following 18 months.
With support from our Education and Engagement team, we conducted research into the experience of masters students during the dissertation period. A report was written as a result with a series of recommendations that went to UEA’s Student Experience Committee. A working group has been formed via LTC to write a piece of policy to better regulate dissertations at UEA and the minimum levels of support students receive. I have met independently with Heads of School to present them with the report and discuss future policy.
Learning and Teaching Spaces Text Line
Successfully got UEA Estates division to start a text line for students to report when teaching space is not fit for purpose. Learning and Teaching Spaces Group will have to review this data annually.
Student Representation & the Code of Practice
We developed a section of the Code of Practice for Student Representation for the PhD Graduate Forums. Worked with staff to deliver course rep training across both years & elected the highest number of PGT course reps this year than ever before.
Changes to the Placements Policy
We managed to introduce a clause that requires the university to provide alternative arrangements if a student is unable to obtain a placement. Previously there was no protection for students in the policy if they could not obtain a placement and would fail as a result.
The university can also no longer set coursework deadlines while students are on placement.
Closure of UEA’s Postgraduate Counselling Courses
The SU formed a campaign with students against the closure of the PG Counselling Courses at UEA. This included collecting cases from students on the courses about how it would affect them, producing our own impact assessment for the closures, writing a public letter to the Vice Chancellor, and working with local MPs and charities to try and sway the university.
Changes to the Course Closures Policy
After the closure of the Postgraduate Counselling courses, there were serious questions about how effective the course closures policy was when it came to impact assessments. Previously a course had to have 10 full-time students registered to be impact accessed for closure, making small masters courses with up to 19 part-time students vulnerable to being shut without even being assessed. The policy has been changed so courses with 10 students or more must be assessed, regardless of part—time or full-time status.
Changes to PhD PPD
I held two consultations with PhD students to discuss the changes to their Professional and Personal Development programme. PPD is no longer judged by credits, and a new ‘pathway’ system is being phased in.
UEA’s Mental Health Strategy
I worked heavily with the Welfare Community and Diversity Officer to lobby the University over the spring/summer of 2017 when the university delayed the release of their mental health strategy by 6 months. The strategy has since been released.
We started a care Package scheme for postgraduates struggling over the winter period (70+ students). Students could nominate someone they knew who needed some love, or someone who had done something kind for others, and select from a menu of items. Each package had a personalised message and information about the Postgraduate Assembly.
We made an effort to translate more texts, including basic information about what the Students Union actually is, and the text for our history tour for our Chinese international students. We also created a video explaining what the union does in the top 8 languages at UEA, using staff and volunteers who were bilingual so as to make the SU more approachable.
To engage more students, we took tea and information booklets about the SU services into the Postgraduate Crome Court.
Learning and Teaching Services have agreed to develop instructions for new students with access to E:vision, so that they can go through SITs and see where their modules will fall in the week. While this is not the earlier release of timetabling that we would want, this will give a little more information to students who need to make arrangements for childcare or work. Timetabling continues to be a real issue for postgraduates, particularly the 1/3 who are part-time.
PhD Post-Submission Email Access
This is an ongoing project to get PhD students access to their UEA account for an extended period after they leave. This is vital to give them reputable standing when applying for academic posts and publication. We have been in conversation with UEA ITCS, and have put out a survey to PhD students to find out the exact service that they would need.
Embargo of the E-Thesis
We held consultations with each graduate faculty to discuss the possible embargo of the E-Thesis and how this could affect PhD students.
NUS Sections Conference
I attended NUS Postgraduate Sections Conference with our Postgraduate Committee and presented a policy on maternity rights for PhD students.
The Graduate Centre
After some complaints from postgraduates about undergraduate use of the Graduate Centre, we did the following:
Collected data over a series of weeks about who was using the space, UG, PG, mature students, or staff to see who was using the space.
Got pull up banners and table toppers to explain that it was a PG and mature student space.
Implemented a rule that UGs were allowed to be asked to leave by staff at peak times.
Finally got Graduate Centre signage above the entrance.
Postgraduate Community Board
We have developed a community board in the Graduate Centre with photos and testimonials from students who have made use of the Social Grant. We have also included photos from postgraduate(su) run events in an attempt to promote a sense of community.
We have completely changed the way we communicate with postgraduates, creating a comms strategy and making use of the university school bulletins to widen our message. We have produced a lot more branded material, including business cards with details of the Postgraduate Assembly and social media, branded pens, and stickers.
Integrated Masters Students
We finally got the university to recognise integrated masters students by their level of study and grant this group of students full access to PGT facilities including the library suite and extended book loans. Previously they were recognised as UG by UEA because of the way they are funded, which ignored the fact that they has all the learning resource requirements of the non-integrated PGTs on their course.
Postgraduate Library Facilities
We successfully lobbied the university to introduce 12 additional computers to the PGT suite and 2 more computers to the PGR suite.
Assemble for Cakes
Over the last 18 months I have repeatedly visited the Graduate Centre at lunch time to talk to postgraduates about issues that they have been facing. I have also visited postgraduate spaces in the teaching wall with cakes to talk to students who may not enter Union House. We now bank this data so we can detect patterns in student feedback.
During my time as PG Education officer, I've been really keen on running events for Postgraduates to foster a sense of community and make sure that your University experience goes beyond your degree.
The Postgraduate(su) team have run over 100 events and activities so far, including summer and Christmas events programmes for PhD and Masters dissertation students who are here over the entire year. Amongst other things, we've also seen Jazz nights, trampolining, cream teas at the Assembly House, Cheesathons, history tours, ale trails and trips out to Thetford forest and Sheringham. To include Postgraduates in sports, we've also started a popular drop-in £1 yoga and distributed over 1000 £1 swim cards.
We've also worked to make funding available for Postgraduates to go beyond your degree and supplement your research. 755 students have benefited from the social grant last year and we've funded over 26 student-led social events so far. 38 postgraduates have been able to attend conferences thanks to the conference fund.
Although my time as Postgraduate education officer is coming to a close, I've still got 6 months left and there are plenty of things left to do. If you've got a postgraduate issue you want to talk to me about, you can always contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or pop into the Union House office for a chat.