As your Student Officers prepare to say goodbye, we asked them to reflect on the past year. Although David will actually be staying on as your Postgraduate Academic Officer, we asked him to look back on the year all the same!
It might not be the end of my time at Durham SU this year, but it’s still good to reflect on the experience and what we’ve achieved as I head into my second term!
Last year, Sabrina began her reflection on her year as the first ever PG Academic Officer by commenting that ‘the University has always overlooked postgraduates,’ and often it does feel like my principal job is to ask ‘have you thought about how this affects postgraduates?’. It is clear, too, from the University’s plan for growth that their overriding concern is growing undergraduate numbers and international student fee income – and while a significant proportion of our international student population is postgraduate, conversations are invariably money first, student experience second. That’s why we, as student representatives, need to be in the room to push the focus onto the support and experience students get, and it’s what I relish doing.
I’m cynical by nature though, so don’t take the above critique too much to heart. There are people working in the University that do care about making the postgraduate experience better, and not just because they’ve taken a hammering on the latest student survey metrics. I’m especially pleased that the University has reversed its plan to remove the deputies responsible for postgraduates within each faculty – we’re forgotten about often enough, and we need dedicated posts for postgraduate matters if the University truly wants to lead the variety of teaching and research activity needed to justify a higher international standing.
Working with these deputies on the new Research Degrees Committee has really helped to get things done with one of my priorities in particular, regarding best practice in research student supervision. We’ve built on Sabrina’s work last year and developed recommendations for new initiatives such as a supervisor guidebook, annual inductions to bring students in departments together, and a raft of proposals to support part-time and distance learner students. I thank the people I worked on this with, and look forward to seeing the recommendations through with them next year.
Work on my other priority got off to a rockier start, but lobbying for a pay increase for every PG Research student engaged in teaching was never going to be easy. Requiring me to lobby to be on the working group considering this issue and changing tack to react to other broken promises seemed unnecessarily obstructive of the University, but we’re now making headway and there is finally recognition that to not have given these students a pay award in 10 years is unacceptable. Hopefully the resolutions at the conclusion of the group come September, and our collaboration with the University and College Union, will overhaul conditions for these students whose goodwill has been exploited for too long.
For all the above, it’s surprising how small a part working on priorities is as an Officer. So much of it has been reacting to new papers and proposals from the University at all levels – you wouldn’t expect me to have been lobbying for better accessibility on a new pedestrian route for instance from my job title! We’ve had the Faculty and Department Operations review to scrutinise, I’ve worked to support MCRs and their governance (and hope to work with them more next year), I’ve sat on at least five appointment panels both in the SU and for the University, supported the fight on accommodation fees and interrogated data on costs in Durham, passed policy (and got myself elected as national PG Research Rep!) at NUS, spoke out about the need for more study space at the launch of the new Library Café, revived the study habits campaign for exam season, escalated the concerns of course and faculty reps, and had a wealth of other scattered wins. And let’s not forget that PG Research students will have free printing next year!
The variety of this job is incredible, and the SU has a great team of staff and volunteers behind it to support our work. There’ll always be things to fight for for students, and I’m never happier than when I’m doing so and getting things done. Special thanks to Saul for being a great partner to work with on academic matters, and to Richard for digesting reams and reams of University paperwork. Bring on the next year, bring in the new Officers, and let’s crack on with making Durham better!