President’s End of Year Blog

Hello all, as I approach the end of my first year as the President of the GSA, I wanted to reflect on the academic year behind and share with you what I have been doing for the last twelve months.

Oh my, what a year that was! 2 rounds of Industrial action, Brexit, and a PANDEMIC! Every time that I thought it could not be any worse, in a couple of weeks something else came up and made me regret what I said 🙂  I have met amazing people at the University who value student experience dearly while I also came across with people who would view students’ voice as a tick box exercise. With the former ones, I tried to cherish and enhance the student experience to the best of my ability. It was not a great time to be a sabbatical officer and proved to be challenging, but I can say that I enjoyed every single day in my role.

Let me explain briefly why it was not an easy year from a sabbatical officer’s perspective. As you know, the sabbatical officers are elected based on their manifesto points and they strive to change these weaknesses in their year in the office. To exemplify a few, my manifesto points covered accommodation issues such as initiating a Landlord Accreditation Scheme and introducing an inclusive Rent Guarantee Scheme to complement what the University has to offer. We needed reliable landlords that students can trust and a scheme that would not disadvantage students when they are trying to rent a place in the private sector.

When I first came into the office, I was planning to initiate these two points in two months’ time. As you will see, this is also my journey from idealism to realism 🙂  In the end, they were reasonable requests that would make students’ lives easier, right? Well, it was not quite like that. As a previous student/current sabbatical officer, you need to create awareness on the issues that you find problematic, engage with several stakeholders, and find the right people. If you manage that, then you need to bring the right people into the same room to find the right way to do it. Clogged calendars don’t really allow that. If you are lucky and determined enough to pass the operational and structural barriers, you will see your months’ work come to life and introduce the Rent Guarantee scheme which makes renting off campus a piece of pie! I could have moved on to focus on the Landlord Accreditation Scheme now.

The Your Guarantor Scheme worked well at least for a couple of months and many students made use of it. Then there was the Covid-19 spread and the company’s insurers thought that the pandemic increased the liability of the company and decided to stop their insurance until after further notice. I was unable to pursue the Landlord Accreditation Scheme either as in a week’s time several contingency groups were formed which met once or twice on a weekly basis and our attention was needed there. So in terms of manifesto points, I was back to square one!

Covid-19 was a big blow for the GSA sabbatical officers, or all sabbatical officers nationally. Our two week-long training in September 2019 did not cover what to do or how to be an officer during a pandemic, a lock-down. None of us was ready for this.

When the pandemic striked, the university policies needed to be adapted to online teaching, online assessments, online vivas… namely anything with an “online” attached to it. The online provisions should have the same quality of face to face experience and there were only 3 GSA sabbatical officers to provide postgraduate students’ perspectives on the numerous contingency plannings. We were stretched too thin. Usually, a sabbatical officer brings their experience as a recent student to the room but my experience became redundant with the pandemic as I didn’t experience it in my time as a PhD student.

So what did I do? I tried to anticipate what changes might prove to be challenging for students and rectify it to the best of my ability, working mostly in collaboration with the University and YUSU and quite often challenging them. Tensions were high as we were in unknown territories.

I believed more and more PGR students would need an extension as their access to laboratories, their offices and to the library was hindered by the government advice. The extension process was difficult pre-pandemic, it needed to be adapted, to be simplified to not add on Postgraduate students’ already skyrocketed stress levels. We also needed to minimise the workload of the Special Cases Committee which meets monthly and decides who will get an extension. I repeatedly requested for blanket extensions to all students which would give them an option to use it without going into trouble with an extension request. It was practically impossible. Hence, I asked the university to simplify the process instead, make it simple so that PGR students would not spend much time on the application. Also, there were students approaching me whose supervisors would not agree with their extension requests. So, I campaigned heavily in the PGR Contingency Group to simplify the extension process and remove supervisors’ sign off on the extension process. I managed to convince the University to make them happen: easier extension applications+ the removal of supervisor’s sign off. YAY!

Yet, the extension process created other issues. The PGR students whose work has been impacted due to Covid19 and who are granted an extension would still need to pay a continuation fee for that extended time where they use university facilities like library. This information was provided to them in the email that announces that they got an extension. I thought it was not fair to ask students to pay that amount as many students lost their income from their part-time jobs due to lock-down and they were financially in a difficult, even vulnerable position. In order to tackle this, I focused all my energies to create awareness about the financial hardship students are in and to request the university to cancel continuation fees resulting from the Covid19 related reasons. Following this campaign in the committee and VC meetings and with the help of the open letter signed by numerous PGR students, the University announced in May that between January 2020 and October 2020, the University will not be charging students for the continuation fees. Another win!

Another problematic point around PGR extension was that normally PGR students during their extension do not “have the right to call upon staff time” and it was left to the departments’ discretion whether to support their PGRs informally during that time. This could result in various degrees of support or no support at all for PGRs which in itself creates inequality among PGR experience. Having raised this with the University, I managed to change the wording around the support PGR students can get during their extension. With this new wording, the supervisor will continue to read and feedback until after the students submit their thesis.

Around the same time, I have been contacted by some Graduate Teaching Assistants who work for the Writing Centre at the University and they informed me that their work which was supposed to continue for a few weeks longer has been halted by the Centre. They were only given a week’s notice. After numerous email exchanges, I have managed to bring representatives from the Writing Centre, University and University HR and explained to them the difficulties this decision might create on those GTAs’ wellbeing and managed to rectify that decision, securing the pay for the hourly work those GTAs were supposed to have in the first place. Hooray!

As you may know, the Fees Office at the University sends some reminders to students who have outstanding tuition debts and understandably more and more students failed to pay their already agreed instalments on time due to income loss and other reasons resulting from Covid19. I have been informed by some students that the tone of the emails they received were threatening and how it added to their already high stress levels. I raised this with the University and requested that all communications going out to students relevant to finances be toned down in the emails sent out to students and that those emails provide more support and signposting advice on how students can make adjustments to their payment routines and amounts.

As you have just read, plenty of those points that I tackled were actually brought to me by you or your fellow students. If you are around for another year, as I luckily will, I will ask you to bring any problematic areas to my attention so that I can tackle it to the best of my ability.

Best wishes,

Purnur xx

2nd September 2020