VP Academic – Term 1 Blog

It feels like some strange twist of physics, or time, it’s been ten weeks since the start of my second term. Somehow ten weeks have passed and yet it seems like barely a few days – but then most days my brain still thinks it’s April. It’s been a busy term, not just because of my normal cycle of committees, but because we’ve been doing more and more work to be involved with all the extra planning in response to the on-going pandemic. This blog isn’t going to cover every little thing I’ve done this term – that would take a book – but I wanted to tell you all about some of the important things that have happened and what I’m planning for next term.

A slight disclaim before we get into it but this blog was written before the announcement of the latest lockdown and doesn’t cover any of the January announcements. For more info on those check out my facebook page.

Representation – elections, committees and more elections

This is the core part of the GSA but it takes a lot of work to maintain our representation system and to support our brilliant volunteers. I’ve been heavily involved in our elections this term, I did a lot of videos, and helped out with running the elections. It’s been great fun and we’ve got a brilliant group of Course Reps, GTA Reps, Part-Time Officers and Scrutiny Officers to work with. These students are all here to help and support the postgraduate voice at the University and if you want to find out more about them all the info is on our website.

I’ve also been working closely with our Representation and Democracy Coordinator and our brand new Student Voice Assistants, to develop the support and infrastructure around the representation system. We’ve had the largest number of students ever get involved with our elections and we’re having an increased level of engagement with our democratic processes (check out Your Ideas for more info!). One of my favourite things that has been happening this term is the Council meetings where we get to debate policy that our members have been submitting. Anyone that’s spoken to me has probably heard me talking about how much I enjoy policy making and being able to be an active part in shaping the GSA policies is so enjoyable.

I’ve got lots of plans for the rest of the year that include policy work. As we’ve introduced all of our by-laws for this year I’ve also got to work on our Academic Representation by-law. I want to make sure that it covers all the different types of Reps we have and that it aligns with the University’s Student Voice Policy, which is another policy that I’ll be helping to re-write. Our Academic Representation has developed a lot of the past 12 months and I want it to continue developing after I finish my role in August. I’m going to be working with the Reps and wider student body to write an Academic Representation policy that continues the development of our systems.

University Strategy

This has been an on-going area of work since I started my role a year ago. This term though there have been a number of outcomes, in particular from the so-called “Teaching Organisation Strategy Group”. For those of you who might have heard about this, that group has been working on the modularisation and semesterisation work as it’s now called. I’ve been involved with this work since I started my role back in 2019, and part of my manifesto for this year was to provide a better structure to the academic year for PGTs. I’m in broad agreement with the general aims of this work, those being that we need more structure for the academic year so that students don’t get overloaded with work at certain times, and that we should be providing opportunities for departments to share modules across degree courses.

Being in agreement with the aims doesn’t mean that I agree with the solutions presented by the group or the way that the wider University community was consulted on the proposals before they were approved by the University Senate. The proposal for semesterisation (aka where we take our three terms and make them into two slightly longer ones) is one that I’m in general agreement with. It’ll make it easier to space out assignments and align the terms across the University. Modularisation (aka where we make all modules worth the same number of credits) is the area that I’m not convinced on. I’ve been arguing in these meetings that reducing the diversity of module sizes from the large variety we have now down to one dramatically reduces the module choice that students have. The University argues that it makes administration easier and allows for more cross-department working, arguments that I see the metric in however don’t argue that 20 credit modules are the solution for. I should preface this by saying that currently this decision has only been made for UG modules. PGT modules sizes are still being discussed but it looks like the decision will be the same.

Frustrations with some of the decisions made in this process are mainly overshadowed by my frustration at the engagement with students. As I said I’ve been involved in this since Sept 2019 and as one of the two student reps on this group it is my role to be the voice of our members in that room. Yet when we discuss huge changes to the functioning of the University talking with students and understanding how those changes might impact them enables me to do my job effectively. Since the start of this we’ve been told that these conversations are confidential, and the consultation with students will be done when it’s appropriate. Breaking the confidentiality in these discussions is an option that I would never consider but seeing a piecemeal approach to consultation, when it finally happened over the summer, was infuriating. It’s not over yet though. The decision on module sizes for PGT courses has yet to be decided and there’s going to be consultation with the wider students body this term. I’ve got some plans to make sure that students are able to give their views on different parts of the strategy so keep an eye out for that.

Covid-19 Planning – extensions, safety net, not-safety nets

You didn’t think I’d made it the whole way through this blog without talking about the pandemic did you? Some days it feels like all I think or talk about. When I go from one meeting to the next and spend the time in between thinking about how I can get the University to support students throughout their studies and mitigate the impact of a pandemic. A lot of work has gone into making sure the teaching is still delivered this term, in whatever form possible and for a lot of you I know that this has been really difficult to manage as you’ve moved from online to on-campus and some form of blended teaching. Nothing about teaching this year feels normal even if it’s been somewhat planned for, studying for a degree in the middle of a global pandemic is not easy. While I’m unsure of what next term will look like I’m hopeful that we might be able to do some things on campus and that the vaccination programme will start rolling out.

As part of the Academic Contingency Group we’ve been looking at the mitigation measures for this year and how we can support students. There are a lot of different areas that come under this heading but the main areas I’ve been focusing on are the re-implementation of the changes to award criteria for Masters degrees and removal of evidence for exceptional circumstances claims. It’s difficult to make progress on these but I’m hopeful that we might get some progress at the beginning of next term. I’ve also been campaigning for 6 months extensions for PGRs students, which is an on-going conversation with the University. We had a motion passed on this issue at Council and I’ll be working on an open letter from York PGRs to YGRS during the first weeks of next term. They’ve been rather resistant to change on this particular issue, which is in part related to the attitude taken by funders like UKRI, so I’m also planning to get in touch with the relevant Government Ministers to talk to them about PGR issues.

All of this exciting work has been going on with a hundred other things happening in the background – the most exciting of which is that I got my inbox down to 48 emails just before the holidays. This blog has in no way covered everything that I’ve been doing this term but I’ve touched on some of the main areas of work without going into the details of individual meetings, conversations and email chains. Next term will likely be just as busy as this one but I’m excited to get started after a nice two week break.

9th February 2021