posted 1st June 2017 at 9:00am
During the weekend of the 13th and the 14th May I attended the NUS (National Union of Students) Postgraduate Sections conference at Leeds Beckett university. I had a great time, met lots of postgraduates from around the country and learnt a lot about the issues that we as a community face nationally, discovering some answers as to what we can do about them along the way.
Below, I’ll take you through some of the highlights of the conference- it’s a bit of a lengthy report, so feel free to skip to bits that interest you most (I’ve put in some subtitles to break it up a bit).
Sorana Vieru, the current NUS Vice President for Higher Education, opened the conference, talking of a ‘turbulent year’ in higher education, and how a version of NSS could soon be coming to postgraduate taught courses, with masters’ fees therefore being linked to these scores as will soon be the case for undergraduate courses across the country. Sorana also highlighted the success NUS had this year in pushing the age cap on newly introduced postgraduate loans from 30 up to 60.
During the opening of the conference we also heard from our PGT and PGR reps on the NEC (‘the main scrutiny and accountability body for the political leadership of NUS’ https://www.nus.org.uk/en/who-we-are/leadership/national-executive-council/ welcoming us to Leeds and talking a little bit about their work this year. The accountability forum later in the evening that day for the two reps highlighted that some of their work and focus this year included; postgraduate mental health; the extension of postgraduate loans; the national boycott of the National Student Survey that NUS as a whole was organising and challenging Prevent.
At this forum questions were also raised from the floor about the status of the postgraduate committee, a group of postgraduate students that were usually elected at this conference along with our two reps to NEC to hold these reps to account and generally help with the postgraduate section.
The issue is complicated, but from raising the issue with one of our reps and others afterwards my understanding is that: 2 years ago, a decision seems to have been made by the Chief Returning Officer (the person who oversees elections) to not elect a committee because not enough delegates were at the conference to do so.
This year we still didn’t elect a committee, but apparently for a different reason. NUS is currently in the middle of a governance review that is looking at how it is run, with a variety of changes coming out of that. A decision was made this year by the Chief Returning Officer that there would be no elections for the postgraduate committee as there might be changes coming in in the governance review. As the review has not been
fully approved at a national conference, however, this has left postgraduates in somewhat of a limbo- we don’t have a committee anymore, but whilst we’re still waiting for the review to be properly enacted we don’t have anything to replace it with either.
Personally, I feel this was a very strange and frustrating decision to have been made and has left the postgraduate community without full representation- I expressed these views to one of our reps on the NEC amongst others and the general consensus seemed to be in agreement. Our two reps had already put in amendments to the review calling for a restoration of the committee, so hopefully in the near future when the review (and the amendments) are passed, we will regain our committee. In addition to this, an open letter (which can be found here) was started by a group of delegates at the conference expressing concern over the loss of committee and issues to do with the organisation of conference and the motion process (see below), which I have signed.
Throughout the rest of the first day there were sessions on inclusivity in higher education, with the discrimination against BME, working class and other minority groups in academia being discussed. For my own part I highlighted the appalling costs of academic conferences in one of these sessions and suggested that there is potentially a role for NUS to play in challenging the costs academic institutions place on their events. We also had a powerful talk from Anna Bull from ‘The 1752 Group’ on sexual
misconduct in academia, and how many students, particularly postgraduate students, can face these issues (if this is an issue that has affected you at all, you can contact the Wellbeing Centre or Student Services).
I also attended a session on casualisation in higher education work, particularly affecting PGR students, where work can be poorly paid and exploitative. I suggested that what would be great is if we had national data on this- we could play universities at their own game and potentially rank them on how good their working conditions and pay are, thereby piling on pressure to ensure better conditions. I suggested NUS could play a role in providing a template survey to SU’s and encouraging them to find out if there are any issues in their institutions, and then we could pull this data together. I spoke with the session lead, Nat, about seeking advice from his experience on campaigning in this area at Warwick once we have the data back from our survey here at Lincoln. Once we have our own results, I will continue conversations with other PG officers on how we can begin to move towards getting national data on working conditions for PG students.
After a short session on campaigning (we split into regional groups and the group I was in discussed campaigning for more postgraduate space on campus), second day was voting day- we voted for our two reps (one pgt and one pgr) to NEC for the upcoming year. I voted for Matt Bramley #1 for PGT (there were 5 candidates for this one), and Sarah Gibbon #1 for PGR
(Sarah was the only candidate for this position)- they both seemed to have some solid plans for improving postgraduate representation and conditions in the coming year, and experience in activism. Sarah was elected to the PGR position, and Amelia Horgan was elected to the PGT position.
There were only 3 new motions to be considered in the policy debate section- I arrived too late to the session to vote for the first motion, but voted in favour of the other two (one calling for more research into PG mental health and campaigning on it, the other for NEC reps to factor in accountability now we no longer have the postgraduate committee (see above)- both of which passed).
Then a number of ‘lapsing’ policies were voted on- basically, when a policy is passed at NUS it lasts for three years, at which point unless someone proposes at conference to continue it, it ceases to be policy. There was a lot of potentially lapsing policy and voting on this took up the rest of the policy debate time. It would take too much space to describe how I voted on every motion and amendment here, but below I’ll outline some of the key bits (If you’d like to know how I voted on anything not mentioned below, or would like to look at the motions debated in detail, feel free to drop me an email on email@example.com – very happy to answer).
I spoke in favour of keeping a motion calling for a number of actions relating to strong links between Students’ Union and teaching and other trade unions- and I’m happy to say conference voted to keep this policy (although the vote was done so quickly I didn’t actually get chance to vote in favour!) This also highlights a general problem I found with the conference proceedings- voting, both for our reps and on motions felt a little rushed (we didn’t even get to ask questions of the candidates) and the deadline for motion submissions prior to conference was unclear and not well communicated. The open letter above mentions the issues with motion deadlines too.
I’ve also written an article exploring some of the issues I‘ve learnt about in my role as PG officer and at conference this year- check it out here.