October 21, 2012

The problem of postgrad representation

Writing about web page http://theboar.org/news/2012/oct/20/su-involvement-postgrads-encouraged/

Postgrad Hub Senate House

The Postgrad Hub (photo mine).

So, I've started writing for the Boar, Warwick's student newspaper. The paper is one of the more reputable student publications in the country and so far I've been impressed with its culture of fast, responsive and detailed journalism; I've seen events happening on campus and in Leamington Spa covered extremely quickly and to a high standard, which from my experience I know is difficult to achieve regularly. I'm speaking largely about the News section here as that's my own area of interest - I'm less well qualified to speak of the other sections. Aside from a couple of fairly shocking editing errors in one of the first paper issues of this term (printing the last two paragraphs of one story twice) which I'll put down (optimistically) to deadline-day stress, this is clearly a very good student newspaper.

However, a quick search for "postgraduate" on the Boar's website brings up a paucity of content which is I think symptomatic of the underrepresentation of the postgraduate perspective in the student consciousnessness. Most of the recent discussion of postgraduates in the Boar would appear to relate to the establishment of a new postgrad sabbatical officer in the SU, which happened in January 2012 and is closely related to the implementation of the new Postgrad Association which is the focus of my report. Outside of this, there has apparently been little-to-no consideration of specifically postgraduate issues (such as working conditions for postgraduates who teach, for example) in the student media of late. This is despite the fact that 45 percent of Warwick students are postgraduates.

This isn't directly a criticism of the Boar; I know that the only reason I was involved in an extremely revealing investigation into postgraduate tutors' conditions whilst at Lancaster was because SCAN's then Investigations Editor was a PhD student - but student media is in my experience largely dominated by undergraduates. Rather, my critique centres on what is a microcosmic representation of the huge bias in much student culture towards undergraduates. Of course I realise that because I've only been a postgrad for three weeks and spent two years working for and editing a newspaper which was probably guilty of the same bias I'm critiquing, this is somewhat hypocritcal. I want to comment on this though, because it seems there's something of a culture of change here at Warwick.

Given my background, I'll make the comparison with Lancaster. Lancaster University Students' Union (LUSU) have recently restructured their postgrad representation in a similar to fashion to Warwick SU, and students' unions across the country are also fighting the problem of how to engage postgrads. I remember from talking to students at Lancaster that space was a key issue for postgrads; they wanted a dedicated PG space which wasn't annexed on the edge of campus as is Graduate College. Clearly this is a common problem, and probably the biggest thing Warwick University have done for postgrads is to create such a space in the form of the PG Hub. This, combined with the current efforts of the SU in creating the PGA and establishing fortnightly postgrad-dedicated socials, show this culture of change. (I'm not playing Lancaster down here - I was very nearly a postgraduate there and would have been very pleased to have been such. LUSU is doing as much as - if not more than - Warwick SU for postgrad representation, but Lancaster University is probably doing less currently than Warwick).

It's to be appreciated, but I wonder how successful it might be. Certainly it's going to take a huge publicity and promotion effort on the part of the SU to draw attention to these things; I think it's indicative that the recent election for the Social Studies faculty representative was inquorate and there were no candidates in the Science faculty. We do now have an elected Arts Faculty rep, but admittedly she was elected against a candidate who submitted no manifesto. At least the election was quorate, though. I sense that the SU has a long way to go if it's going to get postgrads to stop switching off whenever they see 'Warwick SU' branding on a piece of publicity - especially when it comes to the democracy side of things. It does seem they're on the right track.

I wonder if better engagement might come through academic departments. Judging by the sheer amount of emails I've had inviting me to receptions, drop-ins, seminars and reading groups, and the usually strong turnout from my peers at these events, the English Department has the knack of getting people involved. Clearly this is to some extent because most of these events are directly related to students' work, but I'd also suggest that students seeing these emails feel a stronger obligation to their department than the SU. The only area of real university-union crossover here is the Student-Staff Liaison Committees (SSLC), and although I could be proved wrong I get the sense that these are treat with a degree of reticence by departments and ignorance by many students.

Perhaps, though, the SU could learn from the university and engage with postgrads more through their departments directly. For instance, I don't think I saw any encouragement directly from my department to run for the Faculty Representative role - only forwarded messages probably given little consideration by staff. It's not an ultimate or necessarily effective solution, but it's something I'm sure (hopefully) will be explored.


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