The Annual Conference of the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC), which took place at Keele University during the week, saw a focus on the diversity of postgraduate students studying in the UK, and in particular on barriers to inclusion.
The conference was opened with an address from Prof. Janet Finch, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, who welcomed delegates and stressed role that postgraduate students, and PhD students in particular, play in the health of the sector. Without the work of PhD students very little research would get done. Despite this, universities often give far less attention and support to newly arriving postgraduate students than is given to their undergraduate counterparts. Prof. Finch praised the work of the NPC in providing a national voice for postgraduate students in the UK.
Titled Participation3 the conference focussed on the width, depth and breadth of postgraduate education. The widening participation agenda arose in presentations on postgraduate students with disabilities, a UKCOSA workshop on internationalisation and the mobility of degrees, and a presentation by Michelle Morgan on new research about barriers and progression from undergraduate degrees to postgraduate study. Wes Streeting, Vice President Education of the National Union of Students discussed the issue of postgraduates as students and the work of NUS in tackling these. Prof John Wakeford from the Missenden Centre discussed the difficulties that may affect PhD students and the sort of PhD student specific appeals for help that postgraduate representatives and union advice centres might encounter.
Delegates also heard about the historic development of the PhD and the pressures currently emerging to make PhDs a suitable qualification for more jobs outside higher education. The market pressures from the US and the political pressures for a single education system across Europe are both showing an increasing impact. In workshops, UKGrad discussed employability and skills, and the QAA opened discussion on their role and moves to increase student involvement in the audit process. Some delegates suggested the QAA needed more enforcement power, particularly over older universities. Dr Jon Pike from the Open University, a founding member of Engage, provided an update on the UCU´s moves towards a boycott of Israeli universities (a move NPC opposes) and encourages postgraduates with teaching responsibilities to join the UCU. He said a boycott was not the right tool, and even if it was there are far worse offenders than Israel, yet only Israel is being targeted. In discussion delegates said that a boycott would be highly discriminatory and wondered why so much time and effort was being wasted by the UCU on a move that would in all likelihood be illegal if approved and implemented.
The NPC´s AGM saw Duncan Connors, a past officer of NPC and currently the student observed on the QAA Board of Directors, elected as General Secretary (a full time sabbatical post). Duncan, who is currently writing up his PhD, will replace Simon Felton who has served as General Secretary since 2005. Conference Secretary David Thurkettle was elected as NPC Chair.
NPC discusses widening participation
Disabled international postgraduate students' experiences in the UK universities
NPC Equal Opportunity Officer Armineh Soorenian presented a report on issues surrounding disabled postgraduate students. Particular attention was given to the rising number of disabled international students (38.24% increase between 2001/02-2004/05), and the problems they face where support is often available for international students, and support is available for disabled students, but the combination of both may make some services inaccessible while other needs are simply not met. At the AGM the conference passed two motions urging increased support for both full and part-time disabled postgraduate students, and Armineh was re-elected unanimously for a further year.
Michelle Morgan presented new research examining the barriers and successful access to postgraduate education by final year undergraduates. The study which focussed on two new universities found that international students and those from a minority group were more likely to undertake postgraduate study. Concern about debt played a major factor in students´ choices regarding postgraduate study, though their level of actual debt did not.
In a presentation by Beatrice Merrick from UKCOSA the issues affecting international students were discussed along with issues related to the standardisation of degrees across Europe through the Bologna process and potentially internationally through other developments. Delegates expressed concern about the Academic Technology Approval Scheme which they were informed will come into affect from November. The scheme will see international students having to jump through yet another hoop before obtaining a student visa. The scheme is apparently designed to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction by restricting what non EU students can research. The conference hear how a letter one delegate had received from Kim Howells (as Minister responsible for Counter-Proliferation) when complaining about the scheme said that "hopefully the system will be viewed by all as the best way forward against the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction", sent a week before Parliament voted to replace Trident, delegates instead found the response somewhat comical and expressed concerns about this new barrier on the one hand discouraging international students from applying to the UK, and on the other increasing the complexity of the application process.
NPC discusses representation
On Saturday, delegates from Keele University and the University of York explained their structures, duties, and the day today role of a postgraduate representative. At Keele there is now a full time sabbatical post for postgraduate representation, and at the University of York three part-time sabbatical officers provide postgraduate representation. At both institutions postgraduate non-sabbatical officers provide additional support.
The difficulties faced in improving postgraduate representation, both structurally and practically, were raised by delegates from many institutions. The conference heard how one institution had recently removed its non-sabbatical postgraduate representative posts after failing to fill them for a number of years running. At Lancaster University a decision by the student body to create a postgraduate sabbatical officer is yet to be implemented.
Where once postgraduate representation could be built from the group up, it was felt by delegates that today, with the large increase in international student numbers at postgraduate level and with a more market driven approach becoming apparent in universities, a top down approach starting with postgraduate sabbatical officer was the best way to improve both representation and the postgraduate student experience.
In discussing plans for the new academic year, delegates stressed the importance of involving new postgraduate students right from the start. In electing representatives delegates suggested that PhD candidates, though harder to contact and recruit, were needed to keep representation strong. PhD candidates have a larger investment in the institution and in many cases will have more time than those on intensive master courses. Both taught and research students should however be represented in any postgraduate representative structures.
A separate discussion was held on national representation. The conference agreed at the AGM that NPC would over the course of the year undertake a 360 degree review of its provisions and structures and Victoria Townsend, a sabbatical officer with the remit of Support and Diversity at Salford University Students´ Union was elected to head the review. Feedback from affiliates, non-affiliates and other stakeholders is welcome and will be requested over the course of the year, or may be sent at any time to firstname.lastname@example.org.