Following the success in 2003, NPC ran another training session at Conference 2004 as a two hour slot to help familiarise attendees with postgraduate issues and exchange good practice on support and representation of postgraduates. A separate session was run for those from postgraduate only institutions and also those where there was an established autonomous graduate student body. In such circumstances, the approach to support and representation of postgraduates is widely different as there is something else in place that postgraduates more directly have ownership of. This article covers the outcomes of the session for those trying to extend the services of their own student representative bodies towards postgraduates.
The session opened with covering the importance of postgraduate representation to have a base where postgraduates are speaking for postgraduates within their natural environment so that the distinctive education and welfare needs are addressed. Many student bodies see it as running a few social events for postgraduates, although there is much more than that which matters that need to be addressed.
The first interactive session looked at dealing with the typical problems of establishing postgraduate representation:
Postgraduates are too busy...? - This is often thought to be the case and that the demands put on postgraduates are increasingly heavy such that there are no means by which they could get involved in anything beyond their study/research. Feedback suggested that there were postgraduates who were wholly concentrated on what they were doing and there was little that could be done to persuade them otherwise. It was agreed, however, that every postgraduate should get involved in other activity, and use their student experience fruitfully or they lose focus and quality of life. Another important point raised was the issue over how administration, bureaucracy and the need for postgraduates to attend meetings that eat up too much time make it hard for them to get involved. Likewise more accessible mechanisms within the structure of a student body will ease this.
They don't look interested... - It was suggested here that starting off without a proper intro programme can give bad first impressions and then there is a decreasing tendency to get involved. Also it has to be considered whether what is available fits in with the postgraduate "natural environment" where they would meet, socialise and work. If not then it is going to be hard to move them away from such places as they will not naturally fit in.
Where are they? - This one is often questioned, they are rarely noticed and there were many factors to consider such as whether they are part time, how easily they get information sent to them and whether advertising is happening in places where they will be in the different pockets of community such as departments, common rooms etc.
There is too much to do! - Often the administration, meeting time and many other difficulties to get into the swing of things can make the task much bigger than it needs to be. Consideration here was given to setting real goals that would be achievable in the short term with a view to seeing what goals were actually necessary. Often when getting involved, the institution will bombard the postgraduate representatives with many ideas on what they would like to do. It is important to set priorities in order that important foundations can be set and some work is successful in the long run.
At the end of the session, there was a chance for individuals to place post-it notes on the wall with ideas of what good practice has been undertaken. Here was what came out of that including the answers to the questions placed:
How do you communicate to postgraduates? - Email lists were a good method, although some institutions had problems being able to use email list servers. Text messaging was also raised as a useful starting point. Such communication is easy and time efficient. Staff publications were also suggested where information for postgraduate readers could easily be included. Further to that there was opportunity for where staff and postgraduates could input their views to the institution. Using postgraduates to send out the messages was another important factor, that it was heard from those who relate to them. Posters in departments were also seen as beneficial. Advanced communication of events was also vital.
Key issues facing postgraduates... - Workload and isolation were seen highly concerning, particularly from students who do not have lab work or time in the office involved in their research. Identity and where they fit in with everything that operates on a semester/term agenda is difficult also. Funding also came up, particularly for those coming straight out of undergraduate education and undertaking courses that require further debt and higher fees. Desk space was also a concern for many. Holiday activities being limited came up also.
How do you get more involvement? - One suggestion was weekly surgeries at accessible points such as accommodation or departments. Social events were seen to attract involvement and get more interest when people come along and see such things as worth while. Focus groups have also been popular to discuss the perceptions of the student body. Ensuring that most postgraduate courses have representatives gives a useful hierarchy of representation where they are specifically encouraged to participate and communicate both ways with postgraduates. One reported a successful sports day for postgraduates.
Successful campaigns.. - Here there was a campaign for parity of sports facilities fees, where part time students were ripped off. Also getting allocated desks for postgraduates in the library was helpful so they had the space when they required it.
Social events you have run or are planning... - Sports tournaments (darts, pool football), quiz nights, end of term disco/party, barbecues, fireworks were all extremely successful in a number of places. Themed events also came up which could have a wide international dimension. Barbecues and such events were also seen as important in terms of getting students with families to go along. Introduction weeks were also seen as a highlight.