York: The Future of Postgraduate Provision in the UK?

Over 2200 students are studying towards a postgraduate qualification at the University of York, and all are automatically members of the Graduate Students Association (or GSA). Unlike most universities, York recognises and supports two separate, independent, and equal student bodies, the GSA and the Students Union (SU). Whilst they often work together, the existence of the GSA ensures that the views of postgraduate students are not marginalised at York. The GSA has proven that there are enormous benefits, for both students and institutions, in recognising and properly funding autonomous postgraduate student bodies.

The GSAs paid staff consists of Nicki Cooper-Harvey, the current sabbatical president, Lynne Nesbitt, the manager, and two receptionists. 15 additional posts on the executive committee are filled by elected volunteer postgraduate students.

In recent years the GSA has expanded and improved services in line with both the increase in postgraduate numbers and the high expectations of service demanded by current postgraduates. These include providing representation and contributing to University governance through the committee structure, as well as supporting a dedicated welfare team who provide advice, information and advocacy. The GSA run an all-year round programme of social events and activities, on campus and throughout the UK and Europe. They also manage low-cost office based services, free equipment loans and a hardship fund. They co-ordinate graduate sports teams and run a highly popular spring and summer football club for the children of university students and staff.

The representative body for postgraduates in the UK, the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC), have recognised York GSA as an outstanding postgraduate organisation and as a model of national good practice. The comparative success of the GSA in service delivery and representation has attracted admiration from postgraduate organisations all over the UK. The NPC is currently considering its position on independent postgraduate provision in Higher Education. Rather than a divisive move, York GSAs experience seems to demonstrate that independent organising can be a huge step forward for postgraduate students whose interests have not always been best served by institutions with largely undergraduate governing student bodies.

York GSAs current President, Nicki Cooper Harvey, comments, York GSA has no problem in attracting and involving postgraduate students. This is because they know they have ownership over York GSA and that their concerns are central. In other institutions, the needs and interests of postgraduate students can be sidelined, or in the worst cases, undergraduate interests could benefit at the expense of postgraduate need.

The GSAs purely postgraduate focus enables them to address issues crucial to their population. Last year they produced a Code of Practice for Graduate Teaching Assistants, in response to the variation in terms and conditions across departments. GTAs are graduate students who contribute to the academic and cultural character of a University by teaching undergraduates, and helping new students adjust to University life. The GSAs Code of Practice comprehensively addresses the University-wide rights and responsibilities of GTAs, and will contribute to a clear framework of the terms and conditions for these crucial university employees.

The Universitys Student Welfare Committee warmly welcomed the GSAs initiative to provide organised support to College Tutors and Senior Residents. These are mostly postgraduate students who play a vital role in the Universitys College Welfare structure. This project will ensure joined up practice across campus, and provide co-ordinated peer support.

The GSA is highly valued by its constituency: they received many letters and emails of thanks last year from residents who faced a range of problems at the new Halifax and Wentworth college accommodation builds. Despite the extent of the difficulties and the significant numbers of students involved, the GSA worked positively with the University to the situation in a timely and satisfactory manner and secure acceptable compensation payments.

Dame Janet Baker, the University of Yorks Chancellor, officially reopens Wentworth as a dedicated Graduate College on Thursday 21st November. The GSA has been involved at every stage of the development, from canvassing student opinion about the relevance of a centre, to the completion party. They worked closely with the project manager and the designer to ensure the refurbishment best suited the preferences of the graduate population.
The GSA has also moved to a new purpose-built office in Wentworth College.

The GSA is enthusiastic about the potential of the Graduate College. The GSA see the potential for Wentworth to become a vibrant, exciting and stimulating meeting place for all our postgraduate students, affirmed Lynne Nesbitt, the GSA Manager. We firmly believe that the new focus on postgraduates that the College has brought about will enable us to continue to improve upon the standard of provision for our students, and confirm York as the best university in the UK for postgraduate students to study and live.

The GSA plays an important role in the success of the extremely active Overseas Students Association (OSA), supporting and collaborating with them in all aspects of their work. The GSA provides the OSA with administrative and office support, and subscribes to a wide range of international journals. One of the events York GSA are most proud of is their Christmas Day party. Once a year they and the OSA force scores of students to abandon their computer monitors and socialise with each other according to Academic Welfare Officer, Anne Hollings. For many postgraduate students York, like other Universities, is not just a place to study but also home.

The GSAs plans for the coming year include a mentoring programme for undergraduates from non-traditional backgrounds with the potential to take up postgraduate work. Ms Hollings points out the national agenda for Widening Participation seems to overlook the importance of extending the experience and opportunity of postgraduate study and research to students from backgrounds where going to University is not expected or typical. If the postgraduate students of today are tomorrows academics, then Widening Participation needs to be comprehensively addressed in order to bring about any significant long term change. The GSA will be coordinating introductions to graduate life and the departments by current postgraduates to encourage these students to consider taking up postgraduate study.

At their recent AGM, York postgraduates voted in favour of the GSA establishing a further two part-time sabbatical posts, for Welfare and Services. Our students are well aware of the advantages of further GSA sabbatical officers, reported Ms Cooper-Harvey. As well as providing our organisation with intelligent and dynamic officers who can work dedicated hours, we would be offering students the opportunity to develop management and leadership skills in an academic context. We sorely need a Welfare Officer able to develop the coordination of vital welfare support and information that so many of our students use and depend upon. A services officer would enable us to make more effective use of all our facilities and co-ordinate our University wide social and events programming. The post holder would also be in an ideal position to help realise the full potential of Wentworth as a Centre for Graduate life.

The experience of York postgraduates certainly seems to point up the advantages of independent provision and representation.