General Secretary´s Report
National Postgraduate Committee Ordinary General Meeting
Nottingham University Graduate School
24th November 2007
The General Secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee is a jack of all trades, an administrative Swiss Army Pen Knife that has to perform a multitude of functions and as such is the focal point of our organisation´s activities. This year, under the aegis of a full and professional Management Subcommittee chaired by David Thurkettle of Keele University, the rôle of the General Secretary has developed beyond the fine example set by my predecessor, Simon Felton, who worked tirelessly to rebuild the NPC, and is starting to fulfil the aims of the charity´s founders as an impartial agent promoting the needs of postgraduate students in the United Kingdom and beyond.
Well, I do not like using words such as `I´ or `My´ when writing reports like this, but by way of introduction please allow one a slight personal diversion. My direct involvement with the NPC dates back to 2005 when I jumped into the role of Conference Secretary at the last minute to guide the day to day running of our conference in Strathclyde, a difficult job made easier by the help of my colleagues. However, prior to this I knew of the NPC and actually, to be honest, I did not like it much. I found it a weird and dorky institution obsessed with its own structures, procedures and existential concerns, that undertook campaigns with little or no bearing on my experience as a postgraduate. Indeed, I should mention my experiences as a postgraduate, because that has been my job since leaving the RAF in 2004, a professional academic, I teach, I research and I live a family life outside of this. So do many others, in-fact talking to postgraduates in my university, Glasgow and at many other places on conferences and ESRC training sessions I discovered an amazing truth; the majority of my postgraduate cohort and peer group in a wide range of subjects neither knew, nor cared about the NPC! Unfortunately for the NPC, when a postgraduate did know about the organisation the response was almost uniformly negative, my peers had financial, family, health, welfare, social and a vast range of other concerns particular to their circumstances as a postgraduate and most felt that the NPC cared little about such issues, because it was too far removed from this day to day reality of postgraduate life. I agreed, and with Simon and others I was a member of the small but growing part of the NPC that wanted to change all this. It has taken two years, but now we have an organisation working for mainstream postgraduates and run by members of that postgraduate mainstream.
So here is what we have done over the past three months, both during my term of office as General Secretary and at the end of Simon´s time in office. Firstly, you, the affiliates are the most important people we have a relationship with, you are our eyes and ears on the ground and you provide us with the funding to continue our work. You work hard in your unions, guilds and associations to provide services for students and over the course of the past few months I have heard from all of you how you aim to improve the lives of postgraduates. Indeed, there are many sabbatical officers from postgraduate backgrounds this year, but even those who are not have a very good understanding of what needs to be done. Therefore, we have contacted you by post, email and phone, we have listened to you and we have asked you what you think. This process has included non-affiliates to the National Postgraduate Committee, we do not differentiate outside of our formal structures, the UK has many thousands of postgraduates regardless of whether their universities are affiliated to us or not. Additionally, we do not treat non-postgraduate union officers as being any different or indeed inferior to postgraduate union officers, indeed negative and superior attitudes have not helped the cause of the NPC by alienating those we need the most, student bodies on campus who provide services to one and all. We have asked and we have listened and one result is clear, we have two new affiliates and one re-affiliate, with a few more in the pipeline. In short, we need you not just for our survival, but more importantly for us to do our job.
Secondly, we are working to make postgraduate lives better by taking the whole process from top to bottom and looking at how postgraduates fit into the structure. At the point of entry, we are working with UCAS to promote a single postgraduate application system used by all universities called UKPASS, to make the lives of potential postgraduate easier by making their application to university a `one-stop-shop´. The system is flexible, provides an easy route for requested submissions and the scheduling of application interviews and test and provides for the minority, social and medical concerns that might need to be raised at any point. We wholehearted support UKPASS and will work with you our affiliates to make sure that all universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adopt the system.
Thirdly, we will work closely with affiliates and both the National Union of Students and the Association of Managers of Student Unions (AMSU) to help provide a wider range of social and welfare services in student unions across the country. We believe in the idea of a postgraduate student space, a concept many unions are adopting (I recently had a pint in The Graduate Bar on the roof of Warwick University Union, nice!) and certainly we want to support welfare and advice centres in provide a wider range of services and advice to postgraduates. However, we can only do this with the help of the NUS and AMSU and in the new year we will coordinate our actions accordingly. In Scotland, in recognition of the particular circumstances there, we will work with CHESS to achieve the same aims.
Fourthly, we are working with the Officer of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) to promote a fairer system of redress to students that with a justified grievance that is not open to widespread abuse. Indeed, the NPC is not a dedicated welfare organisation, we do not have the resources or manpower to be so. However, somehow for reasons I am unsure of, we have adopted a lot of time consuming case work. Recently, as a group we reviewed this and were astounded at some of what had gone on, the vast majority of cases were unfounded, unjustified and frankly a waste of our time and money. What made us angry was in the case of students with a serious concern, we could not help them as we were spread far too thinly to do so. To illustrate this fact, 68% of the complaints that go to the OIA are found to have no substance at all. This cannot continue, as the students with genuine problems are not getting access to the system that can help them and this is not fair. Therefore, we will now provide a full range of information to students to help them pursue a complaint and will even contact universities to make sure the rules are followed, but we will only become involved as an institution in a case if there is an obvious and blatant violation of a person´s rights.
Fifthly, we support the creation of the National Student Forum and am working hard with the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) to make it reality. Mark our words on this, the forum is an important development in the relationship between students and government in England and Wales and whilst its recommendations might not be binding, they will be public and ministers will have to respond. As present, the NPC is privileged to be part of the working group setting this institution up and we know that member of the department´s ministerial team are always there to listen to our views and opinions.
Sixthly, we support the University and College Union (UCU) in its efforts to represent the many postgraduate students who have to work for a living to fund their education. As this report has shown, we are working to improve the lot of postgraduate students throughout their career and the entry into professional life is part of this. UCU provides an important support mechanism for academics and we can only support their work. We´ve had a strained relationship recently, but after speaking to Sally Hunt and attending the Trades Unions Congress in Brighton at their invitation, we now look forward to a brighter and better future.
Which leads onto my final point, the proposed and now defunct boycott of Israeli universities by UCU and other bodies. Well, this is going to make me revert to using the words `I´, `Me´ and `My´, but I will go out on a limb here, we live in a complicated and multifaceted world where one person´s good is another one´s bad and where in vast swathes of the population disagree as a matter of course. However, let me remind you of something, I was in the armed forces and I have seen the inhumane, evil and downright unjustified results of disputes over resources, politics, land and religion and along with other people from a same professional background in academia, know what this means. As a result, I believe in dialogue and discussion, common ground and compromise and I believe that everyone has a right to a peaceful life regards of their particular makeup. In terms of promoting postgraduates in the UK, within our narrow remit, this means we campaign to make sure that regardless of a person´s, race, religion, ethnicity, culture, colour, creed economic or social background, political beliefs, gender, sexual orientation or any other defining characteristic, that they have a right to a postgraduate education and can continue this unhindered. Therefore, I have asked for the advice of the National Secular Society to help make sure we can remain impartial as an institution.
We did not support the proposed boycott of Israeli universities, because the policy proposed by our affiliates was to oppose it and a General Secretary regardless of his personal beliefs has to accept that. However, we need to be impartial and promote both sides of any story and I, our Communications Secretary Oleg Lisagor and Andre Oboler, our Project Officer in Israel and Palestine will work hard this year to make this the case. Furthermore, I will be a member of an official TUC delegation to Israel and Palestine between the 2nd and 7th of December to meet with the labour movements in both nations to discuss peace and stability, with my contribution concerning the rôle of postgraduates within this. However, we are a small institution with many responsibilities at home and I want to focus on these and I will not take sides because perhaps uniquely amongst the current officers of the NPC, I have witnessed the human costs of doing so.
So, that was a long report, possibly the longest I will ever write during my year in office. Yes, that´s right, I swear on all that I hold dear and true that I do not want to hang on forever in the NPC. Indeed, once my term of office is finished, I will not hold any other position because I find that to do so removes the chances of new and upcoming postgraduates to become involved in this institution and whilst we need the input of past officers as a valuable force for stability, to interfere and cling on for grim death against the democratic tide is as undignified as it is lacking in self-respect. Whilst many of predecessors have gone onto do two successful years in office, I have an academic career to start and a therefore I fully expect that you, the affiliates will join in with the running of the National Postgraduate Committee and that the highly talented current crop of sabbaticals and student officers will consider running for my job in 2008. You don´t have to be a postgraduate to work here, indeed I am not sure whether being one helps, but you do have to care about postgraduate students first and foremost, and this year that is certainly the view of the entire National Postgraduate Committee.