Increasing Postgrad Representation in your Union

The NPC will be holding a number of training sessions over the coming year to prepare union officers for representing postgraduate students. Why is this important? And what can you do to get postgraduate issues more into the union limelight?

The number of postgraduate students is as high as ever - currently a total of almost 400,000, 20% of the UK student body. As government funding has not risen, the number of self-funded postgraduates has had to; in consequence potential students are more aware of 'value for money' and institutions are realising the greater need for improved facilities and representation. The recent NPC surveys on funding and facilities show that this is a significant factor taken into account when graduates are considering where to continue their studies. Also significant is the way the student union caters for its postgraduates, traditionally the charge of undergraduates many are now becoming wise to their other market. But this change in attitude does not happen overnight, especially when we consider the difficulties in defining exactly what the postgraduate community actually is. Postgraduates are ever more loaded with teaching and research responsibilities, but are not treated quite the same as staff and yet do not share all of the same needs and interests as undergraduates. Moreover the main representative of the postgraduate community is typically the welfare or education sabbatical; often recent graduates or even undergraduates on a year out. They have the inevitable problem of having no experience of postgraduate life and as such
postgraduate students may be hesitant to approach them with issues. So how can a university or union cater for its ever expanding postgraduate
community? Create a postgraduate association - incredibly valuable but, as I have come to realise, often restricted to the status of a club or society - surely postgraduates should have a higher status than the pub-crawl society!

Getting a Sabbatical

Another option that some institutions such as Oxford have chosen to take is to get a sabbatical officer and others like Cambridge and York also have an independent Graduate Union. In these institutions the sabbatical post has greatly enhanced the status and awareness of postgraduate representation. Sounds easy, but unfortunately postgraduates are typically not motivated to
influence such constitutional changes. Postgraduates are often seen as working much harder than undergraduates and with less time on their hands, therefore it is difficult to find postgraduates willing to be part-time representatives. This can be and has been used successfully as an argument for a postgraduate sabbatical; if postgraduates are to be adequately
represented they need someone who is dedicated to doing just this, they need a full time sabbatical. Don't be put of by the idea that no-one will stand for the position, just think of how many union hacks stay on to pursue postgraduate education!

If you feel that your union needs a postgraduate sabbatical the first step is to get the support of union officers and councillors, make them aware of the issues and put forward relevant motions to increase postgraduate presence in the union structure. The university itself can be pivotal to your proposals as they will probably be more aware of the pressure postgraduates are under and also have a vetted interest in attracting postgraduates to their fields of research. The Graduate School directly funds a number of postgraduate committees including UCL and Sheffield; maybe your graduate school would be willing to fund a sabbatical post. Securing
this kind of support may even eventually lead to the formation of an independent or semi-independent graduate union.

Is your postgraduate association still considered no more than a club or society? Are you working towards getting your own postgraduate sabbatical?
If you are a postgraduate sabbatical, how valuable is the position? Let us know about the challenges that have faced you and your union, become an NPC pn contributor and spread the word.

Paul Williams