Impact speaks to Laura Theobald, the Students’ Union (SU) Postgraduate Officer, about her last two years in office. Laura updated us about the progress that she has made on the access to postgraduate funding, as well as integrating postgraduate students into University life, for example by improving events in Week One.
In general terms, what do you do?
My position means that I deal with all 8000 postgraduates at the University of Nottingham (UoN)- they make up 25% of the student population here. I work very closely with the Education Officer by representing postgraduate education issues, so I have to attend a lot of meetings.
“We can make sure what we’re doing as a Union can apply to postgraduates as well”
Sometimes I also get involved with the other officers to show them how we can make sure what we’re doing as a Union can apply to postgraduates as well.
This has been your second year in office. What have you been doing over the last two years?
I’ve really tried to get us more involved with the research agenda in the University, because obviously it has a huge effect on the postgraduate research students here. So that’s one way in which I’ve forged new territory for us.
“My big thing has been on postgraduates who teach and demonstrate”
I’ve also been doing quite a lot on postgraduate funding, and recently this year my big thing has been on postgraduates who teach and demonstrate, so that’s been really exciting.
What has been your big issue with postgraduate funding? Why target that in particular?
Because there is none! If you want to do a Master’s degree, the only loan options you have are professional and career development loans, which are commercial loans, and they have a really high interest rate.
You have to start paying them back immediately after you finish, regardless of whether you have a job or not. It also depends on your credit.
“If you want to do a Master’s degree, the only loan options you have are professional and career development loans, which are commercial loans, and they have a really high interest rate”
If you haven’t developed a credit score during your time at university, then your parents have to have credit but some people’s parents don’t, so they either can’t, or are not willing, to co-sign on a loan.
So how have you progressed with the fight for funding and how would you like to progress further?
This is part of a wider, national campaign. Ultimately, we need the Government to do something about postgraduate funding, whether that’s a loan system or something different. I’ve been involved with the National Union of Students’ (NUS’) campaign, advocating for a loan system, but this year I’ve been doing a lot of work with the University on postgraduate widening participation.
“The University has this pot of a couple of million pounds to spend on widening participation for postgraduates”
Last year it was announced that the National Scholarship Programme in 2015 would be redirected for postgraduate support. So essentially, the University has this pot of a couple of million pounds to spend on widening participation for postgraduates, and they don’t really know what to do with that. So we’re helping them to figure out where we can drive that money to go where it’s most needed.
Your manifesto mentions that you want to improve the treatment of postgraduates in general. In what other ways are they not treated well enough?
“We already have one of the most active Freshers’ Weeks for postgraduates in the country”
Postgraduates are often excluded in Week One, so I’ve been involved in trying to make it more of an inclusive programme. That way it’s kind of a welcome for all new students, and not just freshers.
We already have one of the most active Freshers’ Weeks for postgraduates in the country and we already do a lot more than other universities, but it’s making sure that postgraduates know that there’s a lot going on for them when they arrive.
What sorts of things do you run for postgraduates during Week One?
“There’s this perception that postgraduates don’t want to go out and drink but they are in their twenties after all”
We do a few club nights, because they are actually interested in that. There’s this perception that postgraduates don’t want to go out and drink but they are in their twenties after all.
We also did a bowling night and a pub quiz, and also opened it up for them to go on the Alton Towers trip, so a lot has been going on.
Your proposal to the SU Council in December regarding better treatment of postgraduate teachers was passed. What have you done and what will you do to help this movement come to fruition now?
A lot has actually been done already. We got a group of PhD Course Representatives together and presented the research to them to really try and empower them to go into their schools and departments, and make the change.
“We have the support that we need from the top”
We also had a meeting with the University Registrar last week where we gave the research to him, and he said that he’s quite happy to support us, which is really positive.
We have the support that we need from the top, so it’s just going school by school and bringing them all up to speed. It might be a multi-year process to get round every school but I think it’s been really positive so far, especially getting PhDs engaged with the university and interested in what we’re doing.
You said in your manifesto that you wanted to establish and improve networks between postgraduates in their halls of residence and courses. How have you gone about this?
This year we split up the Broadgate Park JCR into five separate student committees, and two of those were postgraduate. So one is for the main site and the other one is for Cloister House, which is a really small development over by the QMC, so it’s actually really far away from Broadgate Park.
“It’s been a bit of a trial year, but we know what we need to improve on”
Unfortunately the Cloister one hasn’t really gotten off the ground as much as we would have liked, but I think we underestimated how much more support would be needed to support five committees rather than one. So it’s been a bit of a trial year, but we know what we need to improve on.
Generally, how successful do you think you’ve been, during your two terms in office?
I think it depends on the day! Some days I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything, but other days I feel really good, because change within the University can be really, really slow. Things sometimes have to be approved through multiple committees, so it takes a long time.
“I know of all this great stuff that’s happening but I just can’t tell you exactly what it is yet”
I’m actually waiting for one particular thing to go through all of the different committees, and I’m literally so excited. Once we get the final approval, it’ll be really exciting and fantastic, but waiting for that is really hard because I know of all the great stuff that’s happening but I just can’t tell you exactly what it is yet.
Which term did you prefer and which was your more successful out of the two? Or is it too early to say thanks to this mystery proposal you’re waiting to go through?
I think second term definitely, because in the first term I spent a lot of time trying to find my feet and figure out what I was doing. In the second term, I just dove straight in and carried on, and I just felt so much more confident about what I was doing.
“A little bit of pressure is a good thing”
I also noticed a difference in university committee meetings that I sit on, as in the first meetings that I went to, I just sat there and I didn’t really know what they were for. But coming in for the second year and feeling like a full member of the committee was really good. There was also a bit more pressure, but a little bit of pressure is a good thing.
Would you also recommend that people try and hold the position for two years instead of one?
“I’m really happy that I did a second term”
It’s really up to them, because it’s pretty mixed. I’m really happy that I did a second term, I think it was a really good decision, and I also think that it’s really good for building relationships with the University.
It’s just been phenomenal, but for some people, for them to accomplish what they want to do, they may only need a year, so it’s really a personal decision.
And how did it feel being the first (joint) re-elected candidate in UoN SU history?
I forget it a lot, because at the time it all felt so new and as if we didn’t know what we were doing, but we all just settled in, and it was great being re-elected with Mike Dore, the current SU Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer.
Are there any things that you’d have liked to have done differently during your time as Postgraduate Officer?
I think there are always a lot of things. One of the things that you find in this job is that it is a lot about the problems; you get a lot of students talking about the things that are making them unhappy, and you want to fix everything, but obviously we’re not capable of doing that. Hopefully my successors will pick some of that up.
“We get a lot of complaints about pastoral support for taught postgraduates”
Specifically, I would have loved to have done something on personal tutoring for taught postgraduates. It’s varied between schools, but we get a lot of complaints about pastoral support for taught postgraduates, so it would be good for them to just simply have members of academic staff who can help them.
I’d also have liked to better our support for distance learners and how distance learners are represented in the Union.
What other advice would you give to your successors?
“My big piece of advice would be to remind them that they can’t do everything”
I want to make sure that they are given the freedom to make the role their own, and that they’re able to carry out their own ideas. My approach to handover is to give them as much support as they need but really give them room to flourish.
But I think my big piece of advice would be to remind them that they can’t do everything and to make sure that they sort their priorities and look after themselves, because this job can be very draining.
Image: Magda and Toby
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