Fifteen reflections on postgraduate representation in SUs

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The news that UKRI (Uk Research and Innovation) funded PhD students are to get a 13 percent YOY increase on their stipends to £17,668 FTE tax free is important for all sorts of reasons – not least because of the way it was achieved.

There is a tendency in SUs to think that PhD students are somehow hard to reach, won’t get involved in student representation, or won’t engage in campaigning work.

So it’s interesting that with some notable exceptions, this was a campaign that was won against the odds, and without the involvement of students’ unions.

Largely organised by Ansh Bhatnagar, a PhD student at Durham with some help from UCU, it involved a grassroots campaign group called “PGRs Against Low Pay” that saw tens of thousands of students and supporters engaging in lobbying work to increase the stipend amounts.

It therefore raises questions about the role of SUs in relation to postgraduates in general, PGRs specifically and what national representation could or should look like.

In the context of UKRI soon launching wider work on its “new deal” for PGRs, which will involve recommendations on PGR student engagement, now is therefore a good time to be thinking about these issues – and so I’ve put together fifteen observations about PG and PGR work in SUs.

  1. In a lot of SUs we’ve tended to wedge together PGR and PGT students into a single PG sabb or PG strategy – but in reality this appears not to have worked out too well across SUs. That’s partly because most universities delineate taught programmes and research programmes rather than UG and PG, and partly because the vast majority of PG sabbs end up being PGTs – which in turn means that a significant proportion of PG sabbs are international dealing with international issues.
  2. There’s no doubt that being a sabb for a year that runs July 1st to June 30th is likely to a) not fit a lot of PhD students’ years and b) be unattractive after so many years at university. Yet ironically those sabbs I’ve met over the years that are (interrupting) or have been PhD students have tended to be outstanding officers. Mountain to Mohammed or Mohammed to Mountain?
  3. One of the first things I tend to ask SUs that are considering establishing a new sabb is whether there’s a defined “donut” of involvement beneath it that will supply candidates, accountability and enable the officer to organise a group or groups. We often forget about this in the UK because of the cross campus ballot requirement. In many cases SUs seem to have established the community leader before establishing the community – and then not supported the leader to grow that community, which is a specific and difficult skill set. Splitting a PG sabb into two PTO roles for PGT and PGR doesn’t help unless the community is there to engage in.
  4. Related to that, with any group of students there is a continuum between student led representation (on a mutual model) and professional led representation (on a charity model). There is an argument, when it comes to PG students, that they are less likely to want direct involvement but more likely to want to be asked, listened to and then acted for. That might imply different kinds of roles and models – involving staff – than just “another sabb”.
  5. Related to that are the Scandinavian models of advocacy which involve paid and selected students or career staff who combine advice work, low level issues advocacy and voice work. That may be a better model than asking individual departments to do “things for PGRs”.
  6. It may also enable a focus on research and policy work arising out of consultations rather than structures and meetings – which is also a style of change making suited to this group and this part of a university. Royal Holloway SU’s policy inquiries are particularly impressive in this regard – see links at the bottom of this article.
  7. Across the range of SU activity there tends to be a tension between making activities “PG friendly” and dedicated activity for PG students. The unions that attempt both seem to succeed, but for PGRs in particular there is a dearth of dedicated activity that can take into account the different interests, average age and issues. For example a dedicated PGR sport strategy would ensure that PGRs working full time could access facilities in the evening. A dedicated PGR mental health strategy would carefully consider the issues of isolation and write-up. Compiling them for the PG audience then helps – see P39 here for an example.
  8. Our tendency in the UK to be obsessed with “roles” (and elections to them) rather than functions and bodies – with staff support and processes designed in that way – bakes in “high stakes” and “high commitment” models of involvement. For example the PGR chapters we saw in Scandivania are much more like statutory academic societies where involvement can be more casual and project based (and combine social activity, student representation and careers activity).
  9. Many of the things I hear PGRs talk about relate to the subject or profession that they are researching – which suggests a case for stronger subject-based student representation in general. I also worry that in some unions, PGR societies are assumed to only be social – and incapable of (for example) representation students on committees – on the basis of the way they are categorised or because they’re not the elected sabb.
  10. Many would argue – including UCU – that PGRs should be treated as staff and that their representation should be handled by trade unions. I won’t get into that debate here – suffice to say that a relationship with UCU on campus almost certainly needs to think about PGR students specifically in relation to who does what, when and how.
  11. I often hear from SUs that the “issues” that PGR students would want their SU to work on are complex, hard to discern or difficult to understand. I understand why folks would say that – but in reality the long term issues faced by PGRs are pretty constant and universal. They are research skills, funding, mental health/isolation, supervision, space, and terms and conditions (and recruitment) when they are acting as teachers. There’s good research on all of them (and briefings on the site – see below).
  12. Where there isn’t a PG sabb or a PG sabb filled by a PGT student, the truth is that representation in committees and meetings concerning PGR students is often inauthentic or just poor. And if there isn’t a PG sabb, “stick a sabb on it” culture of putting an undergrad in those situations is arguably worse. That’s not to say that individual officers haven’t or can’t make a decent stab at it – but it is to say that this kind of situation is probably a good opportunity to try new models of how students are appointed to committees by SUs.
  13. One critique of many SUs is that the “campaigns” or issues that SUs work on are often not visible, are worked on on an annual cycle rather than over a longer period, and emerge only when an officer team has met. The long term, almost universal and constant nature of the issues for PGRs does allow an SU to treat them differently – I probably ought to be able to access a PGRs student interests strategy page on any SU website that details what you think about the issues and what you’re doing over a longer time frame. (“All teaching role should be advertised openly, and we submitted a paper on this to the university XX”)
  14. On advice work, all the time in my career I’ve spent with PGRs suggests they are less likely to come to see someone like an advisor when there’s an issue, and more likely to respond well to someone pointing out their rights and how they themselves can enforce them. For example a “how to guide” on changing supervisor could be more successful than “come see SU advice if you have a problem”.
  15. Finally on tone – much successful PGR student representation has a more publically assertive tone to it than that we usually see from SUs, centred in relatively poor industrial relations in the sector and the time that PGRs spend with academics. That suggests that SUs should adopt that kind of framing for woider student work, or focus on quasi-autonomous structures that can retain a more strident approach.

Read more

Royal Holloway SU: PGR students policy inquiry and PGT policy inquiry

UCU: Postgraduate employment: good practice


We need to deepen our understanding of the PGR experience

Deepening our understanding of PGR students

A desire to belong – ethnic minority students’ lived experience of being a PGR

How REF can help PhD applicants

Considering the ‘leaky pipeline’- are we missing the point on leadership diversity?

Black students aren’t getting funded PhDs. Who’s responsible for fixing that?


PGRs may be normalising anxiety and depression – so what should be done to tackle that?

PGRs need more and better space on campus

What is it like being a PGR/PhD student in the UK?

Should there be standards in PGR supervision?

PGR students and their supervisors

Won’t somebody think about the Postgraduates?

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