Democracy

Postgraduate Officer:
Lucy Gill

Lucy Gill is the SU's Postgraduate Officer.

I’ve been here at Warwick for four years now, completing both my undergraduate and Master’s degrees in the History Department. I got involved with the Union for the first time as a postgrad: I represented my course through the SSLC system, worked on SUHQ Reception and helped to run the Social Enterprise Project. Engaging with the Union has played a massive part in making my time here more memorable and has really made me feel part of the Warwick community. It’s never too late to try something new and take advantage of all the opportunities that the Union offers!

It’s really important to me that Postgraduates can be just as involved in campus life as their Undergraduate counterparts. Whether you’re a Taught or Research student, your time here at Warwick will be packed. I’m here to make sure that the Union not only supports you with any academic issues you may have, but also provides you with opportunities, social events and activities that take into account your distinct needs as a postgraduate community. In order to get this right, we need your help – get in touch if you’ve got any comments, concerns or suggestions!

Officer Objectives

Click here to see the progress of Lucy's aims and objectives for this year.

Blog

  • Thu 27 Mar 2014 13:39

    Recently, the Sabbatical Officer Team was asked for our input into a University strategy paper on the Warwick-Monash Alliance. In our recent Help Us Help You survey, you told us that one of your top priorities for the SU was “holding the University to account” on a wide range of issues. After consulting extensively with Ben and Erin, Cat and I fed back a number of issues that we had with this strategy, which I’ve attempted to break down and outline below!


    What is it?

    The Warwick-Monash Alliance is a partnership between Warwick and Monash University in Australia, which aims to connect two Universities with similar aims. For students, this means hopefully easier access to a global education, whether through e-learning, joint or double degrees or opportunities to take part in Alliance society and sports events. The Alliance also aims to conduct research that addresses global concerns and problems and aims to facilitate the exchange of people, ideas and information across the globe.

    What benefits will this bring?

    Both Monash and Warwick Universities make clear statements about the importance of excellence in teaching and learning which aims to produce globally-aware graduates who are highly employable. We are pleased to see education play such a crucial role in Alliance strategy – Universities are, after all, first and foremost teaching and learning communities! Equally, we are keen to see the Alliance enhance the educational experience of as broad a group of our students as possible – particularly through the numerous possibilities offered by e-learning. There are loads of great initiatives already taking place on this front – those of you taking IATL’s interdisciplinary modules will already know how great these are – and the Union would support all work to make e-learning opportunities more widely available to all students. Being able to exchange ideas and research virtually across the globe, through shared modules, the Reinvention Journal and e-seminars internationalises every students’ experience!

    Nevertheless, there were several main areas of concern that we identified:

    1) Fees & Funding

    We were deeply concerned that the joint and double-degree programmes proposed in the strategy paper would, without significant living-cost funding, be accessible only to a small proportion of the student body with sufficient financial resources to be truly mobile - i.e. those from the wealthiest backgrounds.

    Monash University suggest a living cost of A$ 22,592.00/£12,251.75 for the year,[1] whereas Warwick recommend around £9,000/A$16,595.84 per year[2]. Currently, the Australian dollar is performing strongly against other world currencies, meaning that the exchange-rate is unfavourably weighted against those travelling there from overseas.  With several of the proposed degrees running into multiple years, these courses therefore remain hugely expensive propositions – particularly when wider financial concerns such as accommodation, health care and transport are factored in.

    Currently, rent prices are considerably higher in Monash, with on-campus accommodation beginning at £112 / A$208 per week[3] - though this is in no way correlative in terms of the quality received (as one Warwick student currently studying in Monash described it, it amounts to paying the equivalent of what you might pay for Bluebell to live in Whitefields). Furthermore, academic terms/years begin and end at substantially different times in Australia and the UK, meaning that there would need to be much greater contract flexibility for those Monash students arriving in Warwick to begin their academic year in January - an inflexibility which many of you have no doubt encountered when dealing with Warwick Accommodation!

    Then there’s the issue of Student Health Cover, which needs to be purchased independently – Monash OSHC currently costs A$571 (£310) for a 12 month period, and must be purchased at the time of an offer’s acceptance. [4] It’s also worth noting that with Student Health Cover, there is a 12-month waiting period before students can claim for costs arising from a pre-existing condition – thus severely limiting the potential of students with asthma, disabilities or other pre-existing medical conditions from participating.

    2) Accessibility

    All of the above points amount to a clear problem with the accessibility of these courses. More broadly, then, how many students does the Alliance benefit, and is it worth it?

    The answer: not many! For approximately 93,000 students across two institutions, it will benefit less than 1000 in its current state. It is also worth noting that a degree which requires continual student mobility will automatically exclude students with dependents, student carers, disabled students and many others for whom repeated travel far from home is simply not feasible.

    When all these factors are taken into account, it was our contention that these are not accessible degree courses.

    3) Welfare

    Currently, there are plans in place to provide bursaries to students for flights at the beginning and end of term. However, this does not cover any additional travel costs which may be incurred in the interim. Put simply, if you (or a relative) became seriously ill and you had to travel home at short notice, how would you be able to do this is you didn’t have the money / a spare £1000 handy?
     
    We are also concerned that sufficient improvements in welfare provision would also need to be put in place to support both Warwick students in Monash and Monash students here at Warwick, to ensure fair and consistent access to personal tutoring, counselling, support and other welfare services.

    4) Clashes

    Aside from the issue with term-time scheduling, NSS feedback from students studying on joint degree courses across Warwick departments repeatedly reports interdepartmental communication and administration difficulties such as the clashing of classes, weighting of years and assignment deadlines. It’s difficult to see how these issues would be anything but exacerbated when dealing with another institution overseas.

    5) University investment & motivations

    Currently, a mere 9% of the current Alliance budget is set aside for education, with the majority set to be spent on research and ‘core costs’. Although clearly we recognise a need to invest more initially in research, the Officer Team is concerned that the proposed “excellence in teaching and learning” may currently be out of reach if so little of the budget has been designated for education.

    The strategy discussion paper identifies “exclusive, high margin” activity as being the preferred option for Alliance education activities, and suggests that all courses should have the ability to generate considerable surpluses. Or, to put it another way: they’re only interested in degrees which make a lot of money. It is our belief that this would be sought through inflated, ‘prestige-priced’ postgraduate taught and international fees – none of which are externally regulated in the UK or Australia, meaning that institutions are able to essentially charge what they like.

    A lot of money is going into this initiative: the University plans to spend £6million on the Alliance over the coming 4 years, with £200,000 having already been spent on marketing alone (sadly we aren’t able to access the amounts spent on repeated flights overseas for senior management, but we’re assuming it’s not inconsiderable!) This is your tuition-fee money. Whenever we have asked students for feedback, you repeatedly cite a desire for improved library facilities, refurbished and expanded lecture and seminar spaces, improved e-resources and access to technology, fairer pay for postgraduate teaching assistants and a new Humanities Building right here on campus. Rather than being spent on improving teaching and learning facilities at Warwick, however, surpluses generated by profitable departments will be expected to contribute instead to the funding of the Alliance.

    Conclusions (a.k.a TL;DR!)

    It would surely be disappointing to students - many of whom currently view the Alliance as having little relevancy to their studies - to see much-needed improvements to Warwick University sacrificed to fund an overseas initiative that would impact only a few, privileged students.

    The current shape of the Alliance’s education provision, with its heavy focus on joint degrees, reserves these opportunities only for those who can afford to study abroad. Such inaccessibility and exclusivity undermines the ethos of ‘Go Global’ and other Warwick initiatives, which are designed to show that internationalisation is available to every Warwick student. Quite aside from this, there also remains the tangible irony of a prospective degree in Environmental Sustainability which requires taking multiple flights across the world.

    What is the University’s motivation for this? It seems noble when phrased in terms of enhanced student employability through global development and research, but their current strategy seems to focus disproportionately on obtaining access to business links and ‘untapped markets’. In pursuing this strategy, Warwick University is actively contributing to a culture in which education is accessible only to the wealthiest few. All of which begs the key question: why is Warwick University spending so much money on investment in another institution overseas when there are so many problems which need solving right here at Warwick?

    Ultimately, the aims and purpose of the Alliance still remain unclear to the vast majority of Warwick students. It is therefore easily perceived as an institutional vanity-project which has little relevancy to the lives of many. Until there is improved communication from the University which leads to greater student buy-in on the idea, it is very difficult to see what benefits this initiative brings to all but the privileged few. In the meantime, it has the potential to become Warwick’s very own Millennium Dome: a gigantic PR prestige project which is ultimately little more than the folly of senior management.



    [1] http://www.monash.edu.au/study/international/melbourne/cost-of-living.html

    [2] http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/studentfunding/costs/

    [3] http://www.mrs.monash.edu.au/oncampus/admissions/rental-rates.html

    [4] http://monash.edu/fees/oshc-price-list-2014.html

     

  • Tue 25 Mar 2014 11:24

    Buried away in the 2014 Budget report was a little nugget of information on an issue dear to my heart. The quote which brought me so much joy (though, let’s face it, with the government’s current track record on Higher Education, also a fair amount of trepidation!) read thus:

    “The changing nature of the labour market is demanding higher skilled workers. There are however potential barriers in the postgraduate system that may be restricting the supply of these higher skills. To ensure the UK can compete successfully in the global economy, the government will investigate options to support increasing participation in postgraduate studies and will put forward its ideas at Autumn Statement 2014.”

     

    What does this mean? Hopefully, that the hard work of Postgraduate Officers and Students’ Unions across the country may be paying off, and the issue of postgraduate funding is finally making its way onto the political agenda (or, for the more cynical among you, politicians may finally be realising that student votes count in the run up to the next General Election…!) Both Anna Chowcat – last year’s Postgraduate Officer – and I have repeatedly lobbied for a funding system that prevents postgraduate education from becoming the preserve only of the lucky few, and it’s great to see that our voices are now being heard.

    It’s been well-publicised that postgraduate funding is in crisis. Following years of growth, PG admission numbers are on the downturn – over the last three years, there’s been an unprecedented 12% drop in the number of students entering taught postgraduate study. Both universities and employers have repeatedly voiced their concerns that demand for postgraduate study would be affected by increased fees. With those of you already paying £9k+ getting nearer to graduation, there’s a major question mark over the future of postgraduate study – why, when you’re already saddled with thousands of pounds’ worth of debt, would you risk taking on more?

    What’s at the heart of the problem? Put simply, there’s very little financial help available for students – no government loan scheme, very little research funding and few university bursaries. When you’re faced with upfront fees which average at around £8000, you’re left with very few options: savings (if you’re lucky), parental support (if you’re even luckier), part-time jobs or, if you have nowhere else to turn, credit card overdrafts and commercial loans. Career and Professional Development loans are an option, but they can be difficult to get, have high interest rates and short repayment timeframes. Increasingly, postgraduate education is becoming unaffordable and inaccessible to students from all but the most privileged backgrounds.


    So, when the government says that it’s looking at “options”, what do we want to see? I would suggest the following:

    1) A loan system – one that, like the existing undergraduate loan system, covers Masters fees and at least some living costs. For those studying more traditional ‘academic’ subjects or looking at a research-focused career, a centrally-managed loan scheme would break down innumerable barriers to higher study.

    2) For vocational or professional courses, more investment from the private sector and industry – they’ll be the ones ultimately benefitting most from better-trained graduates, so why shouldn’t they help ensure fair access and a more diverse workforce?

    3) Capping fees. Currently, Masters fees are set by Universities – Warwick’s fees, for example, range from around £6.5k to £25k+, and prices are regularly affected by ‘prestige’ and ‘reputation’ as much as by the quality of education that they may (or, indeed, may not!) deliver. This has got to stop: while Masters courses obviously cost money and should be reasonably priced, students shouldn’t shoulder the burden for what can often amount to little more than institutional showboating.

    It’s great to see that Warwick is involved in exploring ways to make postgraduate studies more accessible, and will soon be announcing additional bursaries as part of HEFCE’s Postgraduate Support Scheme. However, this is a national problem which requires a national solution.  In a knowledge economy, postgraduate research is the foundation for many key professions, from academia to engineering. Postgraduate taught study has always been important for research careers and for PhD entry, particularly in the Arts and Social Sciences. It’s also now become increasingly important for access to professions such as journalism and law, and for professional development to improve your skills once you’re employed.

    To my mind, these opportunities need to be open to all students – a postgraduate degree should not be a luxury accessible only to the luckiest few, nor should our professions be elite domains populated solely by  those from privileged backgrounds. I look forward to seeing what Mr Osborne puts on the table this autumn – let’s hope it’s more of a main course than meagre kitchen-scraps!

  • Fri 14 Feb 2014 14:58

    On Friday morning, I attended a meeting chaired by the University Registrar and the Provost on the issue of fairer remuneration for postgraduate students who teach here at Warwick. I have been campaigning consistently (and loudly!) on this issue since taking office - this meeting marks a major step forward, since it is the first time that the University has publicly acknowledged this as a serious problem-area. The turnout from postgraduate teachers was impressive and, thankfully, it now looks like the University is finally starting to take note of situation – as the Registrar himself stated: “We haven't come here to listen to your views, leave the room and ignore you. We have come here to help us change this.”

    Chances are that, as an undergraduate, you will be taught or assisted in your learning by a postgraduate student at some stage during your degree course (in fact, you may even take this for granted and be unaware of any distinction between the different levels of teaching staff). What you may not be aware of, however, are the conditions under which many of these doctoral students are expected - and in some cases even required - to work.

    Currently, massive disparities exist in pay, contracts, workloads, training and recruitment. Rather than working to clearly-defined standards of pay and employment across the University, however, in reality these vary hugely from department-to-department. A department which is ‘cash-rich’, for example, may pay its postgraduate teachers three times what another does - despite the fact that the workloads may be entirely equal (or, in some cases, even more intensive in a less cash-rich department, due to the nature of the academic discipline it teaches).

    I have attached a summary of the SU’s research into these issues, which I submitted to the senior staff members present today – if you’re interested in reading it and finding out more about the issues being faced by postgraduate student teachers at Warwick, please click HERE.

    What came out of this morning’s meeting was a series of passionate arguments from postgraduate students who care deeply about the educational experience of their pupils, but are often forced to compromise on feedback and marking due to the limits placed on their time, resources and finances. The following is a summary of the different experiences of 6 postgraduate teachers here at Warwick which were raised today. By including these, I hope to give you an idea of the wildly varying standards and requirements in different departments – remember, these are all doctoral students attempting to support themselves through teaching alongside the completion of their own research!

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

    CASE STUDIES

    Chemistry – “Lab demonstrating in Chemistry is compulsory, and postgraduates get paid £12 per hour to do so. However, this rate also includes the time needed to design the lab experiment and mark scripts afterwards. I was a Warwick student and I know how bad feedback can be on lab work, so I want to give good feedback. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone in my department being paid for their marking. So, when everything is taken into account, I get paid less than £4 per hour for non-optional teaching when, if I tutored outside of working hours, I could get paid £25 per hour. We’ve brought up the issue of marking pay at every SSLC meeting for the last three years, and every time we get told nothing can be done.”

    Life Sciences – "Lab demonstrating in Life Sciences is expected of postgraduates and necessary to the department. However, postgraduates who teach have no contract or an entitlement to a specific number of hours. The department tealls postgrads they are expected to teach, but this creates a conflict with supervisors' expectations that you should be working on research. The student then has to make the case as to whether they should be teaching or not. No contract means we have to be the ones arguing for our involvement in teaching."

    Sociology – “As a result of the problems with holiday pay this year, I and everyone in this room took a real-terms pay cut. We were told about this over Christmas. Whilst senior managers received pay increases above the rate of inflation, we’re being asked to give more and more. When you factor in office hours, marking, reading and preparation and designing a seminar in which students will actually learn something, I earn less than minimum wage. There’s such a disjuncture between what the University asks and what the University gives in return – you can’t get excellent teaching for less than minimum wage.”

    History – “I’ve been asked to give a lecture next week and I don’t have a contract. I’ve no idea what I’ll be paid, yet I’ve already put ten hours of work into writing the lecture and doing background research. I want people to learn. Last term I convened a module for 48 students, designed the lectures, delivered the seminars, marked work and held office hours. I got paid less than £4000 for a whole year’s work. Where is the cash from fees going? Certainly not to teaching.”

    PAIS – “As a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I probably have the most contact with students. I get paid £3 per formative essay that I mark – from my perspective, though, marking shouldn’t just be an economic transaction, but a way of forming a human connection with a student. However, the pay per essay doesn’t recognise this. I want to be able to give extra support to students from widening participation backgrounds and those who are underrepresented in higher education, such as working-class and black & ethnic minority students, but I just can’t.”

    Warwick Business School – “WBS no longer pays for preparation time for modules. I don’t mind putting this work in for free when the teaching is relevant to my research, since it helps me learn too! But, I’ve avoided teaching on modules that aren’t directly relevant to my studies. If prep time was paid, postgrad teachers would have the time to work on their seminars, thus improving the learning experience for students and for themselves too. However, I can’t justify working on preparation where I won’t be paid – I don’t want to accept teaching when I’m not sure I will give students something really valuable at the end.”

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

    Thought that the pay of postgraduate teachers didn’t affect you? Think again! If you weren’t already aware of the problems many of your tutors face, I hope you’ll agree that these case studies make for fairly sobering reading.

    In short, we will continue to lobby the University to move towards the following - plans for some of which are, we’re informed, already in progress:

    * A standardised framework for pay;
    * Consistent entry standards;
    * A consistent and transparent recruitment process;
    * Improved induction and mentoring (centrally, departmentally and online);
    * A multifunction task-group to improve the attitude towards (and relationship between) postgraduates who teach from both departments and the University.

    With your support, we can keep up the pressure on the University and help to improve the teaching and learning experience of all students here at Warwick. Please stay tuned for further updates as soon as we hear more on these issues!

  • Tue 11 Feb 2014 13:57

    Well, it turns out that if you shout loudly enough, eventually someone may finally start to listen! As we publicised earlier this week, the University called a meeting of the Assembly in response to the concerns of senior academics about the way this institution pays its staff, which resulted in the proposed motion passing by 100 votes to 4. I’m delighted to announce that we may also now have some progress regarding the issue of fairer remuneration for Postgraduate Teachers.

    I hope that this is in some way due to the hard work the Union has done this year to raise the profile of postgraduates who teach. I’ve blogged time and time again about the fight for fair pay and the impact of casualisation on postgraduate teachers. I’ve raised pay, conditions and training repeatedly at University meetings. I’ve seen - and absolutely support - postgraduate tutors organise in their departments and take direct action as part of the fight for fair pay in Higher Education. I believe passionately that, as full members of our Union, we should support postgraduates who teach in their fight for fair working conditions – working for low wages, or teaching for the first time without adequate support, is incredibly difficult. I believe the University should, and can, do more.

    Last Thursday, I spent an hour telling the Provost (the senior staff member responsible for academic affairs, second to the Vice-Chancellor) what I thought was wrong with the way postgraduates that teach are employed by the University. We talked about the ways in which postgrad tutors are underpaid, undersupported and undervalued by their departments or the University. We also talked about the innovative and groundbreaking ways in which postgraduates are able to teach, and the ways in which some of you add untold value to the education of undergraduate students. And you know what…? He listened.

    As a direct result of this and the other work we’ve done behind the scenes this year, there will be a separate meeting just for postgraduates that teach on Friday 14th February at 11:30am in the Arts Centre Cinema. Not only will you get to check out a shiny Powerpoint from the University about pay, but - much more importantly - you will have the opportunity to tell some of the most senior figures in the University what you really think about the way you’re treated as a member of teaching staff.

    I am hugely excited about this, and extremely grateful to those who’ve helped make it happen. The University are finally recognising the importance of postgraduates that teach to our institution by giving you the opportunity to directly raise your problems and concerns. This is a major, major win for the Students’ Union in terms of its representation of postgraduate students here at Warwick. More importantly though, it’s a potential major win for YOU.

    Let’s be clear though – this meeting isn’t about me speaking my piece again (although, let’s face it, when would I miss an opportunity to have my say?). It’s about YOUR voice and YOUR experiences - the things that you think are great and the things that you want to improve. You don’t need to be a member of a trade union to attend. You don’t even need to be unhappy with the way you’re employed – sometimes, sharing good practice can be just as powerful as sharing bad. The most senior University managers will be there to hear what you have to say, to answer your questions and to listen to your suggestions.

    We can’t change anything by being quiet – we need to be loud and forthright about what we want Warwick’s academic community to be like. This is your chance – I hope you choose to take it!

  • Fri 07 Feb 2014 13:05

    This week, the University announced that they are calling a meeting of the Assembly on Tuesday 11th February at 9am in H0.51, which brings together senior academics with the senior management team to discuss any issue relating to running of the University. This time, the Assembly has been called to discuss the way the University pays its staff.

    That’s nice - good for them. Why are you telling me this?

    The Assembly isn’t just taking place because Nigel Thrift’s knocked together a particularly good Powerpoint presentation (though he may well have done – I don’t know), or because a few academics want to get together for a bit of a chinwag. The Assembly has the power to make recommendations to the University’s Senate and Council, the highest decision-making bodies at Warwick. In short, the Assembly is both important and powerful within the structure of the University.

    …Okay.... still not getting it, Gill.

    The Assembly are meeting for the first time since 2010 because a group of senior academics think that the University are doing things wrong – in particular, they don’t like the way they pay their staff. As we know, there’s been regular strike action this year because teaching and support staff believe that they are being unfairly paid for the work they do. They feel, particularly in the light of substantial pay-rises for Vice Chancellors across the country, that a 1% pay-rise is insulting and that unfair pay and an increasing reliance on casual, short-term contracts fundamentally devalues the contribution tutors make to our University education. The Union has stood in solidarity with the aims of those taking direct action because we believe that, ultimately, fair pay, fair conditions and fair access to training for staff can only make the educational experience of students at Warwick better.

    Ah, I see. Sounds promising! What do you want me to do about it, though?

    A meeting of the Assembly doesn’t happen every week. This is an incredibly powerful symbol of the dissatisfaction of senior academics regarding the way this University operates. These staff want to see the University and Unions back around the negotiating table and the pay dispute settled with an improved offer as soon as possible. They want to see the University make a powerful commitment to becoming a living-wage employer. They want to see improved pay and conditions for hourly-paid staff. If these are aims that you support, then I ask you to approach your lecturers and seminar tutors and ask them if they’ll be attending next week’s Assembly. Please do tell them why they should. Tell them that you support them, and tell them that you want Warwick to be a fairer place for every member of our community.

    Wait - “hourly-paid staff”. Is this where you do your bit about postgraduates who teach?

    You know me too well! This year, the Union has pushed and pushed for postgraduates who teach (and other hourly-paid teaching staff) to be rewarded fairly for all the additional work they do. We have supported our fellow students in their fight for fair pay, for better training and support, and for recognition of the quality of teaching they do. It seems like the University are finally starting to listen!

    Although PGs that teach can’t attend the Assembly, a separate meeting has been called especially for postgraduate tutors at 11:30 on Friday, 14th February (TBC). I urge every one of you employed by the University to attend this meeting if you can – the more stories we can share, the more voices that are heard, and the more powerful the impetus for change will be!

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Lucy's office is on the 2nd floor of SUHQ.

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