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I’d like to first a quote a friend of mine, newly inaugurated into the absurd reality that is student politics:

the weird thing about student politics is every day you realise that you hate students more and more yet you still keep trying to do stuff to help them

— ебать Ленин, я люблю Кронштадт (@MurrayShookchin) June 11, 2018

You’ve elected me twice to serve as the students’ union’s Postgraduate Students’ Officer. It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least; while I’m very excited to move on with my life - and for as self-critical as I’ve always been - I’m also very proud of what we’ve achieved and think much of it shows what an SU can do if it tries to function like an actual union rather than a bureaucratic charitable shell, working with students to hold our universities to account and advance our interests nationally as a political collective.

No doubt I could have done better at some things and invested less in others; but for all the drama, I think I did my best and that things are a little bit better now than they could otherwise have been.

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of the students’ union’s staff, the many dedicated unpaid student activists and academic representatives across campus and those staff at the university committed to working with us to improve how our education is run.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be found in the SSEES library working on my dissertation until September when I’ll hopefully graduate and run for the hills.

So here’s where my £50k in salary costs over the last two years went (most of which, incidentally, has returned to the union in the forms of pints bought at the IOE). This isn’t everything but it’ll do.

Apologies for the length: here’s a little something to get you through it - and another here - and one more here.

Areas, themes, possibilities and dreams

  1. Mental health
  2. Postgrads who teach
  3. Free movement and international students
  4. Financial support for postgrads and marginalised groups
  5. Parents and carers
  6. Protecting education at UCL
  7. National campaign for free education
  8. Democratising the students’ union
  9. Secure contracts for union student staff
  10. Hidden course costs
  11. A postgraduate community
  12. Protecting the Institute Bar
  13. Working conditions for postgraduate researchers
  14. Supporting staff on strike
  15. Justice for outsourced workers
  16. Conference funds
  17. Affordable rent
  18. UCL East
  19. Extenuating Circumstances policy

Substantial investment in mental health

During my first year in office it was becoming painfully clear that UCL had no intention of initiating a serious response to the mental health crisis on our campus. Our Welfare and International Officer successfully pushed for a series of key reforms to the service; but on the issue of underfunding, which at its worst point meant a waiting list for counselling of up to 20 weeks, the university refused to move.

So I set about launching a grassroots campaign to pressure the university into changing its mind. We disrupted open days, held rallies and protests, got 2000 signatures on our petition and collected dozens of senior staff members for our open letter to management. Numerous academics cited mental health underfunding as their reason for voting in favour of a governance review at the university at a special meeting of Academic Board. Eventually, I brought this pressure to Academic Committee where the Registry finally backed down and put forward a bid for three additional members of staff for SPS – enough to bring the waiting list down to an estimated maximum of six weeks.

We’re still waiting on the outcome of this bid, and six weeks is still too high to wait for support; but the campaign will continue, and this represents a marked advance in mental health support at UCL of which everyone involved with the campaign should be proud. Certainly, the university has at last acknowledged the mental health crisis and its failure thus far to act.

Improved pay and conditions for Postgraduate Teaching Assistants (PGTAs)

PhD students who teach are at the forefront of casualisation in higher education, employed often on insecure hourly contracts - if at all - and expected to perform duties that consume many more hours than for which they are paid.

In my first year, we ran a grassroots campaign that spanned several departments and faculties across the university, a number of which won incremental pay increases and reviews of working conditions. I additionally carried out research that shone light on conditions that Human Resources had failed to acknowledge for years - widespread pay inequalities, with women being paid an hourly rate 22 percent less than men and an average of 30 percent of all hours carried out by PGTAs reportedly going unpaid. Few were on contracts, and fewer still on those which guaranteed hours and many basic employment rights.

In response, the university initiated a review of its PGTA policy, itself notoriously poorly enforced. After a year and a half of back-and-forth discussion and negotiation, the principle that all duties carried out by a PGTA should be paid has been agreed, which will hopefully include mandatory training; a Grade 6 post is set to be formally introduced, with clear promotional criteria and job descriptions; casualised contracts will be discouraged; PGTAs will have a line manager to support their professional development; all will be paid at least 0.5 hours of preparation time for every contact hour taught; a template employment contract will be issued by HR, to mitigate against departmental variations; and a number of enforcement mechanisms have been asserted, such as the implementation of the code being a subject of review of the Internal Quality Review processes that departments undergo.

These changes are due to be approved for the upcoming academic year, following a few further revisions I am negotiating with UCL HR.

Is this enough? Absolutely not; we’ve long been pushing for Grade 6 to be introduced for all PGTAs - no London university other than UCL pays lower - and for improved accountability such that all hours taught by PGTAs are adequately remunerated, together with a centralised HR recruitment process. These will need to be continued in conjunction with UCU, whom HR have thus far refused to engage. Nevertheless, this is a substantial improvement on the existing situation and will hopefully benefit a great many PhD students - and I’ve already seen internal communications within faculties that show deans and tutors may indeed be adjusting their mechanisms to enact the new code of conduct.

Defending freedom of movement and resisting discriminatory visa compliance procedures for international students

During the midst of the strike, we managed to force UCL to delay its plans to introduce a highly expensive and surveillance-heavy attendance monitoring system; but then the Registry snuck in an overhaul of its internal policies for monitoring the engagement of international students on Tier 4 visas - in response, it seems, to a mock audit carried out by an external law firm that showed the university needed to revamp its procedures to retain its visa sponsorship rights. But rather than doing so - and following Home Office advice to the effect that all monitoring should be behind closed doors, and not require check-ins additional to ordinary studying - management instead chose to force through a series of policies which now mean that international students need to physically sign in at least once every three weeks

So we’ve united with staff to fight back against these discriminatory visa regulations. This is in addition to staff on Tier 2 visas whose need to sign in have impeded their ability to take industrial action during the recent UCU strike. So far, we’ve held two open meetings - the first of which saw senior managers dramatically attempt to take control of the campaign, which had drawn in a huge attendance and several members of the local UCU branches. We’ve already pushed the Institute of Education to review its own ‘uber-compliant’ implementation of the regulations - but we’ll be organising open letters, petitions, protests and open day disruptions until the university as a whole agrees to our demand of minimal compliance of Home Office guidance, and I’ll continue to stay involved until I graduate in September if it is not achieved by then.

I’m also directing the beginning of a campaign with activists up down the country in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts against the policing of students - including resisting attendance monitoring and PREVENT and pushing for pledges to keep police off campus. In addition, I’ve supported the Labour Campaign for Free Movement and supported national policy to fight Brexit and border controls through the National Union of Students.

Financial support for marginalised students on campus

I worked with UCL Funding on their new five-year strategy to 2023; incorporated have been pledges to introduce bursary and/or scholarships for postgraduate taught students, funding for students with caring responsibilities and for scholarships for BME researchers. My successor will need to continue to lobby to ensure that these pledges become reality - but UCL has already introduced bursary provision for estranged students, as I pushed for following the university’s signing of the Stand Alone Pledge.

Support for students with caring responsibilities

We are currently in the process of finalising internal recommendations for the university to enact the financial support it has committed to through UCL Funding. A small space for an expansion to the existing Day Nursery has already been identified by UCL Estates - but we are also aiming to secure a further expansion into a sessional childcare service, together with bursary provision for students with caring responsibilities. This is in addition to pushing for appropriate childcare facilities to be incorporated into all new infrastructure projects, the introduction of a Childcare Office and the opening of the staff network for parents to students. These recommendations will be heard at July’s meeting of Education Committee, towards which my successor will need to be attentive.

Protecting education at UCL

With university departments facing severe cuts across the board, I’ve supported academics as they’ve fought back against the absurd governance structures of UCL - which have meant student overcrowding, redundancies, threats to pensions and the amassing of huge debt levels in the construction of UCL East.

I’ve spoken at Academic Board in favour of the democratisation of our university, supported the establishment of its Governance Committee to scrutinise management decisions (on which I subsequently sat and argued for an interventionist body that would lead AB’s democratisation) and I also introduced the vote of no confidence to our union’s January General Assembly, which passed with 98 percent approval and put greater pressure on the university to respond to our concerns over the direction of UCL.

Campaigning nationally for free education and universal living grants

In 2016 I organised the UCL bloc for the National Union of Students’ United for Education demonstration, and in 2017 I worked as one of the key national organisers in the ‘Free Education Now - Tax the RIch’ national demonstration through London, drawing thousands onto the street in protest at the government’s assault on our higher education system and demanding an end to fees and cuts and living grants for all.

In my first year, I also worked with our Education Officer on a successful boycott of the National Student Survey, which helped force the government to delay the introduction of differential fees and helped put pressure to restore its cap on tuition fees for undergraduate home students; unfortunately, however, this campaign fell apart nationally in my second year and therefore I decided to deprioritise it. Nevertheless, I have continued to work nationally to campaign for free education, taking part in two (admittedly unsuccessful) left-wing campaigns for the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the NUS and bottomlining a successful conference in Sheffield that drew activists from dozens of campuses to launch a national student movement to democratise our education system and scrap tuition fees.

Fighting for a democratic students’ union

The union’s move towards charity status a few years ago has meant the professionalisation of its operations and consequently the marginalisation of students in decision-making that takes place here.

I’ve been a consistent advocate against this process; I’ve argued for the authority and legitimacy of our elected Council to decide in operational matters, and against the role of the Trustee Board in political matters. I’ve drafted a paper to move powers of charitable and reputational risk - which currently mean overriding democratic policy on account of fears of aggravating the Charity Commission - away from the Chief Executive, and to an elected student representative; this is due to be approved at the end of June. I also successfully placed the Chair of Council onto the remuneration committee, to ensure greater accountability over senior staff wages, and introduced more democratic oversight and transparency in the conduct of our internal managerial committees.

And then there was the absurdity of last year’s farce around budgeting, when cleaners - against the wishes of Council - had their hours cut by £90k in order to free funds to pay for a rebrand, and when I worked with students and the local union to push back. Unfortunately, we lost, which shows just far we’ve drifted from our student-led history.

But our democratic processes have also needed a huge improvement, and I’ve done my best to make it happen. After years of the union failing to follow our byelaws and host General Assemblies, I heavily involved myself in the process - as a result of which, we saw two quorate members’ meetings in 2018, the first in over three years, with hundreds of students turning out to vote on such issues as mental health, staff pay and sexual harassment.

Finally, I’ve been openly critical of the way in which our elections have been conducted, writing a series of lengthy articles detailing the corruption that overshadowed our recent Spring Elections. I also pushed in vain for a separation of powers, removing the role of Returning Officer away from the Union Chair - it nearly passed, though I was inevitably saddened to see members of the very faction that had benefited from the corrupt electoral processes vote against this measure. Alas.

Secure contracts for student staff at the union

I’ve been approached by various members employed as student staff at the union who have complained of the insecurity of their employment arrangements on zero-hour contracts. The precariousness of these contracts came out most starkly at times when, for example, the IOE bar was shut down at short notice due to factors outside the union’s control - meaning a loss of pay for our staff.

I’ve not had time to carry out a formal consultation to create a contract proposal that would satisfy all student staff members; so instead I’ve worked with the UNISON trade union and HR to create a business case for all the labour at the union, dividing it up to allow or both zero-hour and fixed-hour contracts, to be in place by the new calendar year. This paper is due to be heard (and likely approved) at our June 2018 Trustee Board meeting.

Eliminating h idden course costs

Every year, students enrol at UCL to find themselves suddenly instructed to pay for a raft of further costs - whether it’s DBS checks for PGCE students, project costs at the Bartlett, or PPE for Chemistry students. So I’ve worked with our Education Officer to lobby UCL to remove these costs, and to agree to a principle that all costs should be absorbed into tuition fees - and that students should not have to pay for additional items in order to pass compulsory modules. The university has so far been receptive, and a paper accepting this principle and detailing specific costs to be scrapped is due to be heard, and likely approved, at the July meeting of Education Committee.

As part of this, I’ve tried to get the £75 application fee for taught PGT programmes scrapped; so far the university has refused, though it is possible that we will get an opt-in policy introduced so as that the will only be applied where there is actual need to control application numbers.

Building a postgraduate community in the union

We’ve long wondered what the purpose of the Postgraduate Association could possibly be in the current UCL environment, which is majority postgraduate and therefore simply not able to put on events for all postgrads; and indeed, the extent to which there can be a ‘postgraduate community’ is a difficult one.

So I’ve introduced internal change to the students’ union to equip it for reflecting our majority postgraduate student body – introducing postgraduate discount nights on a Wednesday night in the Print Room, for example. With regards to the PGA, it has meant moving it away from sporadic socials and to larger, more specific events – such as Winter and Spring socials, and LGBT+ socials – and to primarily academic and campaigning activity. For example, I worked with staff on organising our first ever Research Student Conference, with PhD students from the across the university presenting on their research to student and staff attendees. We’ve also divided up the PGA budget to allow for student representatives to put on events and run campaigns of their own.

It will be to my successor to formulate these changes and perhaps introduce a new constitution for the PGA - or to scrap it entirely - and to work with both Masters and Doctoral students to decide what the best outcome for all is likely to be.

Protecting the Institute Bar and prayer space

In April last year, we found out that UCL had initiated plans to shut down the students’ union’s main postgraduate bar at the Institute of Education and move it down to a smaller cellar space – replacing the existing area with teaching facilities that looked suspiciously like bookable conference space. It would also mean replacing the prayer space located in the building with a sponsored Apple lab (!). It later transpired that union management had been informed, but had not passed on the memo to myself or the other elected officers.

I immediately set about opposing these plans and forcing the union to withdraw its agreement; I worked with a number of the other officers, the student staff at the Institute Bar, the thousands who signed our petition and dozens who came to our meetings. We accepted the bar moving, but to a renovated space on the ground floor rather than to a dingy cellar space, and the provision of new prayer facilities. Until the new bar is completed, it will remain located in a lovely outdoor marquee on the main IOE square. We also secured student representation on the IOE Masterplan Project Board, which is overseeing the spatial transformation across the faculty estate.

I’m very proud of this; we forced UCL into panic and to invest several million pounds into a new bar space. It’ll be to my successor to ensure the university doesn’t backtrack on its plans.

Working conditions for postgraduate researchers

The union often hears complaints from students that space provision is inadequate – a fact we know all too well. I’ve pushed faculties to keep up the work initiated by my predecessor, Suguna, who shone light on the widespread absence of space for PhD students across the university. A number of audits have been carried out at the instruction of the Research Degrees Committee; we now await tangible recommendations to be made from these audits.

But what’s often neglected is the quality of this space. I’ve worked with staff to carry out research into the extent to which UCL follows guidance from the Health and Safety Executive in providing space for its researchers – for example, whether there is sufficient natural light and space – the results of which will be released at the start of July. Presumably it’ll mean significant areas of complaint for the university to acknowledge and respond to.

Supporting staff on strike

When our academics voted to strike over proposed cuts to their pensions – which would have meant a reduction of up to 40 percent for those enrolled on the USS scheme – it was our responsibility to support them, not least because it was our PhD students who had most to lose. I wrote and proposed motions to two consecutive general assemblies in support of striking staff, both of which passed almost unanimously.

In February and March, staff picketed for 14 days; I attended the pickets, helped produce materials to hand to students discouraging them from going to class and encouraging them to support our lecturers. I was also one of the organisers of the occupation of the corridor leading to the Provost’s office, denying him access to his workplace and even arranging Owen Jones to come down to speak; it was partially this pressure that resulted in UCL easing its originally hard-line position in support of changes to the USS pensions scheme, and occupations on campuses up and down the country collectively helped push the employer, Universities UK, to back down and draft a commission with UCU to oversee any changes to the pensions scheme.

Justice for outsourced workers

I have worked with our Women’s Officer and students across London campuses to campaign for the in-housing of cleaners and porters at Senate House, owned by the University of London. Outsourced staff there are striking for in-housed contracts and pay increases that were promised to them several years ago; we have now held numerous occupations of the building which have already led to the scrapping of zero-hour contracts by the autumn, and been partly the reason for the university now agreeing to in-house some workers. However, the staff have not yet won their full demands and I’ll continue to support the campaign until they have.

Conference funds for postgraduate researchers

Some years ago, central university provision for conference funds were devolved to departments and faculties to administer themselves; when this happened, however, it appears that a number chose to absorb the resources into their general budgetary expenses.

The Doctoral School has been lobbying on the students’ union behalf to ensure faculties are dispensing to support to attend conferences, and have agreed with our proposal that all students should be entitled to support to attend at least one domestic and one international conference throughout their studies here at UCL. However, departmental managers have not been receptive: the Doctoral School have therefore agreed to co-author a paper to management with the SU to put pressure on faculties to budget adequate funds for student conferences across the university. It will be up to my successor to ensure this happens.

Affordable rent

I’ve not worked with UCL Cut The Rent as much as I’d have liked, it’s true. But I was supportive of their rent strike during my first year, and this year I was one of the organisers of the rent strike currently ongoing at Max Rayne and Ifor Evans, demanding compensation for poor living conditions and the continued provision of affordable accommodation. If the dispute is not resolved by the time I leave office in mid-July then it’ll be up to my successor to ensure that campaigners win what they’re entitled to.

UCL East run in the interests of students

The university has been exceptionally slow in moving on the construction of its new site at UCL East in Stratford, but I’ve pushed to ensure student involvement in the process. Following a scene I created at a special meeting of academic board, the union now has regular meetings with the UCL East team to discuss progress – but we remain poorly represented in its overall governance. UCL seems to have agreed to have an SU presence on the new site, together with childcare and mental health provision. However, commitments around rent remain woefully inadequate, with the university appearing to have recruited a private provider to run accommodation; it’ll be up to my successor to continue to pressure the university into building a site run genuinely in the interests of students and academics.

Improving the Extenuating Circumstances policy

The current policy to apply for ECs is unwieldy; it treats students with suspicion rather than with compassion and empathy. The requirement for evidence to be supplied for almost all forms of extenuation is absurd and unnecessary, and the subjectivity with which the procedure comes means variation and inconsistency. I’ve supported students on an individual basis to appeal decisions and win extensions and mitigation - but the policy as a whole needs addressing.

I’ve worked with out Welfare and International Officer to ensure more oversight over how faculties administer EC requests, centralising reports such that the school’s main regulatory body can see for itself the variation and divergence as to how ECs are dished out across different parts of the university, and to form the basis of an evidence-based campaign to show the need for self-certification in cases where mitigation is necessary. I’ve now been invited to sit on a new working group to review and revise the EC procedure, where positive noises have thus far been made in a move towards self-certification; it will be up to my successor to keep the work up.

If you’ve any questions about any of this, feel free to drop me a line at ps.officer@ucl.ac.uk. Bye bye!