Postgrads against Kent Union’s proposed Postgraduate Experience VP

The Kent Graduate Student Association (KGSA), a voluntary body which represents both the taught and research postgraduate students, has penned an open letter to the sabbatical officers of Kent Union.

The letter calls for a stay on the vote of the University Executive Council regarding the installation of a new Vice-President (Postgraduate Experience).

The proposed position comes as part of a reshuffle of responsibilities and titles within the full-time officer team, as published in the democracy review recently released by Kent Union. The responsibilities of Vice-President (Activities) and Vice-President (Sports) would be combined in the new proposal into the new position of Vice-President (Student Opportunities) and the new position of Vice-President (Postgraduate Experience) is introduced.

Rejection of the proposed position came after a discussion forum hosted by the KGSA on 19 November for postgraduate students to discuss their potential position and vote on whether they supported the proposition.

The letter highlights that the position should theoretically be an attractive one but argues that not enough information has been provided on how the position will work in practice. The democracy review published by Kent Union provides a list of remits for the position, the stakeholders and a list of the meetings that they would attend. KGSA argues that this is not enough and that more thorough research should have been carried out and a full report produced for the Executive Council prior to the vote.

Postgraduate students make up between 20-25% of all students at the University of Kent. They can often face different, varied challenges during their time at the university when compared to undergraduate students, such as issues regarding the Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) scheme. Issues can vary between taught students who have an experience more akin to that of undergraduates, and research students who have an experience which in many cases is a crossover between that of a student and a faculty member.

A survey carried out in 2017 on 235 postgraduate students demonstrated the disconnect between this section of the student body and Kent Union. Only 42.2% responded that they felt Kent Union represented their needs to the University, and even fewer knew who their five full time officers were – 33.2%.

A proposal by Emily Window (VP Sports) and seconded by Omolade Adedapo (VP Welfare) suggests a change to 3 Postgraduate Taught Faculty Representatives and 3 Postgraduate Research Faculty Representatives. It is unclear whether or not the KGSA President will be a member of the new UEC.

The democracy review argues that having a dedicated full-time officer for the postgraduate community, who must be a postgraduate themselves, ensures that the postgraduate view will always be represented.

KGSA argues that this is ‘lip service’ and that a cultural shift within Kent Union as an organisation is required before the position should be seriously considered for implementation.

‘By its own admission, the Union does not give attention to postgraduates because the current officer team deems undergraduate issues as more important’, writes KGSA in the open letter.

The letter goes on to state that Kent Union has only done a ‘small amount of outreach’ to the postgraduate community to gauge what their perspective is on the role, and what would be needed from it. It goes on further to claim that the Union has been ‘vague and misleading’.

The Democracy review report supports the creation of the position, with 67% of respondents polling in favour. These results have been called into question, with the argument that the question relating to the representation of postgraduates was leading; failing to provide a variety of options, or a way to dissent the question. It is also not clear how many of those polled were actually postgraduates.

Academic wins

Accusations of false claims have also been made by KGSA. In recent weeks Kent Union has been taking to social media to publicise their ‘academic wins’. The KGSA claims that: ‘many of the “academic wins” about with the Union boasts in regard to the postgraduate experience are, in truth, wins for which the KGSA did the footwork.’

One such example of this is that of lobbying the university alongside KGSA on resolving accommodation issues within Woolf College, with many students saying that it was in fact mostly down to the efforts of KGSA. Woolf college has been plagued by hot water issues in recent weeks, and historically suffering from issues with mould and Wi-Fi availability. KGSA set up an accommodation task force last academic year in order to tackle these issues.

Shelly Lorts, President of the KGSA says: ‘While the KGSA appreciates that the Union sent an officer to each of our Accommodation Task Force meetings, the Union did not take part in the months of work, research and liaising with the University that the KGSA did (in partnership with current postgraduate) to request and then to prepare for these meetings. Nor does the Union take part in the daily work the KGSA continues to do on behalf of postgraduates for better accommodation.’

Kent Union points out in their report detailing the proposition of a postgraduate officer that ‘there have been a significant number of occasions in which the minutes show an absence of the KGSA, or a contribution at the meeting’ before going onto admit that this is understandable due to the voluntary nature of the role.

Tom Ritchie, former Kent Union President (2011-2013) and former KGSA Vice-President points out that he was in fact present at one of the supposedly missed meetings and that at least one of the other absence was due to the KGSA team hosting a welcome week event.

When approached for comment regarding the feelings of the postgraduate community on this issue, KGSA Presidentt Shelly Lorts gave this statement on behalf of KGSA:

‘The implementation of this position is a bandaid on a larger issue; we (and myriad postgraduates) would prefer that the Union work on the underlying cause of these issues before presenting a change in Union bye-laws. The Union has referred to the Vice-President (Postgraduate Experience) position in practice as a “reminder” to consider postgrads in meetings and votes. The Union should not need a reminder for a demographic it is already supposed to represent — especially not a reminder in the form of an elected officer. The Union needs to walk before it runs: get to know the postgraduate community and its issues, and work with us and on our behalf — as it is already supposed to do — before telling us what we want.’

This is not the only ‘academic win’ that Kent Union has claimed in recent weeks which has not sat well with the student body. On15 of November, Kent Union took to Facebook to laud their efforts alongside student representatives during the strike period last academic year.

The response to this claim on social media was a mixture of derision and amusement, with many students, including student representatives covering various academic departments, responding with vitriol. Comments include the claim being ‘nonsense’ an ‘utter lie’ and that the student representatives were in fact ‘put up with’. Lack of communication was a common issue, with claims that they weren’t listened to, and that emailed correspondence has been ignored.

Shelly Lorts, President of KGSA says that this statement is simply untrue: ‘During the strikes last year, the Union refused to take a stance on behalf of postgraduate issues. Many postgraduates teach and are therefore considered staff members as well as students. During the strike, the KGSA and the postgraduate community publicly called on Kent Union several times to support the interests of students who teach and we were met with silence. Though the Union did eventually decide to work on behalf of taught students, the interests of research students who teach were neglected, highlighting the Union’s ineffectiveness to support all students.’

Connor Morrissey a third-year student in Politics and International Relations, pointed out that many would not perceive this to be a win. ‘Is this ironic?’ he asks ‘The university refused to pay and still refuses to pay lecturers who went on strike. An “academic win” for the Union would be successfully lobbying for our lecturer’s to be paid appropriately and for having fair contracts! The well-being of our mentors is an “academic win” for students.’

Voting on the proposed changes is due to take place on Monday 26 November by the University Executive Council. More to follow.

PGs in favour

Not everyone is a critic of the new postgraduate officer.

One student, Floris Claassens, the PGR faculty representative for Sciences, said she was ‘very happy with the approval of the new Vice-President Postgraduate Experience’.

She said: ‘Over the last few weeks I have studied the arguments both in favour and against the proposal carefully and found contrary to the claims of KGSA that Kent Union has been researching the implementation of this role since 2016, over the years having consultations with stakeholders and Postgraduate students both. Based on this I feel confident that the new Vice-President Postgraduate Experience will be a great and important step towards improving the representation of Postgraduate students both in Kent Union and the University and was strengthened by the support of over fifty students who signed the letter of support amongst which all Postgraduate Faculty reps.

‘Of course the new role will not solve all Kent Unions problems with Postgraduate representation and the rest of the year I will hold them accountable on their promise to keep working on Postgraduate representation outside of the new Vice-President role. I share the KGSA’s disappointment surrounding the voting procedure and was glad last night the proposal to give every member of the UEC a vote was approved as well.’

Union respond

In response to the letter, Kent Union told InQuire: ‘We are aware of the open letter crafted by the KGSA, and have taken into account their concerns. The Union President has additionally had meetings with the KGSA this term regarding issues faced by postgraduates as well as the Kent Union Democracy Review.

‘While the KGSA open letter may be in opposition to the changes, which seek to improve postgraduate representation, it is also important to consider the additional letter crafted and signed by the postgraduate faculty reps, who equally represent postgraduates, which is in favour of the changes. This letter also has a sizeable amount of support from students, including those from our European centres (all of which are postgraduate students), who are equally important and should have a voice in this discussion.

‘Regarding Academic Wins, it is important that the union “closes the loop” and informs students of the work the union is doing and has done, both seen and unseen and we will continue to try and find the best way to do this.’

InQuire have approached Shelly Lorts for further comment relating to the passing of the new full-time officer roles at the UEC.