Opinion: VP Postgraduate Experience Debate 2020

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Image courtesy of KTV

Given that there was only one candidate, the VP Postgraduate Experience debate was less of a debate and more of an interview with Patrick ‘Pat’ Stillman. However, Pat didn’t seem to let this go to his head and appeared through most of the broadcast to be selling himself as though he were against opponents.

Pat’s relaxed and calm (but not complacent) manner came across most during the debate. Most of the questions were answered with clarity and confidence. Indeed, from his opening statement, he made clear he was here for all postgraduate students, including researchers, PhDs etc.

He said in his closing statement that he wasn’t there “as some Master’s student who hasn’t got a clue”, and this was definitely clear in most of his answers. The biggest thing in Pat’s favour was his experience, especially as a postgraduate MA student at Kent, but also the additional three years of undergraduate. When asked how he will understand the needs of postgraduate research students, he illustrated how he had spent the past few weeks talking with friends and friends of friends who were researchers to understand their problems. He was clear in what he understood the needs of postgraduate students and naming a breakdown of trust stemming from the 2018 strikes as the major barrier to postgraduates engaging with the union.

He also seems to have done research elsewhere, shown in his aim to introduce training and workshops for postgraduate teachers which he revealed to have been taken from an existing programme at University College London.

Particularly pleasing to me was his answer to the question of whether the needs of postgraduates are different to those of undergraduates. He replied that “every student experience is different” and that there is no single postgraduate experience; a postgraduate such as himself who did undergraduate at Kent would have different needs to those of a newly arrived postgraduate student, who would have more in common with first year freshers. He later returned to this sentiment when he challenged what Aldo Manella had previously said in the VP Student Engagement debate that undergraduates and postgraduates were the same, something I also found concerning.

However, like all political candidates, Pat wasn’t perfect. There were questions later in the debate that clearly stumped him and showed a certain lack of research. Sometimes this was easily (and expertly) solved, like when he was asked a personal question from the interviewer about how he would work with the Kent Graduate Student Association (KGSA), where he asked her what her experience with it was and then answered from this information. But this tactic couldn’t be used in a later question of the subject, where it was clear he hadn’t done his research on KGSA (“I wish I had”), which is rather an important topic if your running for VP Postgraduate Experience. Equally embarrassing was his apparent lack of knowledge on the GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant) scholarship cuts at the university, despite making clear his aims to stand with the UCU over postgraduate teaching pay and conditions, again a rather pressing issue for a union official devoted to postgraduate affairs.

Pat also appeared rather Corbyn-esque in his vagueness when asked about his response to student demands for compensation over the upcoming strikes. The question seemed to catch him out at first, before he replied that such demands cloud the issue and turns the debate away from the strike itself; whilst the university should give compensation to the students, it should not be the primary focus. So here we have a candidate who supports the strikes, yet also supports compensation for said strikes, but doesn’t want that compensation to overshadow the strikes. Whilst it’s nice to have this plethora of ideals, it’s hardly practical.

Ultimately, for all his faults, Pat seems a confident yet comfortable candidate to take over from Laura Carlin. He showed himself to have experience and knowledge of postgraduate and campus affairs (which is more than some in this year’s elections). Whilst he still has obvious places to research, the almost inevitable postgraduate vice-president seems to know what he’s doing and what he needs to do.

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