As the all-new Cambridge SU’s first ever Postgraduate Access, Education and Participation officer (PG AEP for short!), I’m really excited to introduce myself and my role to you properly. I’ve been in Cambridge for four of the past five years, and it’s never been a more exciting and important moment for students to stand up for ourselves and advance our collective struggles through the students’ union.
I want my role, created through the merger of CUSU and the GU, to do two key things. Firstly, the merger recognises that the interests of all students, undergraduate and postgraduate, are united and can better be fought for together. I want this to be reflected in how we actually plan to address the issues that perennially structure our experiences as students: student-staff power relations and the supervision system; the financial weight of tuition fees, particularly for international and postgraduate students; the potential for department and college structures to facilitate social isolation; etc. Secondly, the creation of a PG-specific AEP role highlights the fact that all too often, postgraduate study is given secondary consideration both by the University and within conversations about students’ experiences more broadly. As a result, it can be difficult to even know where to start when it comes to addressing these issues.
What’s potentially exciting about this, however, is that thinking seriously about postgraduate access and participation immediately exposes the structural and inherently political nature of the problem: it shines a light on unpleasant, fundamental realities about the University, and about higher education in this country as a whole. The most obvious place to start is the huge financial barriers to postgraduate study; while course costs vary, an average ‘home’ MPhil student is expected to spend around £25,000 undertaking a 9-month course, and the lack of funding available means that the vast majority of these students are self-funding. The costs are even greater for international students, particularly once visa and travel costs are factored in. For postgraduates who do manage to secure funding, the amount provided is often so low that it must be supplemented by other sources, such as paid work or (if available) personal and family savings. Students with parental or other caring responsibilities face additional barriers, such as difficulty finding suitable accommodation and the lack of affordable childcare in Cambridge.
The only solution to these issues is a programme of material transformation. My most immediate objectives are to increase the funding available specifically for Master’s level students from widening participation (WP) backgrounds, and to improve the accessibility of information about these funding sources for prospective applicants. I also want to investigate the inflation of postgraduate tuition fees over the past decade, and explore how ‘widening participation’ can begin to address access and participation for international students.
Taking a more long-term view, my main priorities are empowering postgraduates as students, and protecting postgraduates as workers. Esme (the UG AEP officer) and I work closely with academic representatives, the voice of students in Departments, Faculties, and Schools. Changes to the rep system this year mean that the SU will be able to provide much better centralised support, which we hope will empower students on different courses to help each other with local issues as well as tackle problems on a University-wide scale. I will also be collaborating with Aastha, the Postgraduate President, to conduct research on the postgraduate supervision system and how this can be improved for both students and supervisors. And I want to continue the SU’s strong working relationship with Cambridge’s branch of UCU, the University and College Union - particularly through support of their ongoing anti-casualisation campaign, which affects many postgraduate students.
Finally, of course, there’s the pandemic. As a whole officer team, our top priority for the past two months has been working closely with student representatives and staff unions to ensure that the Collegiate University prioritises the safety and wellbeing of the whole University and local communities in its approach to COVID-19. This work will likely continue throughout the academic year, and I’m particularly keen to address the ongoing impact of the pandemic (and the Collegiate University’s response) on postgraduate students’ experiences.
It’s been an eventful start to say the least, and I’m very much looking forward to fighting for students’ interests through whatever else this year will bring. I’m also always keen to hear from students about any questions you have or issues we can support you with - so please do reach out to me, by email or on social media. See you all soon!