After two years as Durham SU’s Postgraduate Academic Officer, Palatinate spoke to David Evans about his experiences in the role. Evans completed a Masters in mathematics at Josephine Butler College back in 2013, and is now working on a PhD.
Evans’s role, he tells us, has involved “an industrial amount of reading papers for committee meetings, time in meetings themselves, and running initiatives to get feedback from students so that we’re confident we’re lobbying for students’ interests in those meetings!
“When I wrote my handover for Sarah [McAllister, 2020-21 Postgraduate Academic Officer], I think I worked out there are about 20 different committees I attend, including the University’s highest governing bodies of Council and Senate where the packs of papers usually run to several hundred pages. When we get sight of a new proposal the University is considering, it’s a case of sitting down with the SU’s policy team (shoutout to them, they’re superb!) to unpick what’s good for students that we need to support the University to do, and what’s bad that we need to lobby to change, based on plenty of research we do about Durham and the wider HE sector. We meet with most members of the University Executive Committee either in one-to-ones or on various committees to support our understanding of the University’s plans and provide those lobbying opportunities.
“In most instances, it’s a case of supporting something good and shaping it to be better – like helping design new materials to improve the quality of academic supervision or advising on what facilities students want in refurbished library spaces. I think that’s where a lot of the frustration aimed at the SU stems from – people think a SU is meant to have the student leaders out, always being visible (much like common room presidents are) and shouting about things that need to change.”
Like everyone else, Evans’ work has been confined to home since March. “In some ways”, he says, “it’s been better.”
“Things started to happen more instantly. The issues thrown up by the pandemic made our work to protect students’ interests through drastic change more important too. I’ve definitely saved many trips to and from the Palatine Centre for various meetings.”
Lockdown has also presented challenges, as “it’s also been more difficult to have informal interactions in the office that keep your spirits up – a video call isn’t the same as walking across the office for some shared venting about a recent frustration… I’m pretty much never ill, but I had a case of shingles, which I’m fairly confident was down to the stress of lockdown and work.”
However, for Evans, being able to work remotely outside of Durham was a blessing. “Obviously around March discussions about the SU’s democracy were in full-swing. Working from home allowed me to escape the vitriol some students felt entitled to direct at some of my colleagues and our work.
“I’ve said publicly before that I agree with some of the criticisms about the SU’s processes – criticisms we collectively acknowledged and have set up student-led work to address. What I didn’t do was mock and belittle others under the pretext of highlighting those concerns. I only hope those who did have the decency to reflect and change over summer, and direct their energy to fixing the issues they see in good faith come the new year instead.”
Yet there were other issues that remain unfinished business for Evans: “Two of the key issues I contributed to that are left unfinished at the end of this year are the work of the Postgraduate Taught (PGT) Advisory Board, and the follow-up to our declaration that the University is institutionally disablist. I know Sarah’s got real passion to make sure postgraduate students are listened to and their concerns acted upon, so I’m happy that the PGT Advisory Board has provided some groundwork that I hope will help make her own work more effective. I trust her to be more effective in channelling that depth and breadth of postgraduate student voice into action and bringing it to the University’s attention than I ever could. Ideally, we’ll get to a point where the PG Academic Officer is not constantly having to ask the University ‘have you thought about how this affects postgraduates?’ because we can trust that they have.
“I wrote the text of the motion passed at SU Assembly stating that the University is institutionally disablist, and I stand by it. I’ve raised it at both Council and Senate, and the University is responding to us. There are still some fundamental misunderstandings in the University about what this means though – the initial response set out a list of initiatives about the University’s support for disabled students, and tried to deny the existence of a serious issue. But initiatives that only train 30 staff in an institution of 4000 don’t fix a culture. They don’t change the fact that guest speakers are invited to this University, refer to people who use wheelchairs as ‘cripples with a poor quality of life,’ and go unchallenged.”
Evans, reflecting on the fallout between common rooms and the SU, says “I kept up a good relationship with most of the postgraduate common rooms, and in turn we’ve been able to help each other. Perhaps that could have been translated across to working well with JCRs too. Who knows – maybe it was always bound to happen, and it’s better to have the big drama and work out how we can work together now the dust has settled.”
When asked how he might advise the incoming officer team, he said: “Fall out with each other as soon as possible. No, seriously. Everyone being too cautious of each other at the start just hampers being able to get a proper understanding of each other and working effectively the longer it goes on. If you’ve got an issue with someone, tell them civilly, and thrash it out. It’s going to happen eventually, so get it over with and come to a new understanding of how you can all work together effectively. Just make sure to apologise for things if you’re in the wrong too.”
The best part of the job, Evans reflected, was “getting the news that something you’ve spent months lobbying for has been agreed by the University – often in really understated ways that catch me off guard, like me missing the fact that an extra few hundred thousand pounds had been allocated to PG hardship in an off-hand comment in a meeting, and having to be told about it afterwards by a colleague!”
Conversely, for Evans, “the worst is genuinely having to leave, particularly whilst we can’t meet up physically.” In addition, Evans noted some of the frustration “when the University rejects something we really want to change, or people feel it’s OK to rubbish our work without trying to understand what we’re doing.”
However, despite this, issues are “far outweighed by really being able to see the positives we’ve been directly responsible for implementing.”
Looking back on what he has achieved the role, Evans explains, “My driving reason for running for the position back in 2018 was to lobby for higher pay for postgraduates who teach. Without them, there just wouldn’t be enough people to get the teaching that’s needed done, but their rate of pay hadn’t changed in 10 years. From next year, that pay rate will be tied to the University pay scale, a change that is worth a six-figure sum annually. I’d have been happy enough with that to be honest, but we’ve done huge amounts more for PGs like get free inter-library loans, free printing, more study space for PGs in future estates plans, improvements to the quality of supervision and safeguards for when things go wrong.
“There are things that have been a joint effort from the UG and PG Academic Officers together these past two years, like a raft of student safeguards for COVID-19 including the ‘no detriment’ policy and exam deferrals, the moving of SAC forms online, putting student need at the centre of decisions on timetabling and teaching formats for next year, 24/7 library opening, and lecture capture with high uptake rates. I’ve worked with two incredible UG Academic Officers, Sam [Johnson-Audini] and Saul [Cahill], who have done amazing things themselves, and working together we’ve been able to achieve even more.
“A lot of what I focussed on was on saving students money or getting more money paid out to students – a hard thing to convince the University to do, but something I thought my experience and mindset was best placed to try and do. Particularly with COVID-19, we’ve gotten so much financial support to students, like funded extensions for PhD study and free continuation, and a further six-figure sum being allocated to PGs in hardship through the University’s student support fund.
“A bit outside my remit, but I was also the officer who sounded the alarm about the University’s intention not to pay the Durham Grant to students who had left their college accommodation early due to the pandemic when I spotted it hidden in some draft FAQs, which led to the whole officer team working together successfully to overturn that decision.
“When I look back not only on my two years as PG Academic Officer, but as a leader in the group of common room presidents that got accommodation fee increases linked to inflation at a time when 8%-10% annual increases were the norm, secured an increase in the amount of money granted to common rooms, and restructured the charges levied to summer pre-sessional students so that more of their money was spent on their student experience, I genuinely believe that I have put more money back into the pockets of students at Durham than anyone else ever has. Knowing that I’ve secured that for students, I can leave the University happy.”
Evans’ time at the SU has finished with some exciting personal news, proposing to his partner, Jess – “so there’s some wedding planning to do, for a start!”
Now looking to the future, Evans said “The role’s shown me that I get real fulfilment from my work when I can see how it directly helps people, even when some of my day-to-day work is hidden from view. I’m looking to work in charities in the North East so I can stay in the place I now call home and keep on making a difference. Ideally, I’d like to do policy work, as I love getting into the technicalities and building a case. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back and work at Durham when I’ve gone out and rounded out my skills a bit!”
Image: Durham Students’ Union