Sarah McAllister: “It’s not fair that postgraduates are an afterthought”

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Serving as the Postgraduate Academic Officer during unprecedented disruptions to learning, said that this year revealed how differently the postgraduate community is treated by the University. “There’s only so much you can ask people to do. you can’t just expect them to overwork when they’re also having to do a thesis while they don’t have access to everything they need.”

One of the biggest changes to the academic system during McAllister’s term was the introduction of safety nets policies for exams. When asked what she considered her biggest success in the last year, her first thought was to mention the safety net for this year’s assessments, but she also describes the final policy as a “double-edged sword” because of the way it treated postgraduates.

“I think a lot of people will be doing a ‘panic masters’ because obviously, the job market is so saturated right now. People want something more.”

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“The version of the safety net the University originally presented to us was not what we agreed to. We had to get a lot more out of the University because their original policy just wasn’t good enough. I think getting a better version and managing to get through some very tense committee meetings was really impressive, and we were really happy we made sure that the student voice was heard.

“However, the postgraduate aspect of the safety net came out a lot later, I had to go to Senate and tell them it had been 77 days since the academic safety net had been published for undergraduates, so where is the postgraduate one? I don’t know what else I could have done, but I wish I tried to go through more angles of saying ‘you’ve got to get it out’. Because it’s not fair that postgraduates are an afterthought.”

When the conversation turned to other aspects of academic support, McAllister was similarly critical of the University, noting their lack of inclusion for postgraduates in many useful tools and programs. “The University started a laptop loan scheme this year, which is really good. That’s a step forward. However, it was not advertised well enough.

“Also, it was originally only available for undergrads because it was based on people’s financial status. Because they don’t have that information for postgraduates, we had to ask for it to be extended to them.”

“We had to get a lot more out of the University because their original safety net policy just wasn’t good enough.”

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With over a year of teaching disrupted by restrictions, McAllister pointed out the potential for an increase in postgraduate applications over the next few years, as students who have missed out on the best parts of university life look for an extension to their time at Durham, though she also noted that lack of resources could be a deciding factor for many potential PG students.

“I think a lot of people will be doing a panic master’s because obviously, the job market is so saturated right now. People want something more. But there’s also the issue that fees are going up, and it’s becoming more expensive to do postgraduate education. The loan is from the government doesn’t even cover fees, in most cases, let alone living costs.

“We need to make sure that postgraduate education is accessible because there are people who want to access it for a number of reasons, but money shouldn’t be the reason people come.”

Beyond academic support, one of the big issues facing this year’s officers was dealing with mental health and student welfare. For postgraduates specifically, McAllister explained that loneliness was already a problem even before the pandemic, as they lacked the same time and resources that undergraduates use to build communities.

These problems were made worse by the isolation that Covid forced on the University. “Often they’re working by themselves, and there isn’t that kind of group that they can rely on, which is so important.” She said, drawing on her own experiences with postgraduate academic life.

“There will also be people who will never be able to associate this year of offices with anything other than what happened in last year’s elections. So I’m hoping that this year, I have proved myself and I’ve strived to do as much positive work as possible and consult students, but I think that that’s a shadow that I’m hoping next year’s officers can escape from.”

“I was close to resigning”

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When discussing her manifesto aims, and how Covid changed her plans for the year, McAllister said she made the best of the situation, promoting greater transparency for decision-making and providing important resources for both current postgraduates and potential ones, with policies like the PG or not to PG campaign.

“I think for the wider student body, my role is one that’s more subtle for undergraduates because I don’t directly affect them, even though we’re talking about the library or access technology, that I’m very much I’m involved with. But even though I’ve affected a smaller group of students with postgraduates, I think I’ve probably really helped them, which is obviously an important part of my role.”

The conversation about the RON campaign during the election of this year’s officers focused on how it impacted trust in the SU and the officer’s mental health. Acknowledging the importance of accountability, McAllister also noted it was a stressful time for the student officers, and hopes that a situation as toxic as that doesn’t happen again.

“Holding people to account needs to happen, we need to make sure that we’re having important debates, but there’s a way to do that without making candidates who haven’t been involved with the processes you’re critiquing have their mental health destroyed. I was close to resigning due to the mental toll alone.”

When discussing what things might be like for next year’s Postgraduate Academic Officer, Declan Merrington, McAllister is optimistic about the opportunities that might arise from a post-Covid learning environment. Attributing her biggest successes to communication with student leaders, she recommended that incoming officers pursue a similarly close relationship with bodies like the JCR Presidents Committee, which she worked on the year before her officership.

“My biggest piece of advice is to build relationships with people, especially with the student leaders that you’re working with. But it’s also about going to the University and being able to build relationships with members of staff. If you’re constantly antagonistic, you’re not going to get anything past them, because they just will find you annoying, and won’t find time to do what you want.”

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