OUSU and postgraduate representation: time for a change

News

By Luigi Prada, MCR President, The Queen’s College

Next year will see a shocking rent increase for postgraduate housing in University-owned accommodation (in some cases, up by more than 10 percent). This is particularly troubling since the University hasn’t given any reason for this increase, and the large number of postgrads who previously found University accommodation to be a cheaper housing option than that of their own college are now faced with serious financial issues.

Until very recently, OUSU was completely unaware of this matter, which was brought to its attention only by the MCR Presidents’ Committee.

OUSU’s leadership showed a lack of awareness of the specific nature of accommodation issues affecting postgrads. This is particularly disconcerting in comparison with the level of effort it has instead put into supporting students living in College accommodation (i.e., mainly undergrads) through the annual process of rent negotiations.

But the rents situation is not the only time when OUSU and representative bodies of Oxford postgrads seem to speak different languages.

The question to ask, and the question that increasingly more postgrads are asking themselves and their representatives, is why? Is there a way to make a difference?

The number of postgrads at Oxford has been steadily increasing in recent years: students reading for a postgraduate degree now make up 45 percent of the total student body, and in the near future the ratio between under- and postgrads will be 1:1. Despite this figure, postgrads feel and appear to be heavily underrepresented in the political life of Oxford University and its Student Union, when compared to their undergraduate peers.

The reason for this is normally put down to ‘postgraduate political apathy’, whatever that means. But the real reason is that postgrads have needs, responsibilities, and schedules that radically differ from those of undergrads. It is thus hard for them to find their place in a system of representation that was originally created to meet the needs of a population at a time when postgrads were an overlooked minority within the student body.

This is particularly true in the case of OUSU, our Student Union. Postgrads are rarely seen getting involved with OUSU, or attending its meetings: their political life is too often invisible from the outside, as it most often occurs within the walls of their MCRs and, at an upper level, at the MCR PresCom meetings. Despite the presence of OUSU offices existing specifically for them, starting with the OUSU Vice-President for Grads, postgrads often ignore their existence, or don’t think they satisfy their needs.

On the other hand, OUSU itself often appears unaware of the interests of postgrads. OUSU is there to represent and serve all of Oxford’s students, but, as it stands now, it is failing to do so with regard to its entire postgraduate constituency.

The fault is neither with OUSU’s leadership nor with the MCRs and their executive committees, but with the system as it is, which is largely inadequate and unable to accomplish one of its core functions: postgraduate representation. Only close collaboration between MCRs and OUSU offers the potential to change the current situation.

This is why, at the beginning of this term, MCR PresCom passed a motion recommending a review of OUSU’s postgraduate representation structure. This has now been approved by OUSU Council as well. The first step has been taken, the review is officially established, and its running committee is being put together. This shall incorporate representatives from MCRs (including, but not limited to, MCR Presidents) and Academic Division Boards, flanked by the OUSU VP for Grads.

The task of the review is to establish how OUSU can best engage with postgrads and represent their concerns, and this will be done by collecting and incorporating postgraduate views and feedback on current and proposed OUSU postgraduate representation structures. Through this effort, we will decide upon what we need to ask OUSU to do directly for postgrads, and how to integrate other postgraduate structures, such as the MCR PresCom and the Academic Division Board Representatives, into an overall scheme where they can easily and efficiently collaborate with OUSU to represent postgrads within the Oxford student body and the University.

This process won’t happen behind closed doors: it won’t be ‘invisible’, which is a common criticism of postgraduate politics. We expect to involve as many postgrads as possible in this review of OUSU’s system, and we hope that you will contribute to this process, determining an epochal change in the representation of postgrads in our Student Union, and consequently in our level of involvement in the life and the decision-making process in Oxford.

If you’d like to get involved, in any possible way, then please contact the chair of the review at christopher.gray@history.ox.ac.uk.