Student Spotlight: Penny Ehrhardt

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Image Description: Penny Ehrhardt 

This week’s ‘Student Spotlight’ series features Penny Ehrhardt, a Public Policy Consultant and a DPhil student in Law at the University of Oxford. Last year, Penny was shortlisted for the Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards for being an inspiring champion and role model. While preparing my interview questions for her, I quickly realised why this was the case. She is a passionate activist who juggles many commitments and thinks of others before herself. She has been a pioneering voice in her college, acting as a co-families representative for students with families. During her time at the University, she was also one of the founding members of the Oxford Queer Studies Network and remains an active member of the Oxford Children’s Rights Network, working to support ‘cared for’ children, child refugees and asylum seekers. 

Penny was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to talk about her thoughts on the University’s attitude towards students with families, how to effect positive change at Oxford and how she tries to avoid activism burnout. 

What has been your experience of getting involved in activism at the University of Oxford? 

I first came to Oxford as an older student studying human rights, so I guess my personality as someone who is involved in activism was already pretty formed, but I didn’t intend to get involved in activism on behalf of Oxford students. I was a single parent on a Master’s through Continuing Education. The programme had been advertised as suitable for mid-career professionals including those with family responsibilities. There were two residential components, for which we were all encouraged to stay in College to benefit from the collegial environment, the opportunity to learn from others students – fabulous human rights practitioners from around the world – and to attend extra events. 

Shortly before we were due to leave for Oxford, all those students with children received notification that their accommodation in College had been cancelled: children were banned from staying on College grounds. I had already booked mine and my son’s flights from New Zealand. My attitude to problems is to sort them out, so that’s what I tried to do. It opened my eyes pretty quickly to the fact that the support offered by the College system is limited and skewed to some students more than others. 

On the other hand, when I came back to Oxford to do a DPhil, I was actually looking forward to being engaged in issues. I’d been working in the public sector – a risk-averse environment – in which I was required prioritise the policies of the government of the day (it is rightly left to politicians to make the political decisions: public servants only advise and implement them).  Returning to student life meant that I no longer had to be a faceless grey bureaucrat. 

I applied to a modern college whose website emphasised their family-friendliness, LGBTQI positivity, and forward-looking human welfare philosophy. The College paired me with an existing student who was also a single-parent. She advised me to become involved in College life, so I signed up as co-families rep on the GCR. I assumed that we would be influencing policy, and was surprised that others seemed to think our role was about organising events. My son was a teenager and didn’t want to go to events, and I am not a social events organiser by nature. My co-rep felt similarly, so we ensured we actually addressed policies for student families, as well as running brunches! 

You have campaigned to ensure that students with families are supported at Oxford. What are some of the main issues that they encounter at the University? How have you tried to combat these? 

In College, we did some quite simple things, although they took a lot of effort due to the bureaucracy. For example, we found that partners and children were excluded from the College Christmas dinner, so we worked with College to change this, and managed to institute regular ‘Family Friendly Formal Dinners’. This made sure all members of student families could feel part of the Oxford experience. In practical terms we also got a changing table installed in the gender-neutral ‘accessible’ bathroom. Up until then, there was nowhere on site for students to change a baby’s nappy. 

We need to change the way the system thinks because there is a lot that could be done to make it more supportive of student families. Colleges have tended to shunt students with families to offsite accommodation, which means that these students cannot benefit from the onsite support – such as subsidised meals, networking, college libraries and activities – in the way onsite students can. These already time-poor students are also having to travel further to get to class or the library. And the less visible student families are, the less colleges and the university will consider us an essential part of the student body. 

Arriving in Oxford and enrolling children in schools one of the biggest issues that student parents face. The Councils won’t let you enrol a child without showing a lease or license proving your address. But colleges will not confirm accommodation until too late. As a result, student parents may time their arrival in Oxford for the start of the school year, only to find that they cannot get their child into a school! 

Moreover, as late enrollees, children are less likely to get into a school close to where they live. I supported a single mother with a four and six-year-old who arrived as an international student. When her children eventually got a place, it was on the other side of town. She bused them from North to South Oxford each morning, returned for her own classes, tried to squeeze in study time, then repeated the two-way journey to collect them. Losing that hour and a half each day when one’s time for studying is so tight makes things very difficult. 

If colleges provided student families with early confirmation of accommodation, it might help; or colleges and the university could work collectively with the councils to devise a different solution. That would require a coordinated or centralised approach, which Oxford struggles with, but it is what’s needed.  

Cambridge University has a childcare office, and I get the feeling it makes a real difference. For example, there, they offer subsidises – which can be as much as eighty per cent – for OFSTED registered childcare: that’s things like before-school and after-school care, as well as holiday programmes and nurseries. They also work with local schools to offer a subsidised ‘play scheme’ on bank holidays, for students and staff who have children. Single-parents are prioritised for support. A bi-termly newsletter sent out by the Cambridge childcare office helps ensures students with family responsibilities are aware of services and connected to support. 

Ideally, minority and marginalised students would be at the centre of planning, rather than tacked on as an afterthought. Until that occurs, however, an option would be to introduce a ‘reasonable adjustment’ policy across the university and colleges for students and staff with caregiving responsibilities. This could be modelled on the legally enshrined reasonable adjustment provisions in relation to disability. The college system was created to support English public school boys leaving home or school for the first time in their late teens. Student parents are not more needy than other students. It is simply that the systems are not designed for us.

For example, children are not allowed into the Bodleian Libraries, but many books are ‘read only’ meaning that they cannot be removed. Although the COVID-19 shutdown was exceptionally hard for student parents (especially single-parents), it did reveal that it was possible for the various parts of the university to think creatively when sufficiently pressed. Some policies, like ensuring that all required readings on taught courses must be available online, will help student parents who cannot get to libraries even once COVID-19 has passed. But there may be more that needs to be done, for example, for research students who need to access more obscure read-only materials.  

You work with a lot of different groups to effect positive change, what is the biggest challenge in doing so? 

The biggest challenge in effecting positive change at Oxford is the built-in inertia. Unfortunately, the things that enable Oxford to endure as a stable, prestigious institution also work against it making positive changes. 

For example, my Master’s cohort failed to get our College to change its policy banning children from staying on the grounds. In our attempts to get to the bottom of the issues, the College’s rationale kept changing, which is never a good sign. At first, we were told the ban was due to occupational health and safety because of building works; then it was that uneven stone floors of the college posed a risk. After I pointed out that this was no more a danger for children than for others such as drunk freshers or elderly unsteady emeritus professors, I was told by a member of the College’s governing body that the actual reason for the ban was ‘moral panic’ around child sex abuse. 

The member did agree to put the matter up for discussion by the governing body, but the answer came back that they were keeping the policy. Apparently, the College felt it simpler to exclude children (and thereby student parents) than to ensure its staff were not registered sex offenders!

Whatever the reason, it was clear that the well-resourced 900-year-old College was not going to change easily for a bunch of foreign students who were only around for a short time. Although one of our professors suggested we could raise the matter with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we were overseas students unfamiliar with the English legal system, and busy with high-intensity jobs, children, and dissertations. No one had the stamina to mount such a case.  

Alongside your studies, you were a founding member of the Oxford Queer Studies Network. What does this network seek to achieve? What was the process of setting up a network like this?

The Oxford Queer Studies Network is part of TORCH (the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and was established by people like Mara Gold, Ruth Ramsden-Karelse and Eleri Anona Watson who are working on different aspects of queer theory. I was one of the founding members but was not involved in setting it up. For me, the Queer Studies Network has been a place to extend my thinking. Although my DPhil is not on queer theory, I wrote a book chapter on young lesbian feminism, and it is important for me to keep in touch with that side of my work. I would like to see more crossover between human rights law and queer studies, maybe through a collaboration between the Bonavero Institute for Human Rights and the Queer Studies Network. 

I have had the opportunity to speak at Oxford events on LGBTQI issues, such as queer parenting and LGBTQI spirituality, which I enjoyed and got a good response. 

Equally, the Oxford Children’s Rights Network is close to your heart. What inspired you to get involved in this and what were the main issues that you worked on resolving?

The Oxford Children’s Rights Network is great. Like the Queer Studies Network, it is interdisciplinary. It also goes beyond Oxford University: we have members and speakers from Oxford Brookes and the community. We have looked a lot at disability issues, ‘cared for’ children, and child refugees and asylum seekers. Our focus ranges from Oxford, to England as a whole and to international matters. The Bonavero Institute of Human Rights provides us an institutional home which helps with consistency as student members of the OCRN graduate and move on. There are a lot of issues to address, and a lot more we could do. 

It is clear that you do a lot of activism, how do you manage all of this alongside your studies, while avoiding activism burnout? 

I practice Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai which takes the view that you should ‘practice for yourself and others.’ For me, this means my own health, satisfaction and desires are important. No one benefits from an attitude of martyrdom. Being involved in social change helps me feel less powerless in a big complex world, but I’m not taking on everything. 

I take joy in the victories of campaigns I have little or no part in, as well as celebrating my own part in small wins. For example, although climate change is the most important issue of our time, it is not something I have gotten very involved in. I know that great committed people are working on the issue, and I can applaud the advances being made, without feeling I need to do more. 

On the other hand, coming from a settler society, Oxford’s blindness to its enslaving and colonising heritage struck me as very wrong. I felt bad for not doing more in that area. But my son was complaining about me never being home, and I did need to do some study! At least now, through the efforts of Rhodes Must Fall and others, Oriel College has made a commitment to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes.  

What advice would you give to fellow student activists trying to balance their work with self-care? 

In light of disappointments and the slow pace of change, it is challenging to maintain a spirit of optimism. Play the long game and pick your battles. Although our time as Oxford students may be short, we have a lifetime to continue making changes. Don’t try to be too pure, and don’t demand perfection from others. When everyone you are working with is passionate about a cause it is easy to become overcritical. We are activists because we appreciate the beauty of the world and want it to be shared more justly. If we stop enjoying the beauty, we’ve lost the point. 

Negative humour can be a defence mechanism, but try to avoid the slide into cynicism. When I was going through a tough time, good friends helped bring me through it: friends I may not have made if I had not been involved in activism in the first place. 

I was also fortunate to get good support from the Disabilities Office in the form of an excellent mentor. Before coming to Oxford, I hadn’t felt my disabilities were serious enough to identify as ‘disabled’, but I quickly found that this was the box I needed to tick to get support, so I have learnt to accept the label. If that is something that might apply to you, I would recommend going through the process of registering (however painful or tedious) and accessing support.

Finally, how do you think the University can support students like yourself who are involved in such important activism? 

The Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards are a really nice initiative. Of course, they are contentious because they involve singling out some people for recognition, and not others. But I enjoyed being in a room with so many others being acknowledged for promoting support for diversity. They reminded me of the importance of working with the establishment. Running Oxford must be a tough gig that includes balancing the demands of competing voices. When things don’t happen as quickly as we’d like it is sometimes due to the complexities, not always a lack of will from those in charge. 

More significantly, the University and Colleges could avoid glib answers to students’ call for change. In my experience, three common pat answers are: first, claiming ‘health and safety’ as a reason to do nothing without considering if the imagined health and safety concerns are valid; second, using complexities of the College-University system to pass the buck, and; third, continually asking the student activists to present more evidence or detailed proposals. Students who are committed to making Oxford better know that the Oxford system is complex, and change is hard. But we have seen other universities in England and around the world take major steps to support diversity. If the Colleges and University think we are smart enough to be here, they should also see us as smart enough to be worth taking seriously when we come to them with proposals.

It would be great if the university and college administrators’ responses focused on ‘how can we make this better’, rather than ‘how can we defend what we are doing’. To truly claim its ‘Number One’ status on merit, Oxford must move faster in removing the barriers that marginalise students of colour, those with caregiving responsibilities, those with disabilities, as well as mature, LGBTQI, and working-class students. 

Quick-fire questions:

What is something every student should know? 

There is no ‘every student’ – that’s the point. 

What is something every student should do? What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?

Maybe every student should do, read, watch, or listen to something outside their comfort zone. It is always good to find someone different to yourself and get them to introduce you to new music, art, and ways of thinking.  

Image courtesy of Penny Ehrhardt