Two bodies vie to speak for postgrads

NUS' higher calling may clash with its other priorities, NPC says. John Morgan reports

February 11, 2010

For a long time their voices were drowned out by those of undergraduates and staff - but postgraduates are now likely to have two national bodies to articulate their distinct needs.

Since setting up a postgraduate committee last June, the National Union of Students has made a submission to the Government's review of postgraduate provision, undertaken a survey of doctoral students who teach, and held a national postgraduate conference.

But despite the presence of the NUS body, the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is likely to continue to operate - with a different slant to its counterpart.

The developments come as postgraduate numbers in the UK continue to rise.

The number of postgraduates starting courses in 2007-08 was about 12 per cent higher than five years earlier, with the total figure at all stages of study swelling to more than half a million.

David Thurkettle, an NPC member, said that in the past the NUS had "not been very good" at representing postgraduates, and welcomed its new committee.

But he acknowledged that the development was going to affect the NPC, which he suggested could continue as a "watchdog committee" for postgraduates.

"The NPC needs to think about what it does from now on," he said.

"As a representative body, the NUS trumps us on almost every card, because nearly every student union in the country is a member.

"Whether that appeals to postgraduates is a different thing. The NUS is seen, sometimes quite rightly, as being overtly political. The NPC is not viewed as political."

Mr Thurkettle said postgraduates required special representation because of the often isolating nature of doctoral research, the crucial relationship with supervisors and the question of opportunities for teaching.

"I know that some universities' student unions have run campaigns saying: 'We don't want to be taught by postgraduates'," he said.

"To a research student, teaching experience is absolutely crucial to their development and research career. Those are very different priorities."

A key element of the NUS' work thus far has been training union officers to make contact with postgraduates and represent them more effectively.

Aaron Porter, vice-president (higher education) at the NUS, said the union had a history of political campaigning, but was just as well known for "making the lives of students better".

An NUS spokeswoman said: "It is very easy, if you don't have specific representational systems, to think undergraduate students are the only ones that count.

"Without representation, students cannot begin to make their needs clear."

The NUS' submission to the review of postgraduate provision, which will report in the spring, lobbies for postgraduates to be funded "in such a way that the burden does not fall disproportionately on the individual", she said.

The spokeswoman added: "We think there ought to be a system of loans in place for postgraduates.

"If the Government wants to reap economic benefits from having significant numbers of people taking on postgraduate study, it may want to think about the balance of payments."

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