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Farewell from Penny!

Farewell from Penny!

VP Education 2019-2021 Farewell Blog

I always knew I would eventually have to say goodbye to my role and to Exeter, yet this knowledge does not make saying goodbye any easier. I want to use this opportunity to reflect on not only my 2 years of office but also the 5 years that I’ve had with the Students’ Guild.

When I joined the University of Exeter as a silly fresh in 2016, I had no idea what the Guild was and how it would go on to be such a big part of my life for the past 5 years. The first position I ever held at the Guild – my first ever election victory – was First Year Psychology Representative. Admittedly, I only put myself forward in the election because I thought the role sounded like being a prefect and I had previously been a prefect at school. That very first Representative role has introduced me to the Guild and the wider student movement, I went on to be elected as CLES College Officer in 2018/19 and a delegate for Exeter students at the NUS Women’s Conference in 2019. A big chunk of being a Rep back in the days was resolving relatively minor feedback from students, such as asking a module convenor to give students’ permission to create new threads on ELE forums – which was somehow disabled in error! However, occasionally, I got to work and lobby for bigger issues which I found so rewarding. As a College Officer, I lobbied the University to create a policy that would grant students automatic extensions in case of significant ELE outages (you’re welcome!). Being a Rep and a part-time officer has shown me that the Guild had the potential to do much more than it was currently doing, especially in empowering its massive network of Reps and volunteers and in advocating for equality and inclusion. This vision inspired me to put myself forward for the officer election and I was twice elected as VP Education in 2019 and 2020. I can’t thank you enough for trusting me and voting for me not once but twice in a row!

It has been a very challenging 2 years (partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and I’m so proud that I’ve managed to tick off a lot of pledges that I made in both of my manifestos. My favourite manifesto win has got to be the rollout of the Equality Rep roles across all departments and levels of study. This was something that I had advocated for as a College Officer without success, and hence pledged to implement in my first VP Education manifesto. The role was initially co-created with the VP Welfare and Diversity (2019/20) as Equality Panellists, who Reported to the Equality Council. Though Equality Panellists didn’t directly report to me, it was really valuable for me to work with these student leaders and we managed to advocate for a lot of changes to education policies to ensure and promote equality thanked to their work.

This year in particular, I’ve managed to work with the University to revise the Alternative Assessments Policy, which passed at Taught Faculty Board earlier this year, and a lot of feedback I received from Equality Panellists from the 2019/20 academic year was very useful when helping the University develop the policy. Off the back of such a successful pilot, the role of Equality Rep was officially formalised this year and this time embedded directly into department-level Representation. Under the Equality Rep umbrella are three roles to represent three marginalised and underrepresented groups (though many Reps identified with more than one identity): Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME), International Students, and Students with Disabilities (this is inclusive of mental health conditions and neurodiversity). We have over 100 of these Reps across the University, and it is so inspiring to see the work that they do at local levels.

I also created the Success For All Students’ Forum where equality Reps report the work they do at local levels and hold the University accountable for progress made on institutional strategies when it comes to reducing inequalities in education. So far, our Equality Reps have worked with their departments to create dyslexia-friendly educational resources, raised awareness of financial barriers faced by low income students, advocated for decolonisation, and fought for the creation of a sick pay policy for PGR students. The existence of the role has enabled students who traditionally didn’t engage with the Guild to take up space and speak about issues faced by their communities that were previously unaddressed. I am in awe of the bravery and passion demonstrated by these Reps, and I wish I had been half as bold in shaking things up as these Reps when I was a Rep myself all these years ago. I was so proud to see so many Equality Reps nominated and even winning Guild Awards last month. It was really moving to read students’ nominations on how these Reps used their role to champion equality and diversity and fight for marginalised students on their course; those stories were exactly why I had wanted to create these roles in the first place.

Another pledge that I’m proud to have ticked off is advocating for the University to close awarding gaps, especially BAME Awarding Gap, i.e., the difference between the percentage of BAME students awarded a 1st and 2:1 and that of White students awarded those classifications. This was something I brought up during the election debate in 2019 and wrote about in my 2020 manifesto. I’d like to say that, thanks to the popularity of my manifesto, the University has been taking closing awarding gaps very seriously and even created two working groups that touch on this issue – the “Success and inclusive education working group” and “Degree outcomes steering group”, both of which I have been heavily involved in. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has been awful for so many reasons, the accessibility offered by remote learning and online exams (I do stress that these do not work for all students) has meant that the University has made quite a bit of progress with closing awarding gaps. Though this is often framed as “grade inflation” – the case of “unworthy students” being awarded high grades – by the media, I have ensured that the University sees the closing of awarding gaps as a positive success story. We are a long way away from achieving true equality and completely closing awarding gaps, but it’s promising to me that the University is putting so much weight behind this agenda, especially in the current political climate.

I’ve briefly touched on this but let’s dive a bit deeper into the COVID-19 pandemic – the massive elephant in the room. This crisis has changed my job massively: I would spend most of my day fighting for students’ best deals during this pandemic, be it teaching and learning arrangements, your academic outcomes, or academic justice. I am incredibly proud to have worked with the University to create a sector-leading No Detriment Policy to protect students’ outcomes – which have been suggested by preliminary analyses to be effective in protecting the academic outcomes of students who were the worst affected by the pandemic. The University doesn’t always get everything right, but it has been great to see the power of my voice in influencing the University to change their approach. For the 2020/21 academic year, after a lot of influencing and campaigning from student campaigners across the University, I have successfully convinced the University to put in place the No Disadvantage Guarantee and the Exceptional Circumstances process to protect students against the impact the COVID-19 pandemic. It was so moving to read students’ kind messages about the positive impact of this policy on your mental health and wellbeing, knowing that the University has your back and that your grade reflects your talents rather than the awful circumstances that this pandemic put you in.

The other big campaign I have been leading this year was for tuition fee compensation for students – as mandated by Guild Council’s vote in February. It was heart-warming to see how much this campaign resonates with students of all courses and levels of studies. As part of this campaign, I have teamed up with Students’ Union officers across the country for many national days of actions. My favourite memory has got to be the in-person Student Refund Rally in London led by the London School of Economics Students’ Union, where I got to speak to Christine Blower, Baroness Blower – a member of the House of Lords – about students’ hardship during the pandemic. The work of our campaign also received coverage in national media, including the Guardian. I am confident that the new officer team will keep the momentum going with this campaign to continue the work that I started with this campaign.

The pandemic has definitely changed the way we work and engage with students. A change that I’m incredibly proud of is the introduction of Townhall meetings – which I initially ran to engage with Year Abroad students in the summer of 2020. The format has now been rolled out to help us engage with so many other student groups and to gather insights about different issues. PGR Townhall (now known as PGR Open Meeting), Wellbeing Townhall, and St Luke’s Townhall were a huge success. In celebration of International Students’ Day in November, I even held a special meeting with our local MP Ben Bradshaw as part of the NUS’s Students Deserve Better Campaign. I’m so grateful for every single student who turned up to these meetings that I held to actively help us influence not just University but also national policies. It was a huge leap of faith to experiment with this new meeting format, but I’m delighted to see how much students engaged with us through these meetings.

I don’t want to bore you with too many words now so I will quickly wrap this article up. It’s been a real pleasure to Represent Exeter students as your VP Education over the past two years. I have learned so many lessons from the job and from the students who I interact with. It will be very bittersweet to stay goodbye to a place that I’ve called home for the past five years, and I will always cherish the memories that I made here, from being a Rep, a society leader, to being your VP Education. I have so much confidence in the new officer team and I can’t wait to visit Exeter in the future and hear about all the great work that they are doing.

VP Education out!

 

 

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