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You haven't seen the last of me!

You haven't seen the last of me!

It is a strange time for me to be saying goodbye, especially since the vast majority of you are still here, such is the asynchronic nature of the postgraduate academic year. I am also not technically leaving, simply taking up a different role within the same union.

I started this year with many goals, but my main purpose was to carve out a space for postgraduates where there was not one before. It’s been a whirlwind of difficult, intense, and exhausting, but I’ve done this. I have. I’m aware of the aggrandising nature of this statement, and I still feel queasy stating my success in such a matter-of-fact manner. But as a working-class woman I believe we need to assert our achievements, especially when they are achieved in an environment sometimes hostile to us.

As postgraduates, we went from being after-thoughts, to having a full-time representative, to having a postgraduate lead the institution in the space of one academic year (did I mention I’m going to be President?!). It’s amazing. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a whole village behind me. I absolutely did not do this alone. I am – we are, here because of the hard work of countless students, and of all the Guild staff who turn up to work each day, and believe in their organisation.

Firstly, postgraduate academic reps. You guys work so hard. You are all incredible, intelligent, fantastic, engaged, passionate human beings who despite being four, five, ten years into academics, continue representing, and feeding back, and continuing to make this campus a more fulfilling, enriching, and inclusive place.

From the masters students who stood up, self-organised and said, “No, we will not tolerate sexual harassment”, to the research students who took the excruciating decision to withdraw their labour for fairer employment, to the taught students’ who supported their peers’ dispute because working conditions are learning conditions, to the students of colour, who despite continuing to face an unjust and exclusive system have stood up to challenge that very system. Everywhere I have looked this year there have been students saying that our campus will be fairer, more accessible, and more just.

Supporting PTAs through two rounds of industrial action and supporting both taught and research postgraduates through a global pandemic and national lockdown was quite the pivot from my usual remit. But oh my goodness, aren’t we resilient? I am so proud of all of you. Honestly, I mean that. I am proud of the students who organised community care initiatives which managed to get food, necessities, and medicine to those in our community who were self-isolating or shielding. 

I am proud to be at Exeter, I am proud of my fellow officers, and I am proud of my colleagues in the Guild.

Our Comms department has worked so hard in keeping students informed of all and any developments. Our Activities department has continued to facilitate online and socially distant society events, ensuring students stayed connected. And our media team managed to pull off a spectacular virtual Guild awards!!

Some of the highlights of my year

Postgraduate coffee mornings! I can’t believe how simple yet effective these were! I originally ran these over the summer as a way of bringing postgraduates together when a lot of campus is closed, or partially closed. But they were so good that I ran them throughout the year. I met so many amazing students through this and, crucially, gave me the chance to have some really important conversations with many of you.

Increasingly the visibility of care leavers and estranged students within the University. As a student with a less than conventional background, of course this is an issue close to my heart. It’s particularly difficult for postgraduates to access the provisions in place, whether this is because some of them are only available to undergraduates, or the cut-off to certain programmes being aged 21. Bringing research, data, and first-hand testimony to the attention of senior management on the implications of being a postgraduate without a family support system, or financial safety net was vital to improve the support we receive. I also ran an awareness campaign week, where I publicised all the support, rent waivers, and bursaries that are available. This resulted in students seeking out the support they needed, getting rent paid, food on tables, and degrees complicated!

Another issue I tackled this year was the rise of sex working students. Since the rise of connection apps and online sites facilitating the buying and selling of sexual services, the number of students in sex work has risen significantly. There are around 400 sex workers at Exeter, but of course, the true number is unknown! Research from the English Collective of Prostitutes states that self-funded masters students, PhDs students, student parents, and mature students are overrepresented in student sex work. The reasons for this are complex but the theories are around loan availability and issues such as balancing childcare and learning with little time for casual work. I not only brought this issue to senior management at the University – getting legislation rewritten and ensuring financial assistance for those facing significant hardship – I initiated a conversation at a national level. I’m now working alongside The Student Sex Work Project to develop a handbook to guide Universities and Student Unions in best practice when helping student sex workers.

Setting up the Chronically Ill and Disabled Network with two PhD students and a member of staff from the Doctoral College was another highlight of my year. It’s no secret that Exeter – the university literally built on a hill – isn’t the most accessible. The network is still in an embryonic stage, and many of our meetings are still sites for venting, whilst we work out how best to support our community. But the attendance rates are high, and I repeatedly hear, “I thought I was the only one.” Being able to connect with others who face the same access frustrations as us is so important.

And in the meantime, I’ve been heavily involved with the architectural plans for a new forum building at Streatham, which will have a large percentage of space dedicated to PhD desk spaces and lab work, including ensuring disabled students voices are heard every step of the way.

Sunday Blake,

VP Postgraduate 2019/20

 

 

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