By Nathan Ritchie
It’s great to be back writing for PhD Support and Social Network blogs. I had a brief break after taking on my new role as Loughborough Student Union Doctoral Researcher Co-President, which really is that long of a title its deserved of an acronym. My previous blog series discussed PhD related issues, ranging from mental health support to staff-student debate to support for university teachers. I wrote much of this as I felt my voice was not being listened to and needed a forum where I could express thoughts. Now, in theory, at least, I am in a position where that voice has been amplified somewhat, the blogs topics need to evolve. Now the blogs, that I hope to write monthly, will discuss a hotchpotch of several topics that are on my mind. These will, on the whole, be about academic matters, but I may also discuss personal goings on. I hope you enjoy this new series.
This blog is about multiple issues that have been swirling around in my head. I will discuss Pandemic PGRs which I realise is quite specific and so feel free to skip over that part. I’ll discuss my views on the Lockdown 2.0 and on extra funding. I argue that funding should be for DRs most in need of them, rebuffing the argument of blanket extensions that is bounded about. I speak about a recent Mental Health Support video that is doing the rounds on social media and the details that concern me. I’ll also briefly touch on sub-wardens and their importance to our community. Arguing for greater acknowledgment and clearer communication for that community of volunteers. I hope you enjoy my scraggly thoughts on a few important issues. Firstly, I want to briefly discuss my view of this institution and its staff.
Us vs Them
I don’t want this blog series to appear like it is Us vs Them. I have mentioned before I find this discourse unhelpful. I want these to be viewed as working alongside the institution for the betterment of our DR community. These blogs are just one good way of expressing views and getting the conversation started. It’s certainly not my intention to stoke the flames as I see people doing from time to time on social media. I instead only wish to point out the aspects of the university’s functioning that need addressing on behalf of DRs. Perhaps I am naïve when I think that progress can be made without seeing the institution as an unforgiving behemoth sucking on the souls of staff and exploiting students. But I have always genuinely believed that the majority of personnel in positions of power here want to make decisions to benefit the lives of DRs.
Of course, I also realise the constraints of those positions of power. You can love the person but still be wary of job role. I have noticed occasionally that certain staff feel uncomfortable in their roles – they may say “I guess I am now the institution” or ‘I don’t see myself as management’. But it is not you who is the institution, it is your job title. The job role places demand, pressures, and stress. Essentially staff, DR and students are instruments, they have a function. The question is to what extent do you think that job role is for the wellbeing of the DR community or for the wellbeing of the university. Sometimes, often, it’s one of the same thing. At other times, in times of crises, the wellbeing of the institution is placed before the wellbeing of its members. Just ask lecturers protesting against teaching face-to-face.
I understand this structural argument appears as if it strips away at the agency of staff members. But actually, as is so often the case in student representation, the aim is to appeal to that sense of agency. Make changes within that and then occasionally, as I have, you may run across staff members who are more agent than structure and that’s when real change can be made. But enough of that.
I recently attended a meeting with Doctoral Researchers from across universities. The group Pandemic PGRs are looking to set-up an PhD association across HEI. Pandemic PGRs have achieved some successes already, formulating an open letter to UKRI with thousands of signatures and putting motions on the agenda with UCU. They also had a pretty large social media following at one point.
I entirely support the need for some type of association for DRs. There is not enough communication from senior representatives across institutions on matters that impact us all. This isolation from one another means we are wholly dependent on the goodwill of our specific institutions. There is currently no place to share good practice, develop links across universities and also opportunities to socialise and get out of the specific university bubble. An association with regional representatives would be my preferred way forward. They in turn could elect a committee who make decisions on collective issues, unless a major issue necessitates a vote from all representatives.
I do have concerns about the association. Who exactly are these people who will be on the committee? What do they stand for? How can we move from a few active socialists, to a collective association that encompasses the range of viewpoints in the DR community? In my view, the group has taken the hardest line by asking for extensions for all DRs funded by UKRI. I am not sure whether by this position, they have achieved anything. The discourse of Us vs Them already permeates the group. A more pragmatic approach is needed in my opinion to achieve any successes. A far greater level of democratization is currently needed in terms of views and personnel before they can claim any representative power in the DR community.
I understand this issue is rather esoteric and may be uninteresting to some so let’s move on..
Lockdown 2.0 and Extensions
All of a sudden we are back to square one. Locked down again, freedoms inhibited, unable to see family. Everybody’s PhD research will be impacted one way or another and then there are the psychological consequences of confining people to their houses. There will hopefully be some leeway in terms of campus access. It’s clearly beneficial in many cases for people to do work in an office or lab in a safe way rather from home in terms of productivity and this can also help with mental health.
I have already mentioned perhaps my unpopular view that blanket extensions are not the goal I would seek. I believe that the resources should go to DRs in most need of it. For example, among many groups I think should be considered are parents. To me, it seems a no-brainer to provide extra time and funds for this group. Not only did many home school their children and extra childcare demands mount up. But since schools re-opened there remains the ongoing issue of unexpected school closures. At any time, a parent, especially a single parent, can have work totally disrupted. Its time the University coughs up for this group and others that have had their time unreasonably stretched as a result of the pandemic. I’ll leave the fact it disproportionately impacts female DRs for another blog.
I, of course, empathise with all DRs that have had their research impacted. Some research will be so disfigured that funded extensions are a necessity to save the research. I also question the current mitigating circumstances process and issues arising from that as there appears no mechanism of appeal for DRs. But extensions for all is clearly unfeasible and in some cases unwelcome. I know not everyone will agree, but those are my thoughts. Its sometimes easier to say popular things and pronounce blanket extensions for all. But taking a realistic approach may achieve the best results for those who most need it in the end.
Mental Health Support at Loughborough University
Did anyone notice this recent appeal for donation for Mental Health Services? A few thoughts on this. It’s great that the services are attuned to the need for further funds and support given the challenges of the pandemic and the likely impact this will have on many of those already suffering with mental health issues. There is a need, more than ever, as we are couped up in flats, rooms, and bedsits to bolster mental health support at the university. Let’s be honest, all our resilience has been tested in 2020 and this Christmas is certainly going to be trying. So, I welcome any institutional movement towards acknowledgement of greater support.
I question why the services need donations for this? I contacted Head of Student Wellbeing and Inclusivity, Veronica Moore for more information, but alas, no response. So, I can’t give my full thoughts, because simply, despite my best efforts, I am not informed enough. It seems odd that donations are required, and the institution is not prioritising funds for such an essential service. Its understandable that this is a challenging financial year for the university, but MH services are a crucial part of the collective Covid-19 effort and they need appropriate financial support.
I have to admit it, before this past month or so I always thought Subby’s had it made. Free accommodation and food what more could you want. I am increasingly concerned though with the expectations placed on sub-wardens in light of the pandemic and resulted lockdown. I am concerned that there is no strategy of how best to use sub-wardens but at the same time making sure their work is not impacted. Indeed, it is hard enough to do a PhD currently without further uncertainty, poor communication, and inconsistent practice in your job.
It is almost forgotten that to house thousands of students requires volunteers, which essentially sub-wardens still are. They should be praised for their efforts. I certainly no longer envy the role and I think they should be applauded for keeping this institution going. Of course, there are hundreds of these volunteers and hard working staff at the university, but it just so happens sub-wardens are all Doctoral Researchers, so they are my prime interest. We have to make sure they feel protected and secure to do their job and communication from above is consistent and comforting, not reactive and distressing.
Enough, now for some PhD work…
Many thanks for reading my blog. I know it’s a bit different from ones previous, so I’d be interested to hear feedback or suggestions for future topics you’d like me to discuss. You can always e-mail me at N.Ritchie@lboro.ac.uk or follow my Twitter @NathanRitchie16
Loughborough Doctoral Researcher Co-President
Latest posts by Nathan Ritchie (see all)
- #BLOG – Nathans November Blog: Us vs Them, Pandemic PGRs, Lockdown, Sub-Wardens, Mental Health. - 5th November 2020
- #BLOG – PGR casual teaching: making improvements within parameters - 7th October 2020
- #blog – Supervisors: what more can be done to protect PGRs against malpractice? - 25th September 2020