I had a blast speaking at a rally on campus last week in solidarity with SOAS support staff. Although it has been more work than expected, I am learning heaps from being in the Post Graduate Research Officer role and President of the Research Students’ Association on campus. While at times it can be frustrating and discouraging to see policies developed in such a haphazard way, diplomacy and dialogue are critical to moving forward constructively. Here’s to not only influencing specific policies on campus, but to facilitating the development of community norms that will benefit the institution as a whole.
In an attempt to being as accessible as possible, here is the speech in written form.
My name is Robyn Waite and I am the Post Graduate Research Officer and President of the Research Students’ Association (also known as the RSA).
To be honest this has been my first experience really engaging with campus politics. When I started in this role I had no idea I would be fighting so hard to put out fires and to have our voices heard. My default assumption was that the Senior Management would approach decision making sensibly – consulting stakeholders on decisions that affect them, ensuring transparency, and coming to thoughtful decisions having done essential research. I’ve been surprised and deeply disappointed that this not the case. Let me give you one recent example from the research student perspective.
Last week, we received an email from the School introducing a new attendance policy for Tier 4 research students. This policy would have had students’ checkin with Doctoral School support staff, in person, every three weeks, on a predefined date. It would have also required students to seek approval from the Doctoral School for any and all travel outside of the UK. While universities have to be able to demonstrate they comply with Home Office regulations, universities have much autonomy around how they go about doing this. A review of practices across other UK academic institutions demonstrates the policy developed at SOAS to be particularly inflexible and burdensome for students and support staff alike. For example, most other universities logically include supervisory meetings as key points for recording research student attendance. Not surprisingly, this particularly draconian policy released by SOAS caused much distress amongst the student body. The day after this policy was announced I myself was off to Amsterdam for a lovely long weekend with my husband. I felt very uncomfortable feeling as though I was already in breach of this new policy, and my stomach turned at the thought of my privacy and freedom of movement being infringed upon.
While strong opposition to the introduction of this new draconian policy at SOAS has resulted in its suspensions until consultation with the RSA takes place, this experience has raised serious concerns around how critical decisions are made on campus. It appears this policy was developed not only without consultation, but with little consideration of the current student and support staff experience, and without attempt to conform to sector norms or the values of SOAS.
The Doctoral School has been inadequately resourced and supported by SOAS Senior Management for far too long. Only recently, and thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of existing Doctoral School staff, 4 new members of staff were hired. We were under the impression that these new members of staff were hired to meet existing critical capacity needs. As such, it was unfortunate to see a policy introduced which would result in staff having to unnecessarily attend to an administratively burdensome new attendance policy rather than support students. As a research student body, we are deeply concerned about how such a policy would further stretch Doctoral School staff and deteriorate the research student and staff experience. In order to understand the current context, Senior Management must consult both the implementers of new policy, and stakeholders affected by new policy.
Sadly, the Doctoral School not being adequately resourced and supported by Senior Management has resulted in division between support staff and the research student body. Front line Doctoral School staff tend to bear the brunt of student and faculty frustration. This is not fair nor justifiable. We must come together in solidarity with support staff across SOAS. We are the life blood of SOAS, and collectively we have the power to create a community whereby transparency, consultation, respect, and informed decision making become the norm.
~ Robyn Waite (November 27, 2017)