SU Postgraduate Officer, Elliott Denham: “Postgraduate students do not spend 20 hours a day studying alone – they still want to party”

With SU elections just around the corner, Impact News sat down with Elliott Denham, Students’ Union Postgraduate Officer, to discuss the successes and challenges of his year in office.

How have you found your year in office?

Very interesting. The role is so all-encompassing. I do not have a specific remit, unlike the Sports Officer, so I often collaborate with other officers.

How have you collaborated with other officers?

I am working with Sarah [Pickup], the SU’s Welfare Officer, on a postgraduate welfare campaign for the summer. There is a huge opportunity there – most of the Union and student offerings get shut down yet postgraduate students are still here. I sit with Dan [Rattigan], the Education Officer, on a lot of University executive committees so we are always at the forefront of understanding the education offering of the University.

I am also working with the Sports Officer, James Bramley, to develop a strategy to better involve postgraduate students in our sports offering. I have also established an informal committee beneath me of volunteer postgraduate students – they give me student feedback and I think together we can have a decent impact on the postgraduate community. In terms of the sustainability of that, I am looking to write a motion to the Democratic Procedures Committee to establish a formal network in collaboration with the Guild Chair over on Sutton Bonington campus.

“Postgraduate students do not spend 20 hours a day studying alone. They still want to party and go to balls and meet new people, like undergraduates”

Do you feel that you have a particular legacy?

So far, my legacy has been upscaling the Postgraduate Winter Ball, held on the 30th November. Together with the postgraduate exec, we increased the numbers from 125 to over 310. That made me emphasise to the SU that postgraduate students do not spend 20 hours a day studying alone. They still want to party and go to balls and meet new people, like undergraduates. That is the crux of what I feel my role is – unleashing that veil and making the Union realise that postgraduates still want to do all of this but they would rather do it with each other than with younger students.

But during last year’s campaigns, it was suggested that undergraduate students and postgraduate students should be better integrated.

In an ideal world, my role wouldn’t exist because we would be as inclusive to postgraduate students as we are to freshers. The reason my role exists is because we are not currently doing that. In an ideal world, postgraduate students would get as involved as any other student, but we don’t live in an ideal world and whilst I can do my bit, having spoken to postgraduates on a daily basis, I have realised they would rather do these things with each other.

What kind of feedback have postgraduate students given you?

The term ‘Undergraduate Union’ and ‘I thought the Union was only for undergrads’ get passed around a lot. That is because of the culture and perception of the Union and student body. A lot of postgraduate problems are around their course – problems with supervisors, lecturers, modules – but we have a fantastic course rep network and we have recently introduced a postgraduate sounding board committee with faculty level, postgraduate student elected leaders. They work with course reps and liaise at a faculty level.

“I appreciate when students tell me I’m doing a good job but I always feel that I can do more”

I hate to admit it but people often say that I’m a good officer. I personally think I’m just getting started and there is so much more that I wish I was able to achieve. I joined the organisation 10 days before Welcome Week so I had to start learning very quickly. It might well have been a different story if I had started in July with the other officers. I appreciate when students tell me I’m doing a good job but I always feel that I can do more.

One of the ‘buzzwords’ for the campaigns last year was ‘transparency’. How do you think you’ve made your role clearer to students this year?

A lot of what we do is ongoing, behind-the-scenes work that is potentially only going to become visible when we’ve left. A lot of our work is not tangible, it involves expressing the student voice to the Union leadership and the University’s leadership. Having said that, Portland is being renovated and so is the website. Officer accountability has changed – we now have to make students more aware of what we do.

What do you think about funding for postgraduates?

We have worked with NUS on the #CutTheCosts campaign and the cap for loans is now at age 60 but only for PGTs. That is a huge result in itself but a shame for older people. Up until September 2016/17, PGTs have never been able to get maintenance loans so that, and the fact that they have been extended after active campaigning, is a good thing. It makes it more accessible. PhD funding is more difficult to get because more and more people are doing PhDs. PhD students deserve more. They could have a major impact with their research and they aren’t, financially, as enticed into it or as praised as they could be.

“I am more than willing to put my hands up when I’ve made a mistake and I’m only going to learn from that”

Impact recently received information about an incident that involved you and a refreshers’ fair stall. Can you explain to us what happened and how that was resolved?

I’m glad you brought it up because it gives me a public opportunity to clear it up. It has all been sorted. As a Union, we advise all societies and clubs to have aesthetically pleasing stalls. I felt that we were not living up to the advice that we were giving to our societies based on the aesthetic appearance of our stall. I expressed that to various members of staff – not students – because I felt that we missed a good opportunity for a potentially stronger exposure to Candidate Academy. Various members of staff involved were stretched for time and resources. At the time, I was unappreciative of that but I have cleared it up. I am more than willing to put my hands up when I’ve made a mistake and I’m only going to learn from that.

Is there something you really wanted to implement that you haven’t been able to?

I think everything on my manifesto is something that is achievable. What one typically doesn’t realise whilst writing a manifesto, speaking retrospectively, is that the University and the Union have had conversations about almost all of the points in the past 3-5 years. Because your manifesto is based on your personal experience and research, when you come in you find that the University has passed the stage where your manifesto point applies to their strategy.

“If you can keep the Union on their toes, you’ll have multiple successes”

One of your manifesto points was to offer a third ‘freshers’ fair’. What happened to that?

That is a prime example of what I just said. I was an eager beaver and thought that a third freshers’ fair would be great, but what I was proposing was a temporary solution. A third freshers’ fair would not fix the problem. What is needed is a culture shift and the development of the quality of our current offering. I can confidently admit when I’m wrong and if I came in knowing all the answers, I probably would have annoyed everyone – I wouldn’t be improving myself.

Do you have any advice for future candidates?

Enjoy campaigning. Focus on the reasons why you’re running and don’t get distracted by the competition. My advice is keep your foot on the accelerator regarding postgraduate engagement within the SU. As you know, postgraduates want very similar things to undergraduate students. If you can keep the Union on their toes regarding that, you’ll have multiple successes.

Tamsin Parnell

Image via Impact Images Team

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