AN OPEN LETTER ON THE PERFORMANCE OF THE POSTGRADUATE EDUCATION OFFICER

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The following is an open letter, from a UEA Postgraduate SU volunteer who wishes to remain unnamed, received by The Norwich Radical on 13/03/19. We reproduce it here in full:

It is with deep regret that I write this statement concerning the conduct of one of our elected representatives at the UEA Students’ Union, with whom I’ve worked closely with over this past academic year: Martin Marko, the Postgraduate Education Officer currently standing for re-election. I feel compelled to write this given my responsibility and accountability to postgraduates at UEA as Chair of Postgraduate Committee. While I regret having to comment on Marko’s performance, his lack of professionalism has forced me into a position where either I remain silent and allow him to go unchallenged, or I speak up and make known my experience of working with him this year. It is important for me to make clear that this letter is in no way a comment on the Student Union’s electoral processes nor an endorsement for any other candidate. Nonetheless, given Marko’s decision to stand for re-election, I feel obliged to publish this letter.

First, some context about the position from which I write this. I have been a student at UEA since 2010. Currently I am researching online violence as a PhD student. I am self-funded and as such undertake my study part-time to make space for other jobs to support myself. This has often been extremely difficult. Over the past few years I’ve worked as an Associate Tutor on various modules in HUM. I have taught both undergraduate and masters’ students, supervised MA dissertations, and worked with Student Support Services. I am thoroughly engaged with the university and staunchly committed to my work through the Student’s Union. I have an intimate knowledge of and commitment to the work being carried out by the Courage Project and the Students Union in terms of postgraduate representation, engagement, and mental health initiatives. As the chair of Postgraduate Committee I am a student leader working in the Postgraduate Students’ Union (pg(su)). My remit in this role is described under the Student Union Bylaws; broadly speaking my role is responsible for all events put on by pg(su).

Historically, PGR students have rarely engaged with the SU on any level, but there has been a slight upswing in engagement based on the amazing work of the previous Postgraduate Education Officer, Madeleine Colledge. Given her work I felt motivated to put myself forward for a committee position and do my part for the postgraduate community at UEA. As a female chair in what is frequently a male dominated environment, it has been deeply distressing to see my work and the work of others be co-opted by Marko for his own personal gain. This has been particularly damaging as his behaviour in the role directly inhibits my ability to act as chair.

History In The Role: Marko’s Conduct

I have to reiterate here that my commentary is purely professional in nature, and that all of the information I will be citing is substantiated and supported by public minutes from Union Council, Postgraduate Assembly and Postgraduate Committee. Through my experience of working with Marko, I have been forced to question his competency in his performance of his role. His current re-election manifesto is riddled with inaccuracies and makes spurious claims around the work that he has done in the role.

As the chair of Postgraduate Committee, I carry the responsibility for events and social activities. This is explicitly stated in union policy and was clarified directly to Marko in the second committee meeting of the year. In this meeting I went through the bylaws to lay out the role of each person on committee, including Marko himself. It is damaging, not only to myself but to other committee members, when Marko takes credit for social events which lie directly outside of his remit as an Education Officer, and therefore for the hard work of student volunteers who his behaviour has actively inhibited in their duties as representatives.

Marko’s performance has had a direct effect on not only my own workload but those of the entire Postgraduate Committee, which is made up of postgraduate student volunteers, four full-time officers and one part-time officer. I was elected onto this body at the beginning of the year. As the chair of Committee, it is my job to run meetings, put together an agenda and follow up on action points. This is a job which has been made difficult given Marko’s conduct. As the minutes show, he has frequently failed to attend meetings, failed to update us on action points and failed to submit items on time for the agenda. As a result of his conduct many of the responsibilities historically held by the Postgraduate Education Officer have been taken away from him. The fact that Marko is unable to manage his workload – in particular in terms of social and conference grant applications, which has resulted in delays in paying students – is a black mark on pg(su). Because of Marko’s conduct, being on committee has been a massive drain on my mental and emotional resources at a time where I cannot afford to waste them.

My role on the committee has required sacrificing a great deal of energy and time, and my reward has been to be no-confidenced in the first week of work and to constantly cover Marko’s workload in meetings and via email. This has thoroughly disengaged me from the union itself. It is imperative that Student Leaders feel supported by their elected representatives instead of having to cover for their work. I have persevered and covered for Marko’s failings for two reasons. Firstly, students deserve to have people looking out for their best interests, for example by protecting the Conference Grant Fund. Secondly, I am of the firm belief that when someone wants to keep you out of the room, it is imperative that you stay in it.

One of the most egregious examples of Marko’s conduct is exemplified by the first Postgraduate Committee meeting of this year. Marko proposed an emergency motion to stop the meeting from going ahead. This was undertaken without sufficient notice. Marko stated this was because he believed the ‘committee was not ready to meet’ and ‘with the absences and lack of preparation due to time constraints, the current committee meeting would be insufficient to make appropriate decisions’. This was not a decision taken in light of the committee, but rather because he had booked holiday for that day as he was taking part in another election for NUS. Despite knowing about the meeting in advance of the other Committee members and being in-post since July, his reports were not compiled in any meaningful form. As the minutes show, Marko was wholly unable to speak on any of his agenda items for our inaugural and therefore most important meeting of the year. This would go on to be an issue in many of the following Committee meetings.

In the following Postgraduate Assembly meeting, Marko submitted an emergency motion of no confidence towards the Postgraduate Committee, whilst being absent himself. This in and of itself is highly irregular and democratically questionable, but Marko went further: he also requested that the motion not be disclosed on the agenda before the meeting. He claimed this was necessary based on a facetious argument that the committee were not in line with the bylaws, a claim that has been totally refuted. Subsequently, every single member of Postgraduate Committee was subject to a vote of no confidence. Marko had decided to attempt to remove a democratically elected body of student volunteers after a single meeting for which he was completely unprepared. Unsurprisingly, this action created a toxic and hostile atmosphere. Through the motion, Marko explicitly attempted to divide Postgraduate Taught students (PGTs) from Postgraduate Research students (PGRs) and pit them against each other for a particular political outcome, which would benefit himself. It is without question that Marko sought to remove committee members who he perceived to be making trouble for him. Sadly, this behaviour is in line with the way in which he has comported himself throughout the year.

The minutes from the assembly meeting dated 30/10/2018 show clearly that Marko was requested to bring a formal apology to the next Postgraduate Assembly. He was and still is mandated to ‘explicitly state what he was apologising for and do so in a structured manner.’ To the date of me writing this letter, Marko has not attended another Postgraduate Assembly meeting. Again, this is indicative of the way in which Marko has comported himself as a representative throughout his tenure in the role.

At Union Council on 15th November, a motion of censure was passed against Marko for trying to no-confidence the very body that holds him accountable. Personally I am of the opinion that he brought a vote of no-confidence in the Postgraduate Committee because we insisted he perform the role he was elected to do. The censure is important as it highlights that Marko is aware of his conduct in the role and yet has done nothing to rectify his professional conduct and behaviour.

Attendance

The Postgraduate Education Officer is a full-time, paid position and the meetings of the Postgraduate Committee and Assembly are postgraduate-specific meetings where postgraduates can hold the officer accountable. He is, in effect, being paid to attend them whether he is there or not. When Marko fails to attend a meeting he is letting down not only the Student Leaders that support him but also the postgraduate community. He has failed to attend any Assembly meeting since October 30th, and as such has never apologised to the assembly as he is mandated to do. His attendance at committee has been inconsistent. In total he has attended two out of six Assembly meetings and four out of six Committee meetings this academic year. As the minutes show, he has routinely failed to follow up on action points to which he is mandated to speak. In short, he has failed to come prepared to these meetings.

Campaign for re-election

When Marko released his manifesto for this year’s officer election, I was distressed to see him taking ownership of other people’s hard work, primarily that of postgraduate student volunteers like myself, the previous Postgraduate Education Officer Madeleine Colledge, and the Courage Project. His ownership of work done by the Courage Project is particularly insidious as it is a HEFCE funded project in partnership with the University that Marko is in no way responsible for. I work through his manifesto here to not only highlight inaccurate statements but show where he is explicitly taking credit for my own and others’ work.

The manifesto opens thus:

Hey, I’m your Postgraduate Education Officer. Re-electing me will re-define postgraduate experience at UEA, in the UK, and beyond borders.

Postgraduate Researchers
32 postgraduate students have already received Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training this year.

This work was mandated by last year’s Postgraduate Committee and is packaged as part of the Courage Wellbeing Project. This is outside of his role and he has deliberately worded this statement to skirt election regulation. Marko did not organise this training.

Next, I will liaise with UEA to ensure MHFA and resilience training is open to all postgraduate researchers.

By saying ‘Next’ here he is implying that he has done the above work, breaking the spirit if not the letter of the rules governing electoral procedure. This statement and many of the others throughout the document are meant show that Marko has done work when he has not. It presents a picture that is incorrect and one we should find morally reprehensible. It is deeply problematic to take credit for work done by Student Leaders, especially if it falls outside of the remit of his role.

Resilience training is part of the Courage Project aimed at the improving the experiences of PGRs. The idea of providing MHFA for every PGR was raised in Postgraduate Committee, where I expressed concerns about the difference between providing support for PGRs and training everyone, thereby making them individually responsible for each other’s wellbeing when this should be the responsibility of the university. Instead the Committee decided (with the help of the Activities & Opportunities Officer) to review a form of mental health training that the Activities & Opportunities Officer will be rolling out to sport and society committees and adapting for PGRs and PGTs specifically. Again, this is outside of the remit of the Postgraduate Education Officer.

The Developing Teaching Skills Working Group was launched this month, so PhD students can retain access to quality training and professional accreditation. I will continue to work with UEA to expand and improve the current teaching skills training provision.

Last month, work has also begun on extending access to both online and offline resources for PGRs, however many long-term issues still exist across faculties. I will adopt a university-wide approach to write a new policy on PhD rights, training and teaching contracts – to significantly improve postgraduate research experience at UEA.

Postgraduate Committee frequently ask for updates on the progress of the DTS campaign, but this manifesto is the first update about this working group that we have received from Marko. I find it shocking and dubious that we have only been made aware of the work of this group through this manifesto. Give the situation with the DTS, it is also deeply problematic to use an ongoing negotiation with UEA as an example of Marko’s ‘success’ when we can’t know the outcome or remit of the group. This has the potential to be extremely damaging for UEA-Union relations.

Moreover, the expansion of training resources has not been discussed, nor has it been brought to Committee. All we have heard is that the University has bought an online package from Epigeum and has said they will be discontinuing DTS as of September 2019.

Alongside the serious stuff, it is also important to enhance both social and academic events…

Activities & Events
Last summer, I organised a series of free-entry Graduation Parties open to all UEA postgrads. Now, it’s time to organise and co-deliver an official Postgraduate Winter Graduation 2020!

These events will have been processed by the previous chair of postgraduate committee, Ruth Flaherty, and thus are her responsibility and represents work that she did. It was not within Marko’s remit to organise these events, even though he may have been involved. Yet again he is taking credit for another student volunteer.

UEA just decided to get rid of their winter graduation, which postgraduates never had access to in the first place. Given my role in the current organisation of events for postgraduates, I can comfortably say that the Student Union just doesn’t have the financial or human resources to hold a large scale winter graduation for postgraduates. This is a misleading promise to make to voters.

I also managed to double the capacity of postgraduate yoga and invest in equipment that is free to use, whilst maintaining the cost of classes 50% below the Sports Park equivalent. I will build on this momentum to improve our current provision and further increase the variety of our sports activities.

Sadly, this is false: the capacity at PG Yoga is the same as it was last year. As chair of Postgraduate Committee I have ensured that promotion of our events and limited sports provision for PGs is promoted as much as possible, which has led to sessions being more consistently attended, but attendance certainly has not doubled. Further to this, Marko was asked to provide a plan for expanding on yoga provision in the short term to see whether it was sustainable and if there was demand, but as he did not attend the last committee meeting this has not happened.

Ultimately, I intend to entirely reshape how social and academic events for postgrads are integrated and delivered across UEA, by developing new graduate associations…

This is ambiguous at best. Taken literally this policy represents a huge contradiction to the way in which pg(su) currently works and is thus purely speculative. It is important to note here that we are dealing with someone who attempt to no-confidence their own committee, with a history of non-attendance and non-compliance in their role, again running for an education position on a platform for social events which the role is not responsible for. This suggests that Marko intends to centralise power under the position of postgraduate education officer.

Graduate Associations
My main goal is to design and establish a new graduate association at UEA with Norwich BioScience Institutes’ Student Voice Committees. We have already re-established a link with NBI and held focus groups to review postgraduate representation. This will re-define the postgraduate experience at UEA.

This refers to the old Graduate School Association, which functioned as a separate charity but was subsumed into the current SU for a variety of reasons which Marko is fully aware of – or should be if he has any understanding of his role. It may not even be legally possible for the SU or an officer to advocate for the creation of a separate charitable body.

This section also makes reference to focus groups on postgraduate representation, for which Committee had final approval with little input from Marko in the meetings. Further, those focus groups have not been held yet (as of 11th March) and thus we don’t know what the eventual outcome will be. The broader research aims underpinning these groups are the result of work undertaken by the previous Postgraduate Education Officer, who submitted a piece of policy mandating that postgraduate representation be reviewed, work which is being led by a Postgraduate Committee member. Again this is an example of taking credit for work done by others while producing little of his own.

No link with NBI has been re-established. The Norwich Biosciences Institute purposely dissociated themselves from both pg(su) and the Postgraduate Committee last year, and pg(su) is only meeting with them again over Easter. In fact, this link with NBI is probably going to make things more complicated as they specifically do not want to engage with the Student Union as a democratic body but are interested in being involved with some of the benefits offered to students by pg(su).

Furthermore, I will revive the national postgraduate association, as I have already co-established a national postgraduate officer network, to enable UK postgraduates to join Eurodoc (The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers). As a European student, I will contribute towards improving postgraduate experience beyond borders.

A postgraduate officer network was already in existence. Again Marko is claiming responsibility for the work of others.

Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME)
To follow on from the national postgraduate conference, I will set BAME agenda to feature as an SU Priority Campaign for 2019/20. By collaboration stretching beyond BAME, our SU will help UEA become the leader in advancing BAME agenda in the UK, specifically within postgraduate education.

This is a fantastic aim. However it is work that is already happening within the Student Union, being led by Undergraduate Education Officer Jenna Chapman and members of SU staff. Marko will have been in less than two of the meetings where it has been discussed. Jumping on the bandwagon in the wake of decolonising the academy talks during election season is a poor way to show solidarity with BAME students and staff. Again, the theme of taking credit for the work of others emerges.

Overall, this is the manifesto of someone who has been fundamentally disengaged from much of the work that the Postgraduate Committee is trying to achieve, and caused a great deal of personal distress to myself and others. Ultimately, I don’t care who is elected to this position this year. However, I feel compelled to share my experience of Marko’s role in creating a hostile, alienating atmosphere at the beginning of the year, and to show how his manifesto takes credit for all the work done to cover for him not doing his job, using it as a tool for personal and political gain.

Featured image credit: UEA pg(su)


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One thought on “AN OPEN LETTER ON THE PERFORMANCE OF THE POSTGRADUATE EDUCATION OFFICER

  1. Hostile and alienating is right. The early upset caused, but then also the aggressive response from committee members were both horrible. As another person in those early assemblies, I understood maybe not accepting the apology that was given there and then, but the way committee members took over the agenda by repeating the exact same complaint they’d already said moments before was very frustrating. This letter makes out that a formal apology was a way to move forwards, but sentiments after the apology I heard in the assembly rather suggested that for Martin to quit was the only result some members were prepared to accept. It’s a shame to see that grudge has now even gone as far as suggesting he’s not genuinely passionate about BAME agendas.

    Also in the assemblies, it was argued by the committee that its PGR members speak for PGT students, because they used to be in that position and therefore know the issues they face. Putting yourself in the shoes of a PGT student in the room, it’s probably not the best thing to hear someone you don’t know claiming to speak for you and know the specific issues you have – and not helpful in terms of research and taught student cohesion, which this letter puts the blame solely on Martin for ruining.

    What’s more, I found that the committee conducts the assemblies in a kind of pompous, western corporate manner and language that is not so accessible, which the committee seem to be well versed in and maybe assume that students from other backgrounds should be able to slot into comfortably. This can also be alienating.

    So I stopped going to the assemblies actually because of the committee + friend group, who have never spoken to me, whereas it was Martin who talked to me and encouraged me to try engaging with the union.

    I will probably be attacked for commenting as I have, but I find it too ridiculous that the committee doesn’t reflect on its own role in ramping up and perpetuating a hostile atmosphere for people outside of that clique.

    Like

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