My Year As A Student Leader In Cambridge University

Joy is found not just in finishing a journey but in undertaking it.

I feel the same for my time as Chair of the Executive Committee and Vice-President of the University of Cambridge Graduate Union, which has been quite eventful. I began in January 2019, on my fourth stint as an elected student leader of the student unions of Cambridge (I had been on the Students’ Union Society of St. Stephen’s College in India previously, as well), and some ten Union Councils later, I am as excited and dedicated to accomplishing the tasks of student representation, leadership and welfare.

This journey has given me a perspective not only on education policy, but also on leadership and liberation activism like few others stints could have.

In my role, the first major area of work for me has been on housing and living expenses. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for every student in the University. In the beginning of my term, I started the GU Housing and Living Expenses (HALE) campaign, with a GU Council motion and policy. We reached out to our membership with an article published in Varsity early in the year to increase awareness of the realities of student housing.

We obtained an early win in the Phased Deposit scheme for private providers who advertise with the University Accommodation Centre. In the last few months, we have developed and distributed a housing toolkit for MCRs. We have also been lobbying for transparency in housing and living expenses by informing prospective students seeking affiliation with a college about aspects such as number and kinds of rooms available and rent ranges.

I have also been consolidating the Graduate Rights campaign of the University of Cambridge Graduate Union. This year, I have worked with stakeholders from across the University, including the University Counselling Services, to look at various aspects of Graduate Rights, particularly around awareness building.

Firstly, clear expectations are a crucial part of a good postgraduate research student experience. To this end, a major achievement under the Graduate Rights campaign this year, has been that after sustained campaigning by us, the University now has an official ‘Research and Resources Overview’ form.

Secondly, as part of the campaign, I have also been working on improving training modules for students in research courses and making it more accessible to students. With the help and support of the Students’ Unions’ Advice Service, we have been able to get Epigeum courses, such as the ‘Managing your Research Supervisor or Principal Investigator’ course, for research students and staff transferred to Moodle (which can be accessed just with a Raven ID).

We were also able to secure the anonymous student feedback on supervisors and supervisions, which I and other GU officers have been campaigning and lobbying for. The University’s new pilot enables postgraduate students to provide anonymous feedback, through their College Graduate Tutors to, or directly through, the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA), which will then be shared with the Department or Faculty.

Besides these three wins, I launched a petition on Mandatory Supervisor Training for supervisors of all postgraduate research students, since that every student deserves good supervision, and received significant support from students. In what I regard as my biggest win as a student leader in the University of Cambridge, the steering committee of the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning (CCTL) has kickstarted the procedure for implementing this! This will hopefully create a culture of responsibility and welfare within research projects for years to come.

As part of the Graduate Right and Welfare campaign, I also released the Personal Welfare Handbook for students that I worked on last year, from my time as the GU Part-Time Welfare Officer.

Lastly, working on a policy I passed this year, I have been working on departmental welfare, particularly lobbying for the establishment of one welfare champion in each department for welfare signposting, accessible to all students. This is particularly important since many postgraduate students are more closely connected with their departments and not colleges, where most welfare support systems are made available, in Cambridge.

Department of Physics, units of Addenbrookes Hospital and MCR Laboratory have already implemented this, while engineering, biomedical sciences and some humanities departments are working with us on this.

Postgraduate students often undertake demonstrations and supervisions in Cambridge, for work experience and some extra money to help with their subsistence and finances. I myself supervised IA Laboratory students in Cavendish for two years.

Although my department had a very transparent way of appointing demonstrators and supervisors, there are places where such appointments are not done consistently. To counter this, as part of the Graduate Rights campaign, I have been working and campaigning on fair appointments to teaching and research opportunities (besides their primary project, in the case of research students) for students in the University of Cambridge, and the University has now heard this demand! A digest of good practice in ensuring equitable access to teaching opportunities will be compiled from Faculties and Departments and circulated very soon, by assent of the Senior Tutors’ Committee.

Over the past few months, I campaigned persistently to promote and move forward this important work with the help of the University and College Union, particularly Sandra, as part of leading the GU Graduate Rights Campaign – which has churned out so many wins this year for me, as a sabbatical officer, and for the Graduate Union, as an organization! This is after the University accepted the campaign-points on anonymous feedback and reporting, setting expectations with the Research and Resources Overview (R&RO) form and accessible training modules for students.

The recent step on fairness in appointments to positions of student-teachers is in line with the motion passed in March 2019 on “fair access to teaching opportunities for postgraduates” and anticasualisation. I have also been leading the GU campaign on anti-casualisation. I proposed and helped pass policy on this, back in March 2019. As a follow up on this policy, the Graduate Union worked with Cambridge UCU on the Raise the Bar initiative for all workers on casual or temporary contracts. You can read more about our demands here.

As a BAME student in Cambridge, in the past four years, there have been times when I felt the presence of unconscious bias and subtle racism in the University space. Speaking out and breaking the silence on things such as unconscious bias in the University space should not be an issue. I felt this was a priority point for me and therefore spearheaded a new campaign called Campaign for Race Equality and Awareness using Training and Engagement (CREATE).

Under CREATE, there are three major areas of focus: showcasing postgrad BME voices and experiences within the university, eliminating unconscious bias and discrimination within the university and creating communities of support for BME postgraduate students. In Michaelmas 2019, we began the campaign by working with departments and college MCRs to look at training on race equality, along with looking at best practices in colleges and standing up against instances of racial discrimination of students in the Collegiate University.

As the Union’s primary engagement officer, engagement with the students is key to what took up a lot of my time. As part of our new engagement policy, I initiated engagement drop-in sessions and covered various places around the University, from Darwin College to Girton College, West Café to the Buttery. I have had extensive engagement sessions with the MCRs at various points in the year as well.

In my capacity as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Graduate Union, I have worked with a great team of volunteers in the form of our executive committee members. Representing 12,000 students would not have been possible without their support and work! I have also made changes in the functioning of the executive committee by promoting greater accountability, with a Progress Card by each part-time officer at every executive committee meeting, and launching an intersectionality forum of liberation executive committee officers. I have also been working with Faculty Representatives on academic welfare and issues in the Collegiate University.

However, one thing that stands out, arguable above all else, is that I was part of a historic move recently: the merger of the two student unions of Cambridge, on the postgraduate and undergraduate sides, thereby bringing the representation of around 25000 students under a common umbrella, both on paper and hopefully in practice. This is the first time in the eight centuries of the existence of the University of Cambridge that such a thing has happened. I am happy to have been spearheading the initiative, along with the 7 other primary student leaders.

After a University-wide referendum, we successfully have triggered the process to merge the two Students’ Unions of Cambridge University, the GU and CUSU, and created a new single union, Cambridge SU. I was there when the idea was first conceived, months back, still with lingering memories of hearing stories about the last time such a referendum had been unsuccessfully undertaken, before my time. I was one of the most outspoken critics of the proposal but slowly contributed to formulating and helping evolve the proposal over the last 5 months with other student leaders of Cambridge.

This involved engaging with several students across Cambridge, in various drop-in sessions, MCR meetings and miscellaneous engagements. This was a victory that would not have been possible without the two unions and the various liberation campaigns and societies. Hope this win contributes to good representation of students in the University.

This is one of my last wins as my term slowly comes to an end, having helped establish the GU Housing and Living Expenses campaign, the Campaign for Race Equality and Access through Training and Engagement (CREATE), the Raise the Bar Anticasualisation initiative and  Executive Committee reforms, besides securing the GU Housing Toolkit for MCRs (Middle Combination Rooms), GU Personal Welfare Handbook, mandatory supervisor training, various provisions in the Code of Practice for research students, form for setting expectations in the form of the Research and Resources Overview Form, initiative for promoting fairness in appointments to teaching and research opportunities, work on departmental welfare and establishment of Welfare Champions in various departments of Cambridge, campaigning for anonymous feedback reporting on supervisors and securing a pilot project from the University on this, improving training modules for research students, creation of intersectionality forum in the University of Cambridge Graduate Union as well as work on academic fora and with Faculty Representatives.

The last couple of years have also been special due to four things:

  1. I was selected among the 35 under 35 UK-India Youth Leaders, by India Inc and Infosys, in 2018. This was to recognize my work in science research and popularisation as well as student leadership and activism.
  2. I helped relaunch the Cambridge Majlis, which was a historic society where the likes of Gandhi and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose once spoke. This was after the society had become defunct soon after the India-Pakistan War of 1971.
  3. I was featured in a science popularisation talk on Quantum Physics by Doordarshan, the national television broadcaster of India, with around 165 million viewers. This was to increase awareness and interest of students across the country towards the subject.
  4. On November 25, 2019 the UNESCO Global Convention on Higher Education was adopted. This is a huge milestone in the field of education and will help ensure the right to education worldwide by facilitating people’s access to higher education. I was featured in the film leading up to the convention being adopted.

As I come to the close of my life as a student and student-leader in Cambridge, I would like to acknowledge all the blessings that I have received from all and sundry, over time. I hope my work has made, and shall continue to make, systemic and cultural changes that benefit and help students in the University of Cambridge and beyond.

Jai Hind!

Featured image provided by the author.
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