Sarah McIntosh is the Postgraduate Education Officer and is completing her masters degree in Gender and Media. She is a political activist and feminist and says that being at Sussex has encouraged her to be more proactive in activism than she had in the past.
Q: What does the Postgraduate Education Officer do for students?
A: As Postgraduate Education Officer, I am an advocate for all postgraduate taught and postgraduate research students at the University of Sussex. I am there to make sure that their voices are heard, that their rights are protected and to ease their circumstance, so that the only thing they have to worry about are their studies.
Whilst my area is specifically related to educational matters, we have a team of people at the Union that can help, so if I’m not the right person, I can guide them to someone who can!
Q: In your manifesto, you pledge to abolish tuition fees. Is this pledge too ambitious?
A: I realise that in my manifesto, I have some quite big ambitions, particularly with regards to the idea that abolishing tuition fees is a possibility. However, as can be seen from the last election with the Labour Party having it as part of their manifesto, it’s not a pipe dream. It’s not a utopian fantasy. There are pragmatic ways in which it can be achieved and not at the expense of those who are already experiencing financial hardship.
I believe that education is a right and not a privilege and it upsets me to think that there are people who want access to education but are prevented from doing so because of their financial circumstance. A meritocracy is all well and good if the playing field is a level one.
Saying students should have free education is not about getting stuff for free. We’re a community and perhaps the taxpayers money is going to pay those student fees to begin with, but those students will feed back to our society, supporting the older generations and paying tax for the next forty or fifty years. It is not a case of young people freeloading, it’s a case of investing in the future of our society.
Q: What made you get involved in activism?
A: When I was living in Cambridge, I set up a short film night to promote female filmmakers. I had previously completed a four year undergraduate degree in Film Studies and I had never been told that the first person to have ever made a narrative film was a woman. No one had even mentioned her name to me before! That’s what sparked me into being politically engaged; I then started asking ‘what can I personally do about it?’ and in my small way, I used my skills and experience to try and make this issue better.
Coming to Sussex, I became political in a more general sense. I started to see the links between all issues of marginalisation, identity, oppression and unjust situations, and that the issue of gender equality was just one particular strain of a much bigger problem.
Q: How do you plan on expanding on previous successes in decolonising education in the year ahead?
A: I think the main thing for me is to make sure that the achievements over previous years don’t go by the wayside. I am very aware that I am not a person of colour and perhaps it is not my place to be at the absolute forefront of such a campaign, but I want to support it and to help it in any way that I can and I strongly believe that decolonising education is not just a benefit to people of colour but to all people, because we are getting more than one homogenous voice.
Q: What proposals do you have for creating a special place for postgraduate students?
A: It is a tough one! Obviously, the University is undergoing big change with new building works and the intake keeps increasing year on year, which puts added pressure on what resources are available at the University. I am under no illusion that we are going to find a solution at the moment that will satisfy everyone, because there aren’t enough buildings to be able to do that, but I would like to speak to the right people and find ways to work out where there are ways to make things better than they are, not necessarily perfect.
I think there must be ways where we can better use space on-campus to benefit postgraduate students. I come to this role with 15 years of experience in the working world in an administrative and office environment and I think that can be an advantage to have the skills to network and seek out the relevant people to find ways to work with the University.
Q: In your manifesto, you suggest that the Union should work with other unions on campus. How will students benefit from this?
A: We should recognise that the University is a community of people, so what benefits one benefits all. Issues around staffing will affect students. For example, a good portion of postgraduate research students are employed as Associate Tutors, so they are in this weird limbo land of sort of being a student and sort of being a University staff member. There is a risk that that relationship could be used to the advantage of whoever wants to use it. If it is an advantage to a University to consider them students, then maybe that’s what they’ll consider them, but in another circumstance, it might benefit them to be considered as staff and then they become staff.
Working together with unions like UCU, who are a trade union for academic staff, will allow us to help each other on areas that affect us both. Also on campus, we have support staff, who may be with the Unison or Unite trade unions. Having stronger bonds with all of us working together makes sure we can protect each other.
If somehow it becomes easier to dismiss the staff and all of a sudden you have PhD students who might lose their supervisors, you have a lack of continuity for students who are on modules. Staff matters can be student matters and student matters can be staff matters. We’re all in it together!
Q: Do you think the Union should be reaching out more to postgraduate students?
A: I think both the University and the Union have a tendency to prioritise undergraduates and I have already been trying to push to change that through things like Freshers. Being a mature student as well as a postgraduate, I don’t really want to be going on a pub crawl at my age! There are already quite a range of events for students during Freshers Week, and I want to make this even better for postgraduate students.
Also postgrads, especially mature-aged postgrads, have other priorities. They might be married and have families; it’s very easy for those groups to feel alienated from the community of the University or that there’s no space for them to be involved. There could be more done to support them. They are a smaller percentage of students in the University, but they’re usually people who care so much about education that they’ve sacrificed a hell of a lot more to be here.
Q: You took several years away from education before starting your undergraduate degree. Why did you decide to do that?
A: I got to the end of school and everyone was going to university and nobody could really tell me why they were going. They were just going because that’s what you do and I think my interests and passions had always been around things that people hadn’t considered worthy of someone from my background as studying.
Coming from a working class background, the idea of going to study film was laughable, because you needed to do something stable and secure, something that was going to lead to a career. I never even considered university as an option, as a result, and I went into the air force instead. Both of my grandfathers had been in the British military and I knew it would be something that would make my dad happy.
However, I was desperately unhappy in the air force and at the age of 29, I had this revelation and asked myself ‘why can’t I go and study film?’. Even if it didn’t lead to a career, I would have had fun for four years and gained a lot of knowledge and experience. It was like some chains had been broken when I realised that it was possible!
Q: What advice do you have to new postgraduate students starting at Sussex?
A: Get involved! There’s so much opportunity and things to get involved with here. There are usually greater outside commitments for postgraduates, but if they do have the time and ability to do so, there is so much on offer here at the University. It is all too easy to think I haven’t got time for that and to end up feeling alienated from it all but getting involved in extracurricular things is, for me, part of the whole experience of being at university here. It’s almost as important as the studies themselves! They are a learning experience too.