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‘Having been a seminar tutor, I’ve seen the decline in conditions first-hand’: An interview with Chris Olewicz

He’s running for Education Officer

It’s unusual to see anyone over the age of 21 run in an SU election, but Chris Olewicz is not a usual candidate.

The 32-year-old did his undergraduate studies at Hallam, and last month finished an American History PhD which he started in 2010. He has also worked full and part time for a disability charity.

Amid the battle for the position of Education Officer, Chris told us about his experiences at uni, as a seminar tutor, and why he thinks you should lend him your vote.

How have you found the campaign so far?

In spite of the things getting in the way, such the strikes affecting lecture shoutouts, I think it’s gone really well. In the door-knocking we’ve been doing, it’s been really positive and welcoming. First and second years seem engaged and want to know what you’re going to do.

What inspired you to run for this position?

I submitted my PhD at the end of January and thought I’d give it a go this time. Through the PhD I’ve been a student but also a seminar tutor, I think I’ve seen some of the impact that the marketisation of education and the casualization has had on the university experience, and I’d like to lobby the university to preserve the teaching quality and the student experience at the university.

What would be the focus of your lobbying?

Employability is a big passion of mine, and the Education Officer role in particular is a role where employability is important, because it’s not only what you learn while at uni, it’s being given an opportunity to apply it.

I’m a big fan of equality because of that work, and the university has made progress on that in some areas, particularly gender, but there’s a lot of things they need to do in terms of international backgrounds.

There’s a recently credited accreditation called the Race and Equality Charter. Sheffield Hallam has signed up to it, along with about 40 universities around the country, but the University of Sheffield hasn’t.

I think the University needs to do more to welcome international students beyond the #WeAreInternational campaign. Some of the feedback on that campaign has been quite negative from international students and staff, in terms of what tangible outcomes does it have, or is it just tokenistic?

What do you make of the other candidates and policies?

The Race and Equality Charter was born out of the Athena Swan charter, focused on helping women in STEM subjects, and so I think Anna is very right to praise that work and try and expand it.

George is a very passionate campaigner, and they have got some laudable policies. They’re very ambitious. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think the short period you’re in office for, you have to think what you can achieve personally.

Where do you stand on the strikes?

I am a UCU member, and I do support the strikes for three reasons.

The first is that to get the best education, you want your teachers to be 100 per cent focused on teaching you, and they can’t do that while their pension is under threat. Whatever you think about, if that’s a fair pension, it’s what they signed up to.

The second is, having been a seminar tutor, I’ve seen myself how the decline in conditions for seminar tutors has affected seminar teaching. On average, I’d say your average seminar tutor is only paid for the half the time it takes to mark an essay. Only paid for half the time it takes to prep the seminar. You either compromise on the quality of the prep, or you work for free.

And the third reason is opening universities up to market forces, which has lowered the standard of teaching, the availability of modules, and the time it takes to get feedback. A current example of that is the Germanic Studies department. They’ve had four academics leave in the last two years and they’ve not been replaced.

So what you’ve got is people having signed up for a course and suddenly finding they’re not getting any contact hours, feedback is taking six months plus to arrive, modules they’d have liked to have taken have just disappeared, and they’re at their wits’ end for what that’s going to mean for their degree.

Which policy is most important to you and why?

The one I’d like to focus on most is the Race and Equality Charter. I was at KCL before Christmas and they had a BME Wall of Fame, which was celebrating BME students and academics at the university. And Sheffield wouldn’t be able to do that, because, and I don’t know about male professors, but the university doesn’t have a single BME woman professor. On average, one in five university students are BME. Which is probably why Sheffield hasn’t signed up to the Charter already.

There’s also an issue with employability. The University does a lot of on campus placements and little jobs in departments and some of the international students find that process isn’t transparent.

Broader to that, there’s an issue in the University that different departments offer their students different things. I don’t think that’s fair.

Where do you stand on the NSS?

I don’t think it’s fair to place students in such a serious position where their feedback in the survey defines how much money the university gets awarded. I’m personally against the NSS, but at the end of the day it’s a personal choice whether you want to fill it in or not. I don’t think students should be punished for filling it in. But I think it’s a fundamentally flawed strategy.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think the Education Officer’s role is to try and do all that they can to ensure students get the best out of their time at the University of Sheffield and lobbying the university to ensure that they offer a certain standard of education.