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‘I want a head of pastoral care in every department’: An interview with Jaz Catlow

Jaz is running partway through her degree

Running for Education Officer in the current Students' Union elections, chemistry student Jaz Catlow is running partway through her degree, driven by her experience in and passion for education.

She told The Sheffield Tab about changes she would make to extenuating circumstances, why she feels she is right for the role, and what her vision for education at uni looks like.

What’s inspired you to run for Education Officer?

So I’ve done a lot of work in my department in Chemistry as an academic representative and I’ve been a rep for two years, so during that time I’ve increased student feedback response rates by 40%. I created a new feedback survey for staff and it’s got a great uptake, I’ve brought it to other departments. And I’ve done a lot of work into accessibility and support services at the university.

I'm currently co-writing an article about the accessibility barriers faced by disabled students as researchers, and I’m the undergraduate on the senate academic insurance committee so I’m quite up to date with policies, external examiners, and course accreditation processes. When I received two nominations for SU officer, I looked into the role more and realised how suited I was to Education Officer and how well my experiences fit with the role, and actually all the work I do with academic committees and faculty learning and teaching committees all tie into the work of the Education Officer. The next step was obviously drafting a manifesto, and I realised I had a lot of ideas to come up with and a lot to bring to the table. I want to increase representation of students, and as a disabled student myself I want to increase accessibility to students.

What are your key policy points?

So I’ve got four key themes: your access in education, a university that cares, making your voice heard, and enhancing your studies. Of those four themes, my key ideas are lobbying the university to increase study spaces by opening up empty lecture theatres and seminar rooms during exams. I know this is possible because it’s already been tried in maths before. We just need to increase awareness of this, and better publicise the lecture theatres that are open to use.

Another policy is increasing the number of part-time and long-distance study options across departments. There are plenty of reasons why students can’t commit to full time study – financial commitments, medical conditions – and by increasing options we make higher education more accessible to these students. So they don’t have to pick subjects based on contact hours, they can study what they want to study. Especially in STEM this is really important, and my department weren’t sure why they don’t do part time study already. It's just planting these ideas to keep things moving.

I want to introduce a Careers Week to departments that don’t already have a Reading Week. It’s a completely original idea. I found that final year students don’t have the time to apply for placements or grad jobs alongside studies because its’ the most intense year. So actually by giving these students a week out of their studies, not only can they catch up with mental health and course commitments, they can take the time for careers. My own department has trialled a reading week but said students didn’t need it, but if I show the department why this is so important and students in their final year especially need this time, I think it’s achievable.

Another key policy is having a head of pastoral care in every department. Some departments already have heads of pastoral care, but it’s really important we prioritise student mental health by making sure support for all students is standardised and particularly for department where personal tutor contact time is pretty low, it’s important there’s a member of staff where it’s their duty.

What are you proudest of about the SU, and what does it need to change most?

The thing that’s stood out to me most is how student voice is at the centre of every decision that is made. I’ve seen this first hand working with the academic rep system to see how things are changed to accommodate students and better support them. I’m really lucky to work within a Union that is so happy to accept other ideas and take feedback, and as a student worker my opinion is really valued. I work with a system that’s constantly changing and updating to suit student needs in the presents.

I think the Students’ Union is quite far ahead of the University in terms of representation, and actually what I want from the Students’ Union is transferring that to departments and to faculties, which is why most of my ideas are so focused on increasing student representation and increasing student support within their own departments.

And what would you change about extenuating circumstances?

At the moment there is a really big disparity across departments about their approach to extenuating circumstances and the support they provide. This really needs standardising so the approach of departments is the same. They forget students talk across departments and they see what is acceptable with some and are confused when it’s not the same. It’d make it much clearer for students and for staff, and I’ve had to access extenuating circumstances myself multiple times.

Every time, the staff have been just as confused as I was about how they can actually support me. On top of this, there needs to be greater publicity that this is actually a thing. I could have accessed extenuating circumstances in my first year, but I had no idea what it was, and when my exams were, and I think the guidance for freshers needs to be so much greater because they’re left in the dark about a lot of really important support networks.

Anything else you’d like to add?

As the only Education Officer candidate who is running partway through her degree, I will feel the impact of every change that I make if you vote for me. So know that all of my policies I completely believe in and I want to see change by the time I come back into my fourth year.