By Greg Gilles
I want to start by once again thanking everyone who donated to New Classicists’ Help 4 PG Students campaign. So many generous people have donated funds to help struggling students and it has really been a heart-warming experience to receive your donations and distribute them to students who were, and still are, in dire need. I also want to give a special thanks to The Classical Association, and in particular James Robson and Jane Fortuna, who really went out of their way to support this cause and donate so generously. The campaign helped over 150 students from all over the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as a few students in the US, Canada, Brazil, Australia, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Some students needed as little as £50 to help them buy groceries and some needed much larger amounts to help them pay rent, bills and support themselves and their families in times of financial crisis.
It is difficult to comprehend how April 2nd will mark one year since I started this campaign and yet the UK is still in lockdown and countries all over the world have experienced, and are still experiencing, varying degrees of hardship as a result of Covid. I think we can all agree that the world is vastly different now, for the worse and for the better, but the impact that Covid has had on postgraduate students is staggering and multifaceted. If I use my own experience as an example, and I am fully aware that many students have had worse times than me lately, I went from having 3 part-time jobs to having no income at all for several months. Since none of these jobs were permanent, I couldn’t receive any of the financial aid packages offered by the government, meaning that I lost all my expected income overnight. Luckily, I had a partner who could still work and afford to keep us afloat, but not every student has that luxury. When the first UK lockdown started in late March last year, I spoke to some postgraduate friends and they told me they were experiencing the same problems. Their incomes had completely vanished and they didn’t know how they were going to get through the next few months with bills still needing to be paid. And so, Help 4 PG Students was started!
I will be the first to admit that reading testimonials from students in need of financial help has not always been a pleasant experience. Some students really were, and still are, in dire need. Without going into great detail, and to keep these communications completely private, the situations some students were in reminded me of all the personal historical accounts I had read of people surviving in London during and after WWI and WWII. I know this may sound rather dramatic, but there definitely were similarities. What is often overlooked is that not every postgraduate student is financially able to support their studies without working part-time, or even full-time. Nor is it always acknowledged that many PG students are mature students, often with their own families and all the obligations that that entails. Yes, scholarships are available, and they help enormously, but times of crisis really show that this scheme hangs on a very loose thread, especially for students’ whose funding has stopped in their writing up year. What I also found baffling was how convoluted and personal some university hardships were, particularly at the start of the first lockdown. Not every student can, or wants to, supply their financial records, proof of loss of employment and a letter from their academic supervisor to show that they need help getting through a difficult financial period.
Perhaps more frustrating was the fact that many Classics departments ceased all GTA employment when universities reopened for the 2020/2021 academic year. If denied employment and career development opportunities, how are postgraduate students to survive? Every student nearing the end of their PhD, as well as many early career researchers, will tell you that the present job market requires (extensive) teaching experience. Unfortunately, new limitations on postgraduate teaching opportunities will mean limited future employment prospects for many. Asking postgraduate students to volunteer their time in order to carry out work that used to merit payment is not the answer, and is frankly insulting.
There are many things that I want to say about the future of our field and how postgraduate students are being left behind. However, all I will do is thank those that are telling us that Classics needs to change, but without providing a roadmap for how that change can be implemented. All that is happening is that students who looked forward to a bright academic future are instead pursuing different avenues and leaving Classics altogether. I may be one of them, and I know many PG students who are also leaving the field because there doesn’t seem to be a place for us. But I digress and am bordering on the very angry version of this article that I wrote for the CUCD in August last year. Thankfully, Susan Deacy made me see how that article could never see the light of day.
I will leave you instead with the hope that the future of Classics will shine bright and that postgraduate students everywhere will be able to forge a place for themselves in that future. I will also leave the last word to one of the students who benefited from the Help 4 PG Students campaign. They wanted to thank the generous donors, as many others did. Their words mirror those of the many students who were helped by so many amazing people in the last year.
“I applied to the New Classicists support grant as I found my studies extended due to COVID restrictions at my university, this meant I could not finish my dissertation. As a master’s student, I am not eligible for long course loans from the SFE and so, this non-optional extension had to be entirely self-funded. I reached out to the New Classicists as I was already in my overdraft and needed funds to continue subsisting. This was amplified due to my parents, who I live with to afford masters study, being clinically vulnerable and one parent having a subsequent medical emergency soon after the beginning of lockdown. Having a vulnerable household comes with it increased costs such as food delivery fees and transportation in order to protect them. The funds provided by the grant were primarily used for food and electricity bills throughout the pandemic. I have been extremely fortunate to be supported by the New Classicists grants and I am eternally grateful to all who have donated, without them it is certain I would have been unable to finish my postgraduate course.”
The opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own and do not reflect those of the rest of the New Classicists team, nor those of the student who provided their statement of thanks.