Ruth looks for the big picture

Last year Ruth Davies, chair of UNISON’s Water, Environment and Transport service group, graduated from Keele University with a Masters degree in International Relations. She told us about why she did it, what kept her going, and what she’d tell other UNISON members considering postgraduate study…

What made you decide to do a Masters?

I was looking for a challenge, outside of my job and union work, that would be something useful. Perhaps I could have found something else slightly easier to take up as a hobby, but this was a welcome challenge. I have a degree, which I achieved through study with the Open University, so I wanted to see if I could build upon that.

How did you choose your topic?

I saw some information online about courses that were being run at Keele University and they looked interesting. I saw that they ran an MA in Industrial Relations, and decided to follow this up as it’s something that I’m interested in – as a union steward and branch secretary – and I thought I’d like to know more about the ‘theory’ of industrial relations. This was not least as I deal with the reality of trade union issues every day and I wanted to look at the wider picture.

I was aware that UNISON offered support to members for a range of learning opportunities – when I looked to see if there was any support available for this type of course, I discovered that I was able to apply to be considered for a UNISON bursary, which I did. I was so pleased when I received a letter telling me that my application was successful. This support made a massive difference to the affordability of me taking this course on and I remain very grateful for this support.

What was the course like?

The course itself was a part-time course, wholly run by Keele University. This was quite different to my degree experience, which was with the Open University; that was ‘distance learning’ with some short tutorials, whereas the MA at Keele was done with blocks of residential tutorials throughout the two years. At each residential, we left with a pack of resources to use, some recommended readings plus the title of the essay that we had to complete and submit following our residential. So the classroom time was quite limited and was quite intensively packed, but there was time to speak with your tutor in your tutor group too, as well an individually.

Once I was at the stage of writing my dissertation, which was the final piece of work required to pass the MA, everyone had a dedicated supervisor, who was a source of guidance and support. The supervisor who finally got me through to the end of the dissertation, Steve French, was a great source of support.

What was the best thing about doing a Masters?

The best thing about completing a Masters is the sense of achievement when you finally get to apply all of the theory you studied to a topic you chose to write your dissertation about. It is such a rewarding feeling when you start to apply all of that history and theory to something you’re really interested and to explore more fully in your individual research. To be in a group of fellow students all like you (working and studying, as well as supporting fellow union members in the workplace) was great; it was a fantastic community to be part of.

The time commitment can’t be underestimated, to be fair, but I got a lot of personal satisfaction from completing this course, particularly in completing the dissertation. I chose a research topic that I thought would be useful to my own branch and my Service Group; this was about the factors that influence members to becoming engaged in their union branch activities. There is a lot of research material out there across the trade union movement, but I made some enquiries within UNISON and I was in contact with Teresa Donegan, Head of Learning and Organising. Teresa pointed me in the right direction for the latest UNISON work on this area, and between them, Teresa and also David Arnold gave me some very recent UNISON research material that I was able to review as part of my own dissertation.

At the times I felt I was slightly flagging and feeling despondent (some of the issues about members being involved were difficult to think through), the fact that other UNISON reps out there would perhaps have found not dissimilar results if they’d done similar research was slightly comforting. However, we all need to ‘find the solution’ that helps…. Workers and their trade unions remain as important today as when the TUC was established 150 years ago.

What was difficult?

In terms of managing this academic work alongside a full-time job, finding the time is the biggest difficulty. Cramming the reading in when you have the time can take some planning, then writing up the required work requires some organising. Admittedly, you’re not the only one in this position; you do know that all your fellow students are dealing with just the same pressures as you. It helps to remember the fact that this will ‘all be over at some stage’ when the dissertation has been marked, you’ve done it all and life continues.

Did anything surprise you?

In undertaking my research within my own branch, I discovered that what I might find – as a branch secretary – to be something that we were struggling with was actually fairly widely reflected in the experience of other UNISON branches and in other trade union branches. However, disappointing, this research demonstrated that it isn’t just UNISON that needs to engage more widely with young members; this situation applies quite widely. For me, I became a steward at 20 and I’d like to think that this isn’t so unusual…..

Did you ever think of quitting? What helped you keep going?

I did take a break before completing the dissertation to finish the MA. I did leave this slightly longer than I ever expected, but did eventually set out my research question and with the support of the tutors at Keele, completed this work in 2018. I graduated with an MA in July 2018.

What would you say to a fellow UNISON member who was thinking about undertaking postgraduate study?

I would genuinely encourage any fellow UNISON members to have a look into the wider options available for postgraduate study, even if they were just vaguely thinking about it. It isn’t easy, but it is worthwhile. It allows you to stretch yourself and achieve something for yourself. As an activist, I have undertaken a range of really great practical training, to support me in supporting members. Postgraduate study – especially in Industrial Relations – is different to that. It is about getting to the core of how we work as we do, exploring trade union history, and considering the substantial impact that political decisions have always had on how workers organise themselves and on the challenges we face.

Find out more about UNISON’s bursary scheme