20 January 2015

MA Legislative Studies & Practice - Queen’s University Belfast

by Peadar O'Lamhna

Introduction
For those of you unsure of what you want to do after leaving University, don’t worry! I was in the same predicament when I was in final year. After completing a few different internships, I wasn’t fully convinced that working in a law firm was for me but at the same time I wasn’t ready to jump straight into the big bad world of full time employment just yet.
It was over the Christmas holidays, I began to research a Master’s programme combining not only an academic qualification but also that vital work experience that employers desperately crave when seeking to employ a graduate. The MA in Legislative Studies and Practice is a unique course where postgraduate students are given the opportunity to work in the Northern Ireland Assembly full time for an academic year as well as combining academic modules in Queen’s University Belfast.

Peadar O'Lamhna
The Application Process

The application process is fairly simple compared to other courses. Applicants must submit a relatively simple online application form, a copy of their CV and 2 academic references. The hardest part of the application form is that you must explain why you would like to do the course in 500 characters (not words!) – for avid tweeters this is approximately 3 ½ tweets. I approached a lecturer to help with this aspect of the application form and I would strongly advise asking a lecturer to help you with this part.  Another piece of advice that I would give is to check regularly with either Queen’s or your academic referees to make sure that they have submitted your reference for you on time as your application will be deemed incomplete if one or both references do not arrive to QUB before the closing date.  The closing date for this Master’s programme is at the end of May each year. Candidates are not offered places on a rolling basis and all applications are reviewed after the closing date with interviews being scheduled in Parliament Buildings, Belfast for shortlisted candidates towards the end of June each year. The Masters is highly competitive to gain a place and both your interview and application form are taken into account when selecting candidates for the programme. Notification of whether you have been successful will be emailed to you approximately one week after the interviews – the first week in July in my case. This is important to note as you may have offers from other Universities with deadlines for acceptance before these dates. 

Funding

The Masters is funded by the Northern Ireland Assembly who pay all your University fees and also provide a bursary for the year (hence why we are known as Bursary Students within the Assembly). This year the total scholarship is totalling £15,100 (£4,900 fees and £10,200 bursary) however this may change in future years due to budget constraints.  All applicants accepted onto the programme automatically get this scholarship and there are no extra application forms needed. When completing your application form/interview you should ask yourself what makes you the ideal candidate for the Assembly to be willing to sponsor you to partake in this programme.

Day-to-Day Role

There are 8 bursary students this year including one Fulbright Scholar from the US and we are split between various offices in the Assembly Secretariat. As members of the Secretariat staff we are completely independent of politics and work for the Assembly rather than a political party.  At your interview you will be asked which office you would like to work in. There are 3 options available to Bursary Students:

      Bill Office
     Committee Offices
      Research

Bursary students are treated as full time members of staff within our respective offices and we are accountable to Line Managers who monitor our progress. There is no Staff-Student divide within the Assembly and after a week’s induction at the beginning of the year all Bursary Students are expected to produce work that is up to Assembly standard.

Bill Office

One student is assigned to the Bill Office which is a procedural office and assists MLAs who wish to make amendments to Bills that are passing through the Assembly. They also help write the Speaker’s Brief for various Bills so that the Speaker knows what amendments to call votes for depending on which previous amendments have passed. This is by far the most technical of all the placements and involves a few extra weeks of training at the beginning of the placement.

Committee Office

I’m assigned to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee for the year. My main role is to help with the preparation of meeting packs, whether this is gathering documents for inclusion, writing briefs on the effects of statutory legislation or liaising with witnesses who are briefing the Committee.
During the meetings, I take the minutes which are then published to the Assembly’s website and I look after the Committee’s Twitter account. I’ve also helped with the Committee Stage and calls for evidence for the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill and helped write the Committee Report for the Legislative Consent Motion for the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill.
Other Committees this year that have Bursary Students are the Justice Committee (who also have a law graduate) and the Culture, Arts & Leisure Committee although these change annually depending on the requirements of the various Committee Clerks. All Committees work differently to each other so each student’s placement is different and we all have different roles and responsibilities within our respective offices. In some offices, students may have to brief their committee either in public or closed session on an aspect of Committee research.

Research

Four students are based in Research and their main role is to conduct impartial, evidence driven research on behalf of the Assembly Secretariat. They provide Members and Committees with the information they require in order to perform their various legislative and scrutiny roles. So far since the current cohort of students started at the Assembly, one student has written  two papers based on the themes of justice, two on health, two on environment, two equality based papers and one based on the European Union.

Not just an office job…

Being based in the Assembly four days a week does not mean that students are confined to their offices all the time. Each year, the students on the programme organise visits to the Oireachtas and Westminster and each year the Assembly & QUB organise a trip to visit the EU Institutions and various offices connected to Northern Ireland in Brussels. We have also met the BBC Director General and have taken part in a consultation about BBC3 being moved to an online format.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the year so far has been helping to facilitate Let’s Talk Belfast! – a programme where secondary school students visit Parliament Buildings and engage with MLAs in a type of Speed- Dating setting with MLAs being given 7 minutes to set out their party’s policies and answer questions from each table of 16/17 year olds. I’ve also been asked to act as a translator for a focus group that was formed to assist the Committee for Education in compiling a report on Shared Education. We are also able to take part in various workshops that take place for staff within the Assembly and we are due to take part in speech writing workshop within the next few weeks.
Bursary students also have the opportunity to spend a few days in various offices of the Assembly if they so wish. All students participate in a Bill Office and Business Office placement throughout the year and some students in previous years have gone to the Assembly Communications Office and Speaker’s Office as part of their placement.

Every day is different…

Every day within the Assembly is different. Whilst there is some routine with regards Committees as they have weekly meetings, Bills and Research can be very unpredictable as to what’s going to come through the door next. So far this year, we have seen the resignation of the Speaker, the election of a new Speaker, the Stormont House Agreement and parties beginning to plan for the 2015 Westminster Elections. As research deals with MLA research requests, there is really no way of knowing what an MLA is going to ask you to research. The course gives a fantastic opportunity into how a legislature works in practice and what politics in Northern Ireland is really like.

Academic Side of the Course

Students are based in Parliament Buildings four days per week and attend QUB on Friday afternoons. Once a month we have a meeting with the course convenor to discuss issues arising from our placements.
Students complete two modules throughout the year - Government and Institutions of Northern Ireland in Semester 1 and either Issues in European Governance or Ireland and Europe in Semester 2. Each of these modules requires 2 essays to be written. The module in Semester 1 is linked to the placement and is the theory behind the practice i.e. how Committees work, how a bill becomes law, how the Assembly engages in Outreach events. Guest speakers from the Assembly also give seminars for this module on the work of their offices.
As part of our placement we must complete a monthly learning journal, a portfolio of all the work we do throughout the year and a themed report. The themed report is an important piece of work that is of benefit to the Assembly. Report topics this year include post legislative scrutiny, public engagement with the Assembly and the use of minority languages within the Assembly.
At the completion of the Assembly placement, students write a 15,000 word dissertation or project. All themed reports and dissertations/projects are bound and deposited in the Assembly Library for use by Members and staff of the Assembly in the future. Not many students can say that their work is available in a Parliamentary Library!
It is important to note that unlike other QUB students, we do not have the luxury of college holidays or extended mid-term breaks. Whilst QUB students are off until the end of January for example, I was back to the Assembly on January 5th.

Job Opportunities

Whilst the course is specialised, graduates of the course have all gained employment relatively quickly after graduation including some who have gone on to work as Parliamentary Assistants within the Assembly and the European Parliament. One graduate currently works as a Policy Advisor in the Office of the First Minister & deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM) Office in Brussels, whilst another is a journalist with Storyful.

Practicalities

Parliament Buildings  is located in east Belfast approximately 5 miles from Belfast City Centre. Most students in Belfast live in South Belfast beside QUB. There is, however, a Stormont Express Bus that leaves the City Centre every morning at 8:20 and leaves Stormont at 4:55 each evening.

Accommodation in Belfast is much cheaper than Dublin. Students from the Republic of Ireland are guaranteed campus accommodation in QUB. Willow Walk is a dedicated post grad accommodation block with Elms Village located about a 15-minute walk from QUB. Willow Walk is extremely expensive however but there is the added advantage that your bursary can cover this expense and rent can be deducted at source if you make an arrangement with the Accommodation Office in QUB.

Facilities in Queen’s are excellent but as I’m based in Parliament Buildings for most of the week, I have very little time to use them. The McClay Library is open 24 hours from late November and all Post Graduate students have access to the Post Graduate Centre which has a fantastic study space and is never as busy as the library. As Assembly staff members we have access to the Assembly Library which is a great resource and has longer borrowing times than Queen’s Library.

For further information about the course please see the following websites:
Queen's University Belfast: MA in Legislative Studies and Practice

The Northern Ireland Assembly Bursary Programme