If Canadian grad student unions ever embrace their role to lobby for better grad ed, they can take inspiration from the student movement which changed economics education, the discipline of economics and maybe even world politics.
Canadian graduate student unions (and undergrad student unions) can lobby for pluralism in economics education. Three economics students from Manchester, UK set a model for the kind of analysis sorely missing in academic advocacy for graduate programs.
In their book, The Econocracy, the students review economics education in the Russel group of British universities to point out critical failures in undergraduate economics education. Instead of learning to critique models of ‘the economy’ students learn economics orthodoxies, in a kind of indoctrination toward a ‘priesthood’. The priest-like function of university trained economists using airless models of mathematical purity lacks both a heart and a connection to the real world. Economics orthodoxies failed to predict, explain or care about the ravages of the global economic collapse in 2008. The writers understand better than their Manchester professors:
“The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists” attributed to Joan Robinson who taught economics to future Nobel laureates [page 157].
The movement to change economics education arose from a narrowing of the discipline in the 1970s. Pluralism in economics calls for more critique of economics models, more connection to lay persons left out of the jargon and decisions of economists and more context in economics education in terms of history, ethics and psychology.
Although the UK suffered economic devastation from the global 2008 financial crisis, the writers of The Econocracy noticed their economics courses failed to explain or care about suffering the 2008 crisis brought on. As students driven to understand via critique & connection & context, they went about learning the stuff not taught in their official economics courses, reviewing economics education and its failure to bridge a gap to the real world.
The fusion of the word economics with bureaucracy into the word econocracy sums up the power given to university trained economists in political decisions and governments. Some economics students in the Manchester group studied economics to get an inside track on power at the highest level of decision-making. The Manchester students noticed their ‘outsider’ status and rejected the closed off, elite, shut out nature of economics training offered to them.
Discontent with the quality of economics courses led to a lobby for better content and spun out to touch many influential economists, economics educators and other student groups. Economics students internationally soon coalesced into the International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics. The many German chapters of The International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics are an influential force in economics within the country. The Rethinking Economics organization also knits together many cells of student activism globally.
Students of economics helped to redefine the discipline so it better fits to reality and got luminaries like the chief economist of the Bank of England, a Nobel laureate in economics and Noam Chomsky onside. Ignorance of an economics connected to real world threatens us all in decisions taken by politicians on the advice of a priestly caste of economists. Pluralistic economics education makes for sounder, more inclusive political decisions.
The student movement stirred up economics education. To broaden economics training and thinking, many university economics departments now offer a broader range of courses to provide a pluralistic perspective. Accompanying the pluralism in economics movement, of course, is pushback against pluralism. Graduate students in economics can pivot the discipline toward greater pluralism.
One problem with getting economics professors to offer greater pluralism is they can’t. Training in the mono-culture of the existing discipline prevents pluralism from coming forth in teaching and breeds more mono-culture. Embracing pluralism begins in graduate school, with new practitioners of economics who will broaden the scope of economics education. Graduate students in economics can embrace pluralism with new pluralistic research and in teaching undergrads to critique, through context and connection.
Academic officers of Canadian graduate student unions please take inspiration in the activism of students of economics to question, influence and change academic programs. Note one graduate student website, The Minskys from which new thinking about economics and economics education may take hold. Canada has yet to catch fire with groups networked to reform of economics education. Graduate Student Unions can network, introduce and aid students of economic to get in touch with international groups, projects, and new curricula. This would be a good start on grad ed advocacy.
Graduate student unions in Canada have yet to respond to economics students critiquing economics education and get behind pluralism as a solution. Advocacy from a graduate student union to embrace pluralism offers a proactive, positive solution to members who trust the union to look out for their economics education. Academic officers in graduate student unions can take inspiration from the power of disparate groups of international students to come together and make change in their discipline.
Canadian graduate student unions must finally take on advocacy for better graduate education. For example, the throw ’em in the deep end approach to graduate education which fails so many students somehow never makes it on the radar of Canadian graduate student unions. With inspiration from the pluralism in economics education movement, academic actors for grad unions can expect success with their graduate education lobby too.
The Manchester students took an activist stance toward their economics education. Instead of dropping out, they moved to the place of a curious, competent and critical student. They had enough confidence and solidarity in each other to challenge orthodoxy in their education. Canadian grad student leaders can certainly do the same and take heart in their success.
What would change if Canadian grad student leaders asked, “How do you evaluate, update, improve, study, learn, contribute to knowledge and stay current in grad ed?” Perhaps deans and program heads are just waiting to say, “We never thought you’d ask. Now that you’ve asked, let’s fill this void…”
Grad students have very little information on how their university learns about its grad ed programs. How do grad programs make their programs better? , how do universities determine their research training programs fit the world of 21st century research? What process does the university use for program renewal?
The University of Toronto advertises the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Satisfaction Survey by way of its performance evaluation. Really? Why isn’t the UTGSU graduate student leaders in other Canadian universities demanding better? The info gleaned in the CGPSS is too vague and aggregated to bring about renewal for one. For two, the survey aims more for reassuring information like comparisons. For three, the survey fails to address renewal of graduate education. How reassured do students feel about program evaluation if their program website hasn’t been updated for a decade?
The widespread use of CGPSS by Canadian and American grad schools just continues the well worn path of ignoring program evaluation for the purpose of change, learning and growth. After all prominent grad ed scholars like professor emeritus Dr. Debra Stewart still sound a wake up call to action for practitioners of grad ed to learn about it. One still overwhelming theme in the lit on grad ed is the utter indifference to the practices of grad ed by its practitioners.
Along with the poor excuse for program evaluation coming through the CGPSS, Canadian grad student leaders should notice how much their administrations take up recommendations for improvement and best practices. The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) made a spate of excellent recommendations in 2003, very few of which were implemented, even though every graduate school in the country belongs to CAGS. The lack of interest in program evaluation or development in graduate schools means that even today circa 2017 if grad schools adopted CAGS recommendations from 2003, grad ed would be advanced.
What if Canadian grad student leaders asked administrations to formulate goals by way of grad ed development. For example, every research student must also complete a three minute thesis with a poster. Such experiences are available now as tack-ons but the heart of research training programs remains unchanged. What if the department of grad studies required every research supervisor to participate in ongoing professional development to learn about better supervision practices or new ideas for assessment? What if every program had to convene a joint student and faculty committee to study and implement program renewal initiatives? Canadian grad student leaders must demand more than a student satisfaction survey to evaluate graduate programs.
The status quo and the CPGSS serve the university’s legendary complacency towards grad ed. Perhaps if grad student leaders demanded more, more would be done. Grad student leaders are supposed to function as a check on the university after all.
Buried deep in the highest degree given out by Canadian universities, graduate programs entwine a pinnacle of achievement with a nadir of attention to learning how better to surmount the pinnacle. Grad student leaders need to end the complacency and encourage ongoing, rigorous program renewal designed to make grad ed more responsive and forward looking. Grad student leaders could form partnerships with other union leaders to ask administrators to pilot projects to push past their passivity.
Student satisfaction surveys are no way to renew grad ed and move it forward. What if grad student leaders need to demanded better evaluation of programs and confronted complacency? The impetus to change needs student leadership to get the ball rolling.
Who needs a doctoral education in the Trump era? In Canada under our former, anti-intellectual, authoritarian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, knowledge came under siege, government academics lost their jobs and their freedom of expression. Libraries closed, books were tossed out, and some information websites were stripped or shut down. Canada lost respected scientists to other countries more amenable to their knowledge.
A PhD is an international passport. Academics often move to other countries. With a wave of right-wing politicians getting elected in Western Liberal democracies, the list of countries to which an academic can now move, shrunk in 2016.
The biggest development in graduate education in 2016 comes from the political system in which doctoral programs are embedded.
Fast away our old era of Enlightenment values passes, and with it passes an unprecedented era of government and cultural support for research. A new era of hate, division, suspicion, corruption and avarice comes with a paradigm political shift in 2016. The election of Donald J. Trump, the vote in the UK to exit the European Union, and right leaning leaders in prominent European countries hearken in a new dark age. Already some forward thinking US scientists are copying archives and records related to climate in anticipation of the knowledge suppression turn in the US.
Academics forget how unsettling some of their research findings are to politicians, to political orders and to uneducated people. The history of science is replete with those, like Galileo, who suffered for their writing and research. Muzzling scientists makes the problem go away temporarily. Better yet, to stop educating and funding scientists. Better yet to stop funding universities.
The new US ruling party blames universities for producing liberal thinkers who tend to belong to the other political party. The new political environment rejects those who traffic in science, journalism, free thought and free speech. As is the wont of fascists, leader glorification in the Trump Era will likely push aside the academic heroes up held by our pre-2016 culture. The countless movies, plays, posters, songs, music and art works celebrating great academic achievement also celebrate academic freedom as a deeply held cultural value. Such academic freedom simply makes no sense within authoritarian and fascist-type states.
A ‘Ministry of Truth’ promoting conspiracy theories and revisionist history hardly seems far-fetched now. Steve Bannon, former chief executive of Brietbart, can apply his skill set for the benefit of the Trump administration as a most trusted inner sanctum advisor to president-elect Trump.
Analysis of Trump’s news sources from tweets during the campaign figure Brietbart as his biggest news source. Brietbart produces ‘news’ to encourage race hate, antisemitism, white supremacy, authoritarianism and conspiracy theories. An example of one such Brietbart conspiracy theory saw a North Carolina man take a rifle into a Washington, DC pizzeria to liberate the children held in the basement from a child sex or porn ring. The ring was being run by demonized Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
In the US, education will be under siege. How does research training figure into the budget for state universities in this new anti-intellectual climate? Why fund PhD programs when right-wing think tanks serve a more direct purpose? Hire the likes of a Jason Richwine, with his politically opportune history of writing about the politicization of science, to produce ‘scientific’ reports to justify divisive policies instead. Allow PhDs to become a commodity to be sold through a black market like they are in Russia. Spending on programs for the common good, like public education might just be too much at cross purposes with a government agenda pegged on ignoring facts, suspicious of learning and eager to strip wealth from institutions serving the common good through privatization. In such a climate, the local state university faces grave danger.
The Trump administration’s view of the purpose of university may be gleaned from Trump University. Perhaps, other such bait and switch university education schemes will find favor in the pro-business, anti-regulation Trump administration. Trump may simply fail to understand how to nurture higher education if no direct profit gets returned to shareholders, even though the overall economic impact of universities is incontestable. Unfortunately, indivisible from a university education comes openness to new thought.
Unless universities stop producing a preponderance of liberal thinkers, a Trump administration will see little reason to value universities and research training. Maybe corporations will be allowed to turn universities into ‘farm teams’ to dictate academic research agendas and own the intellectual property generated.
Look at the state of graduate education in Russia to see the future of graduate training. The PhD is bought and sold on the black market. In an environment hostile to research, as in Russia and Canada under Harper, economic output goes backwards towards natural resources. Citizens loose rights to privacy and the government exercises information control so as to create an environment hostile to academic development and exchange.
How will knowledge production as we know it stay alive?
Academics should take measures to protect the integrity of PhDs. An independent verifying body which can certify a PhD credential, can protect the integrity of the PhD. The Open PhD movement should be developed as an alternative pipeline. Researchers should maintain the rights to their work and share it and their data freely.
How will doctoral programs adapt? Brexit fears may see 15% of UK university staff leave, group warns is a headline of the academic fall-out of Brexit. Academics in the US may feel the same urge. As demand for academics and support for higher education declines and the culture shifts academics off their place of high regard, student willingness to take up doctoral training will also decline. Expect output of new doctorates to slow to a fraction of the present 55 000 doctorates per year in Canada and the US.
The political war on knowledge will play out as Trump takes office. Expect serious threats to graduate education. Fasten your seat belts for the wild roller coaster ride about to be unleashed. A fury of pent-up hostility toward change, new ideas, experts and technology may even see the roller coaster car go off the roller coaster rails. Who needs a doctoral education in the Trump era anyways.
Writing collaboratively can be a joy. But it can also be challenging. It is important when writing with others to choose a strategy which is not only manageable but also has more likelihood of joy…
Since the inception of grad student organizations, the practices of graduate education have escaped attention for ongoing advocacy. For decades grad student union members suffered under imperious, indifferent grad programs who kept them too long and lost too many, too late in the course. Yet, years of wasted time, opportunity costs and unnecessary lifelong recrimination failed to raise concern.
Unbeknownst to grad student orgs, grad schools started whipping students through programs to meet their times to completion goals and hired clerks to manage the paperwork. Then the duty of grad student unions ought to have been to stick up for students now pressured to complete the same old indifferent programs which were not designed for quick completion, but rather for high attrition. Without a grad ed advocacy agenda, the slipping in of times to completion pressure in Canadian grad programs went off without a mention. Grad student leaders failed to advocate for program re-design, just like they earlier failed to advocate for their members flailing away for years on end.
When Stanford introduced a five year to completion humanities doctoral initiative, it redesigned programs to meet the goal with the guidance of a doctoral education specialist. Without graduate student advocacy or any mechanism for ongoing renewal in Canadian grad programs, Canadian doctoral programs now suffer from a serious decades long lag to upgrading.
Without attention to anything more than times to completion, many programs are stuck in a moment in the last century. So students experience a program akin to an infrastructure deficit; a program ill-equipped to train them for a new research world. It’s like the joke, ‘The food at this restaurant is bad. Yeah and the menu hasn’t changed in twenty years too..’ but at least we get through faster.
Thus far, grad student unions have advocated for everything but the quality of the main course. News flash: grad student union members want the best education, more than anything else. It’s never been about the education in graduate student advocacy.
An ‘It’s the education, stupid,’ mantra might really engage the elusive, apathetic graduate student union member much more so than all the tax exemptions for principle vehicles and similar campaigns ever won by grad student leaders.
What if a Vice-President Academic of a grad student union advocated for quality grad ed? What if the VPA demanded ongoing renewal of grad programs to guarantee an education relevant for the future?
Here are some discussions grad student VPAs don’t seem to know are needed but are needed to protect graduate student interests.
‘What changes to the program encourage students to complete in a timely manner?’ Please don’t answer we hired clerks to manage the new forms to monitor students because that does nothing to improve the program. Providing students with time to discuss exemplars from the get go would help them to get through faster.
‘Who here writes about, gives talks on and studies grad ed programs?’ We would like to see a scholar of teaching and learning in research training on staff who is engaged in program renewal and redesign efforts.
‘What kind of initiatives have you undertaken to provide students with 21st century research acumen?’
‘How is your research training success measured beyond a stat like 72% of students graduate in 9 years?’ We can’t accept the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s (HEQCO) graduate student satisfaction survey, which is much too vague an instrument.
‘How many CAGS recommendations and best practices have you implemented?’
‘We’d like to see the grad school actively renewing doctoral programs with our members’ input, experimenting with new forms of the dissertation, encouraging multi-disciplinary collaborations, soliciting feedback from students, providing better understanding of the expectations and assessment in grad school, requiring ongoing training for doctoral supervisors, attending and giving papers at conferences like the ICDDET.’
Why aren’t grad ed
discussions initiated by VPAs?
With no tradition of ongoing, proactive grad ed advocacy, it’s not part of the job. Ongoing, proactive grad ed advocacy has yet to make the agenda of any grad student union. For example, the UBCGSS just formed a new strategic plan without ongoing, proactive grad ed advocacy. Naively, the plan gives the impression that save for supervision, no further long-term grad ed advocacy will be needed. Likewise, McMaster’s graduate student association failed to highlight ongoing, proactive, grad ed advocacy when it formulated a five year plan in 2013. Starting new practices is really hard.
VPAs fear disrupting harmonious relationships with administrators within their own universities through uncomfortable discussions. Many novice student leaders just back existing initiatives, instead of making demands and asking questions.
VPAs would need to make room for their grad ed agenda within the existing committee structures. For grad student unions to take on a substantive ongoing negotiation for ongoing grad ed renewal, they’d need to create space on agendas, define goals, set the tone, twist arms and lobby decision makers.
VPAs need ongoing support to move forward with confidence in working a proactive grad ed agenda within their universities. Grad students have yet to form a stable, advocacy group with which to support grad ed leadership.
Please, if you are a grad student leader or grad student reading this, move forward to fill this most important gap in advocacy. Grad students can start new traditions, not as threats to the status quo, but as agents doing their job in a system designed around their input. The time for a grad ed lobby is now.