How would an ordinary graduate student answer the question, “What exactly has my GSA* done to better the quality of my graduate education since forever?” Would the ordinary Canadian graduate student be able to name one issue that the GSU made headway with or made better? Would graduate students even be aware of the following two dozen issues?
- Ongoing Renewal Policies: Did elected executives work with the student council to craft and adopt policies to flesh out an agenda of ongoing renewal of graduate programs?
- Academic workshops: Did the GSA develop professional and academic workshops to stimulate awareness of new developments in graduate education. Graduate students would be interested in learning about new kinds of dissertations, new genres of scholarly knowledge production and managing a supervisory relationship that goes beyond the PhD comic?
- 21st Century Research Protocols: Did the association work to embed new practices related to citations, data sharing, digital forms of academic writing, social media, publication, poster making and copyright within graduate programs? All of these topics could be workshops offered by l’assocation.
- Partnerships with Graduate Programs: Did they work with the faculty to partner on experiments or new approaches within programs? For example, collaborative dissertations or networked research could be tried out. Getting rid of all course work for a research degree as in the UK would be worth a pilot project for certain programs.
- Support a student journal. Did GSUs establish a student journal to impart experience with peer review and publication?
- Graduate skills training & the three-minute thesis contest: Did the GSU support melding of professional graduate skills with learning in graduate school and not tacked on to it? Did they try to test a mandatory requirement of the ‘writing short’ skill which would require a three-minute thesis or some variation thereof like an RSA to complete a research degree?
- Student-centered Programs: Did they promote partnerships between graduate students and faculty aimed to capture student insights for program renewal? The CID concluded that graduate programs best develop a vibrant, healthy, intellectual culture that revolves around student growth and learning. The insights of doctoral students were also found to be rich with potent remedies for program problems and pitfalls. A student-centered learning culture goes a long way to combatting the mental health vulnerabilities latent in some of the isolationist, unhealthy cultures in graduate programs in the past. Did the GSS promote the development of a graduate review and improvement process (GRIP), a value-added measure that benefits graduate students at the University of Minnesota? To ensure timely renewal of graduate education, graduate students need to examine their programs while in the program. Did the GSU promote exit interviews of graduate students aimed at feedback to strengthen programs?
- Partnerships with private sector and non-academic employers: Did the GSA work to orient programs toward non-academic sources of employment and entrepreneurship?
- Supervision policies and training: Did GSAs work to set up supervision policies and training for supervisors to keep up with developments in graduate education?
- Knowledge of Graduate Education: How have graduate student executives over the decades heard and heeded the many heart felt cries for action from graduate education experts? How do student executives gain an understanding of pressing issues within graduate education?
- GSA Data and Research Functions and Transparency: How has the GSU set-up long-term research and data keeping functions of their membership? Did the work of l’association result in the university keeping and publishing time to completion and attrition statistics? Did they try mining the association’s data base to derive these or other stats in the face of a reluctant administration? Did they track and urge administrators to track graduate student career trajectories after degree and feed that data back to university administrators?
- Program Integrity and Differentiation: Did they work on issues related to the integrity of the oral defense? (Oral defense exams lack both validity and reliability and leave students open for abuse by examiners). Did they ask how a fail is determined for an oral exam? Did they work with administration to resolve and clarify meaningful differences between masters and doctoral degrees that require original research? Did they work with administrators to pre-empt poor standards of original research from qualification, as in the racist creed that Harvard University accepted from Jason Richwine? If Harvard can accredit substandard research, then all research training institutions know the system of research training needs more checks.
- All but Dissertation or No Dissertation: For the roughly 50 % of doctoral students who languish and leave doctoral programs, an official All But Dissertation (AbD) designation would help. Did my Canadian GSU lobby for recognition of all but dissertation students? Did they urge graduate faculty administrators to also develop a doctoral degree by publication pathway?
- Bona Fide Academic Requirements (BFARs): Did they push for bona fide academic requirement policies to ensure access and diversity?
- Collaboration: Did the GSS collaborate with counterparts in other organizations to share and exchange ideas, wins, policies under development, resources and strategies?
- Communication: Did l’association plan for changing of the student administrations so that greater continuity occurs? Did incoming executive get briefing notes from outgoing counterparts to maximize transfer? Did they set goals or direction for their terms in office with associated evidence of work or results?
- Student Council Training: Did the GSS institute training for the student council to develop expectations, practices and priorities by which to maximize the council’s effectiveness and the executive’s effectiveness? How does the council compensate for the short terms in office which can result in little traction with the harder issues?
- Faculty Goals: Did l’association provide answers to the question, “How does my faculty of graduate studies keep abreast and contribute to new developments in graduate education?” Can the GSU answer questions about the genuineness of the faculty’s review process if one is in place? Is it aimed mostly at marketing and recruitment? Has the GSA earned a voice to contribute to university reviews or renewal initiatives of graduate programs?
- Study of the effectiveness of graduate education within the university: Did representatives find out how faculty form and track academic goals? Did they urge study of graduate programs with input from students as suggested by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID), which was a five-year project for rethinking research training? Did they ask for data around time to completion, around attrition, around admission and around assessment or try to set up possible joint partnership projects or goals with administrators?
- Program changes and new programs: Did the GSA gain graduate student consultation on proposed program changes to insist on also tracking the effects of changes to stop the ‘new shiny button’ promotion of change without study? How did my GSS represent graduate students in proposed new programs in terms of instilling greater transparency and assessment rigor from the onset?
- Network infrastructure development: Did the GSS develop an organizational network to address issues in graduate education by supporting a robust infrastructure of not for profit organizations to support continuity? By now graduate students ought to be able to name some national not-for-profit groups that assist GSAs year after year with primarily academic advocacy. Did graduate student reps develop graduate student academic advocacy into a pro-active and positive force akin to the effectiveness developed by student leaders in the UK or the output of the recently formed Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance (OUSA) on academic matters?
- Support study of student unions to ensure dialogue: Did the GSA support the study of Canadian graduate student unions? Very little is known about them. The HE system in Canada values, needs and wants student representation as a check and balance. Recently, at #transitioned a High Education Quality Council of Ontario conference, an upper level HE administrator said student leaders drive discussions of quality. A more reliable model for student representation on academic issues needs to be developed to make sure that these discussions take place.
- International and national graduate student and graduate education organizations: Did the GSA try to secure a seat for a national graduate student representative in the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies? This would mean bringing together all graduate students’ organizations in the country into an effective pan-Canadian counterpart to CAGS. Did the GSU put together a delegation from their university to attend the bi-annual ICDDET conference in the UK?
- Canadian brand: Graduate student associations play a vital role in Canadian graduate education and ought to impart an exciting, dynamic, value-added aspect to Canadian graduate education on the world stage. Did your graduate student leaders play up the important role they take in shaping the reputation of Canadian graduate education?
Since the turn of the millennium, graduate students are wont to name significant gains on the academic front from student union representation. Indeed some GSAs as yet, do not have designated reps for an academic portfolio. How can this new crop of 2016-2017 graduate student representatives establish an agenda for successful advocacy, student-faculty partnerships, and movement on academic issues?
The graduate student movement in Canada needs to build an enduring social infrastructure that outlasts and captures incremental gains from the brief yearlong terms. The one year terms for elected executives give a reason to form strong bonds that organize, focus and aim energy year over year at substantive issues that will make an enduring difference to graduate students. A graduate students’ association needs to perform its role in the system of Canadian graduate education. GSAs need to aim for their work to add up year over year to add up to a legacy of value-added changes. The day that the everyday graduate student can name major gains brought on by their graduate student association will be the day that affirms that graduate representatives fulfilled their mandate within Canadian graduate education.
Graduate student unions must promote their value to their membership and to a wider audience. One way to start would be in taking on an ambitious agenda contained in the two dozen points above which, if enacted, would bring a smile to the lips of every graduate student in Canada.
*GSA, means graduate students’ association and is used interchangeably with GSS, graduate students’ society, and GSU, graduate students’ union et aussi des étudiant(e)s des cycles superiéurs de la francophonie au Canada sont inclus ici.