Canadian Grad Student Leaders’ Blind Spot: Ongoing, Proactive Grad Ed Advocacy

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.