Canadian Graduate Student Unions Must Respond to Recent Grad Ed Policies to Remain Credible

What makes a graduate student union different from an undergraduate student union or a community college student union?  If it is advocacy on issues found only in graduate school, then where is grad ed advocacy?   Unfortunately, grad ed advocacy got left out decade over decade in Canadian graduate student unions.  With Canada’s two biggest universities started toward grad ed reform, how can graduate student unions step up their advocacy game in grad ed?

With prominent Canadian universities initiating grad ed reforms, grad student unions need to step up their grad ed advocacy game.

The two top universities in Canada, the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia took substantive new directions for grad ed without significant input from their grad unions.   Grad unions ought to have seized upon opportunities to give union-made input to grad ed reform initiatives save their advocacy efforts leave out grad ed.

The University of Toronto wants to change grad ed with graduate professional development modules.  Grad degrees at UT may recognize and perhaps require completion of graduate professional development (GPD) modules, which are now entirely voluntary and not integral.  The School of Graduate Studies wants grad programs rethought to integrate graduate student skill development via professional skills training modules with grad programs.   On the radical change of adding more requirements to get a grad degree at UT, UTGSU has no policy or opinion or record of discussion of it in official minutes since admin came out with the GPD plan in November 2016.

UTGSU members sit on a university Graduate Education Council, but lacking in-house grad ed policies and advocacy initiatives developed through the GSU, initiatives come down to grad students via administration.  Surely the UTGSU could do better in a core area of concern to students, namely education practices.  Surely union members expect a robust advocacy for grad ed, not just passively sitting on a university committee to endorse and vote on administrative initiatives.   While the union organizes for divestment, queer, trans, decolonization, race and equity causes; all important social justice initiatives, basic bread and butter aspects of grad school get left out.  Oddly, the UTGSU graduate students’ union, like every other grad student union in the country, lacks a robust grad ed lobby.  (In fairness, Canadian student unions in general fail to lobby for better education practices).

In addition, the school of graduate studies at UT published two new brochures on time to completion (TTC), but the union has yet to push for implementation of new TTC guidelines.  Publication of time to completion for every program is now recommended.  Where is the union response?  Where is union action?  TTC provides better information to incoming students and a potential advocacy point for the union to push for better grad ed practices.  Time to completion and attrition are not mentioned in UTGSU executive minutes in 2016-2017, nor is there a UTGSU committee, officer or caucus expressly devoted to grad ed advocacy.

A similar story holds for the UBC Graduate Students Society (GSS).   In 2014, UBC sent a memo of ‘best practices‘ to deans, principals, heads and directors for external review of academic units.  The memo envisioned an important role for the student society, yet the UBCGSS can’t act on the memo as grad ed advocacy fails to be a core business function of the society.  A push from the society to lobby for implementation of these best practices could be part of their new five-year plan.

Arguably, the UBCGSS, neglected meaningful grad ed advocacy for its entire history.  Working to see best practices implemented would have represented a new direction for the GSS when it came out in 2014.  From a scarcity of attention to grad ed over the years, grad student reps face challenges in fleshing out grad ed advocacy as new initiatives come from administrations.  Change is hard.

Sadly, the GSS is now suffering fiscal challenges and asked its membership in a referendum for a more money.   I’ve asked the GSS several times for the results of the referendum vote which ended on March 10th, and although my request is acknowledged, no answer is forthcoming.  Starting up a robust grad ed advocacy initiative for the society can still be done to fulfill the five year plan, even with reduced resources, but they’ll need agility, focus, and outreach like Monfils.

Well meaning grad student unions in Canada have established certain arenas of advocacy; housing, tuition, fees, taxes, social supports, social justice initiatives etc.  Grad ed got left out.  Grad ed changes are finally bubbling out of UBC and UT.   The quality of education in grad school is of utmost concern to grad union members.  Grad students are in university after all for the education.  While almost all student unions, advocate for equity, divestment, lower tuition etc., a grad student union must put the grad education aspect of its advocacy foremost on its agenda. Otherwise, why bother with the extra administrative costs and duplication of a grad union.  Indeed some Canadian student unions, merely elect a rep for grad studies and lobby en mass, grad and undergrad together.

The first action is to recognize the need for more attention to go to the grad ed lobby.  Apropos of spring, grad schools are finally, at long last, coming to life and budding changes to grad ed.  This makes the lobby effort of a grad student union easier and more urgent.  If graduate schools have finally come round to embrace renewal of grad ed practices, then graduate student unions can as well.  Grad unions can organize and commit to policy development and lobbying initiatives in grad ed.  Unions must actively engage with administration.  Grad students’ insights and skin in the game make their policy suggestions solid gold.  A new golden age of grad union lobbying can shape the changes afoot.  Let’s get at it, then.