Prioritizing Student Voices: The Students’ Union Submission to the UofA’s Strategic Plan | By Zosia Prus-Czarnecka

A few weeks ago, the Students’ Union (SU) completed its submission to the University of Alberta’s Institutional Strategic Plan. These collective goals of staff and students will outline the use of resources for academic and administrative decision-making. Following the installation of David Turpin, the university’s thirteenth president, there has been a long process of outlining the vision for the next five years. The goal of the SU’s submission is to ensure that undergraduate concerns are addressed in four main areas: affordability, high quality in-class learning and teaching experience, opportunities for transformative learning, and creating a sense of community on campus. The submission recognizes the competitiveness that students face and the need for well-developed goals and strategy to keep up with a changing academic climate. For each of their four areas, the SU has made specific suggestions that I had the opportunity to discuss with Fahim Rahman, current SU Vice President Academic.

In particular, I am excited about the push to use Open Educational Resources (OER) to lower costs for students, and make courses more accessible. In my first year, I took Biology 207 and my professor, Dr. Deyholos, had written the textbook for our course. The material within was specifically targeted to the course’s learning objectives and perfectly complemented the lectures. Plus, the textbook was much cheaper than the average science book.  Rahman recognizes that there is still a lot of resistance to the use of OERs, because there is “a certain quality control that comes with a book from a publisher.” However, he is confident that the university will provide the necessary training to professors to ease the transition. I remember looking at my textbook list in the bookstore and realizing that purchasing all of them would cost almost $600. Such financial burdens cause many students to take a course without purchasing the textbook, which can make academic success more difficult.

Second, in order to provide a high-quality in-class learning experience, the SU addresses the problems of growing class sizes and an ineffective professor to student ratio. Rahman suggests that funding and government changes may have set back headway in this area, as it was one of the areas of need addressed in the university’s previous strategic plan, but little progress has been made so far. Although the problem of class size may not affect every student on campus, as a science student, I can attest to the need for smaller lectures. For example, many core chemistry, biology and physics classes can have up to 400 students enrolled in them – this is more students than the entire population of my high school! When you’re struggling to transition from high school to post-secondary, these overwhelming numbers can make it intimidating to ask a professor a question or approach them for help. Furthermore, with such an overwhelming demand for their time, it’s unlikely that a professor can help everyone adequately. Assignments take longer to mark, emails are not replied to promptly, and attending office hours turns into an episode of the Hunger Games, waiting to see who will last the longest in line. This may cause professors to rely on teaching assistants to help ease their workload; however, because TAs do not have the same skill set as their professors, there is an argument to be made that students are not receiving the quality of education that they are paying for.

I have taken several language classes at the UofA, and one thing that has drawn me to them is that these lectures are small (20 students from across different faculties) and interactive. I feel much more motivated to do my readings and stay on top of class material because if I don’t, I’ll be unable to take part in the discussion. Since we all know one another and a large portion of the course is based around participation, the amount of study time I need to put in outside of class is minimized. I am confident that I would be much more engaged in my science lectures if they were smaller (which thankfully, I’m starting to experience more in my third year now). While it may not be realistically feasible to cut down the size of science lectures to that of my language classes, some reduction is certainly helpful, and better than none.

Perhaps one of the most exciting changes proposed in the submission is to create a centralized experiential learning office. The university already has multiple programs that allow for experiential learning (ie. Undergraduate Research Initiative, Community Service-Learning), and a lot of these offer inter-faculty project ideas, reward students with credit for their work, and offer projects during the semester. The hope is that this new office will make it easier for students to decide which office to go to with their project idea, and easier for students to get credit for engaging with work-place experience. In particular, this would be useful for students at Campus St. Jean who currently have to go to the Arts office if they have questions about these opportunities.

According to Rahman, “There needs to be equal access of opportunities for all students,” regardless of whether you’re a domestic or international student, CSJ or North Campus student, Science or Arts. This would get students more involved in experiential learning and promote interdisciplinary work that can provide rare opportunities to develop new skills. I am currently working under a URI (Undergraduate Research Initiative) stipend at a Diabetes research lab. Working as a summer student at this lab for the last few years has been incredibly rewarding, but the URI funding allows me to continue my work during the semester, while still being financially recognized for my time. As a result, I can dedicate more hours to my research and get involved in different projects. Getting involved early has helped me gain the trust of my colleagues and become more independent. If it were easier for students to engage in these opportunities during the semester, they would graduate with an advantage in the competition for employment.

The last point made in the submission is the SU’s hope to create a larger sense of community on campus by continuing to support current initiatives so that they can assist a larger number of students. Rahman notes that “having a strong support network to fall back on” is helpful to every student, and I hope that continued support will improve mental health on campus.  With organizations such as opening branches at the UofA, common sources of stress can be addressed when students first begin their studies. Most importantly, helps first year undergrads transition from high school to post-secondary. Further to this, I would like to see more initiatives that will provide individual support for students. For example, at Carleton University, there is a program called “Bounce Back” that partners any first-year student with an average below 69% with an upper-year mentor. With issues like class sizes, finances, and mental health support, it can feel as though the university lacks a bit of personal edge. Perhaps the new ISP will return some focus to individual achievement, and recognize that this affects the overall image of the institution.

The final initiative to improve community and engagement between students and faculty is the signing of the Student Participation Protocol (signed in January 2015) that aims to ensure that students are both informed about important decisions and able to attend meetings with the university’s administration. When students are balancing a rigorous academic schedule with volunteering, extra-curricular activities, and employment, it can be difficult to make it to governance meetings. I am hopeful that this protocol will keep students more informed and involved in campus decisions.

For the last five months, the university has been calling for submissions from students and faculty to the Institutional Strategic Plan (ISP). The rough draft of the ISP should be released in late February and Rahman is confident that the SU’s suggested goals will be included, as they “resonate with a lot of people on campus.” The final draft is planned for early June of this year.

Banner illustration courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.

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