Why Western’s Strategic Plan is good for students

On March 24th, the FIMS Student Council General Assembly sent me a letter inquiring about how I, and the USC, went about advocating for student priorities in Western’s new strategic plan. They asked me to respond to several questions that are detailed and answered below.

As a President, I would always rather be criticized for the important things than be praised for the benign. And that’s exactly what is happening here: the legitimacy of student representation, the process of student advocacy and the future direction of our learning experience at Western are the subjects that really should be up for public debate, but are too often drowned out by the cacophony of day-to-day student life.

Making well-informed, student-centric suggestions on the Strategic Plan was a key priority through the first several months of my term. The University Students’ Council made two formal submissions to the strategic planning process. The first was delivered in person by former President Adam Fearnall in March of 2013, and the second was submitted in writing by our team in June of 2013. Additionally, we worked with senior administrators and the authors of the plan throughout the summer.

How were students-at-large consulted by the USC regarding the suggestions for the Strategic Plan put forward by the USC?

I think it’s important to note that the Strategic Plan was e-mailed to all students-at-large to solicit feedback by the Western administration several months before it was finalized: that is a kind of direct engagement that is hard to improve upon. As a student government, we make advocacy decisions based on issue engagement, student feedback and research to make “informed” recommendations on students’ behalf. In the absence of the kind of pure democracy we all want (where every student gleefully fills out every survey and ballot borne by the glow of civic pride and not just the promise of an iPad mini) we use the best and most responsible methods we can to act as the voice of all students. The process of our engagement and research spanned many mediums and several years; our submissions were primarily informed through: ChangeCamp 2012/13 Report, the Student Advocacy Forum (2012/13), the Faculty & Affiliate Presidents’ Caucus, OUSA’s Student Success Policy Paper (2010/11), USC’s survey for our Long-Term Plan, OUSA’s Student Surveys (2013 & 2011), OUSA’s Educated Reform, Council-approved “Purple Papers”, our election platform, other election platforms from 2013, Western’s “Engaging the Future” (2007 & 2010) and Western’s Strategic Mandate Agreement.

Why did the USC President prefer to speak strongly in favour of the plan while dozens of passionate students, representing the thousands who will be negatively affected by the Strategic Plan, demonstrated their discontent?

Frankly speaking, because I think the Strategic Plan is a positive direction for students. It would be overreaching to say that all aspects of the plan benefit all students at all times, but overall I think it represents a step forward for educational experience of students. More than anything, I recognize and appreciate how the plan takes steps towards more innovative teaching in the classroom, bringing experiential education into the mainstream student experience and calls for a coordinated and holistic approach to student support services. I don’t mean to diminish or devalue the concerns of those dozens of students who came to the Senate meeting, but I think it’s important to clarify that the Strat Plan is a visioning document. Visioning documents are by their nature broad and vague, but in doing so they leave a lot of room for interpretation. From what I understood, many of the protesters saw some of the wording around research and endowments to signal a move towards prioritizing STEM fields and away from the Arts and Social Sciences. I didn’t interpret the plan that way–in fact, I think the Arts and Humanities could use a lot more endowments like the Munro chair position being created right now. We have a responsibility now to get involved in how decision makers interpret the plan. We have to get involved in the operationalization and implementation, to ensure that the decisions and funding are following the best interpretation for students. In a lot of ways, the plan is the first step, but it’s a long road, and we need to get involved in how it really impacts students in the classroom.

As for the dozens of students who showed their discontent through a silent protest. I owe you a thank you and an apology. Firstly, thank you for getting engaged in these kinds of conversations. To care about our education, as an important piece of modern society, shows our campus and the public that students care. Secondly, I want to apologize, not for what I said, but for what I didn’t say. I should have thanked you in the meeting, I should have recognized your dedication to Western students. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by the protest (as I had not known about it) and froze. Ironically, it was a bit of an experiential learning experience for me, a moment to be a leader that I missed, but a lesson that I won’t soon forget.

If the USC wished to see the affordability of education included in the Strategic Plan, why did the USC President say nothing while others voiced their issues with the plan?

The affordability of our education is a priority of mine, and of the University Students’ Council. We have a long history of advocating for increased needs-based bursaries offered at Western, and reform of government programs to improve the affordability of a Western education. The Strategic Plan was an opportunity to once again push for more funding for students who need it, and we took that opportunity. We didn’t see it explicitly addressed, and we made it known through our public comments that we were disappointed with the exclusion. However, when nearly every other suggestion we advocated for was included, it would have been irresponsible not to support the package as a whole. I also knew that we had made improvements, and are continuing to make improvements at the provincial level. You make judgement calls as a President; I made a judgement that the plan was overwhelmingly strong for students – even if affordability wasn’t explicitly addressed. The number one affordability barrier, tuition, is an issue to be tackled at the provincial level, not with university administration. We have been working hard to advocate to the government around tuition, but we still recognize that Western has an essential role in providing needs-based bursaries and ensuring responsible use of ancillary fees: affordability should be a key priority on the table.

What relationships with administration and lobbying efforts may be in jeopardy if the USC were to speak against the Strategic Plan?

Good relationships are the means, not the end. Relationships are important in good advocacy, they are important to preserve, but never at the expense of students’ principles. I spoke in favour of the plan because I believe it was good for students, not because I had to protect relationships. Having said that, to have many suggestions adopted without properly recognizing that they had been would have been detrimental, but I can assure had the USC felt the plan was bad for students, we would have said so.

 

Thanks,
Pat

 

Ideas we advocated for in the final draft

 

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Read our specific asks here and here.

“Engage More Undergraduate Students in the Research Enterprise: Western recognizes that many undergraduates demonstrate interest and capacity to enrich their learning through direct participation in research. Indeed, it is by focusing on research and undergraduate student involvement in research that Western can take the student learning experience to the next level. Building on our Mission to educate global citizens at a top research-intensive university, Western will provide greater opportunities for undergraduates to engage with research as part of their degree. This may include greater incorporation of inquiry-based learning into existing curriculum, providing more opportunity for the presentation of student work through undergraduate journals, conferences and Western’s institutional repository (Scholarship@Western), as well as more hands-on involvement with research projects conducted in campus laboratories.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 12)

Online Learning & Tech-enabled Learning

Read our specific asks here.

“Innovate our Pedagogy Through Alternative Means of Undergraduate and Graduate Program Delivery: Currently, many faculty, staff, librarians and archivists, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars use alternative, hybrid, and blended teaching methods in their courses to enhance the student learning experience. Illustrating this point, courses offered entirely online now account for 10% of all instruction, representing some 185 courses for undergraduates in direct-entry programs. In a recently released report, Western’s Task Force on E-Learning proposed a digital learning strategy for the University. Western’s Network for Digital Education & Research has prepared a response to the report. These two documents will inform Western’s approach to building on current alternative, hybrid, and blended teaching practices. We will do so by providing infrastructure and technical support for the introduction of new and innovative modes of pedagogy where demand and opportunities are identified at the local academic unit level.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 12)

Career Counselling & Success After Graduation

Read our specific asks here and here.

“Educate and Support Development of the Whole Person: Developing tomorrow’s successful global leaders involves more than outstanding academic–it requires attention to wellness of mind, body and spirit. Western also recognizes that different kinds of students may require different kinds of support. To this end, Western will strengthen the full range of student development, academic counselling and administrative support services that contribute to student success across the student body.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

“Teach Transferable Knowledge and Leadership Skills for the 21st Century: Regardless of their program of study, undergraduate and graduate students should graduate with well-developed critical thinking and communication skills requisite to any career. They should also have professional development opportunities embedded in their programs to enable students to explore and acquire the kinds of leadership and entrepreneurial skills increasingly in demand in today’s marketplace. Implicit in this expectation is that the University and prospective employers have a shared understanding of how different degrees prepare graduates for success both within and beyond academia. Professional degree programs have long articulated the knowledge and skills their successful graduates acquire, and the same expectation must become a higher priority for undergraduate … across the disciplines.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

Internships and Co-op Program with London Integration

Read our specific asks here.

“Promote and Support Experiential and International Learning Opportunities: Educating the whole person also entails providing experiential learning opportunities that occur beyond campus in the broader community, across the full spectrum of disciplines: from the arts and humanities and social sciences, to the physical and health sciences, to the professional programs in medical, legal and engineering professions. Today’s students seek to round out their degrees by applying their acquired knowledge and skills in hands-on, real-world settings. Students and employers alike expect to do this through such learning activities as: participation in internships, co-op, and job shadowing programs with industry partners; service-learning projects with non-profit community groups;… students learn to apply the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom to practical “real world” situations. Western will invest the incremental resources required to increase the number of Work Integrated Learning Experience…so that any academically eligible student wishing to participate in such learning experiences will have opportunity to do so. Western will also endeavour to collaborate with various campus and external community partners to optimize coordination efforts.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 12)

International Students Support and International Opportunities for Domestic Students

Read our specific asks here and here and here.

“Educate and Support Development of the Whole Person: …To this end, Western will strengthen the full range of student development, academic counselling and administrative support services that contribute to student success across the student body—from domestic to international students, …” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

“Promote and Support Experiential and International Learning Opportunities: Educating the whole person also entails providing experiential learning opportunities that occur beyond campus… Today’s students seek to round out their degrees by applying their acquired knowledge and skills in hands-on, real-world settings. … study-abroad and academic exchange programs; and social justice or international development initiatives with non-governmental agencies. In these contexts students learn to apply the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom to practical “real world” situations. Western will invest the incremental resources required to increase the number of … international learning opportunities available so that any academically eligible student wishing to participate in such learning experiences will have opportunity to do so. …” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 12)

Student Entrepreneurship

Read our specific asks here and here.

“Teach Transferable Knowledge and Leadership Skills for the 21st Century: … should also have professional development opportunities embedded in their programs to enable students to explore and acquire the kinds of leadership and entrepreneurial skills increasingly in demand in today’s marketplace…” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

Mental Health & Wellness

Read our specific asks here and here.

“Educate and Support Development of the Whole Person: Developing tomorrow’s successful global leaders involves more than outstanding academics—it requires attention to wellness of mind, body and spirit. … Western also recognizes that different kinds of students may require different kinds of support. To this end, Western will strengthen the full range of student development, academic counselling and administrative support services that contribute to student success across the student body—from domestic to international students, and from first-year and upper-year undergraduates … Western will also work to facilitate collaboration among various service providers with a view to ensuring that all students are directed toward the best service available to meet their specific needs.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

Coordination of Student Experience & Dean of Students

Read our specific asks here and here.

“Educate and Support Development of the Whole Person: … exceptional range of curricular, co-curricular, extra-curricular, and student support programming. From residence and recreational programming, informal socializing and collaboration in libraries, to student government, varsity athletics, and special interest clubs, our students have near limitless possibilities for augmenting their education beyond the classroom. … Western will also work to facilitate collaboration among various service providers with a view to ensuring that all students are directed toward the best service available to meet their specific needs.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

Innovative Teaching & Learning, and Teaching Fellows Program

Read our specific asks here and here.

“Promote Excellence and Innovation in Teaching and Learning: As a founding member of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, home to the Society’s national journal, and to the Centre for Education Research & Innovation, Western has a long-standing commitment to evidence-based pedagogical practice. Through the contributions of faculty, staff, librarians and archivists, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars engaged in teaching, Western values pedagogical innovation, including facilitating active and deep student learning. The recently announced Teaching Fellows program will enhance pedagogical research, promote effective teaching practices across campus, and recognize excellence, particularly in emerging” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

University-Level Learning Outcomes

Read our specific ask here.

“Articulate University-level Learning Outcomes: In accordance with the Degree Level Expectations directives of the Ontario Council on Quality Assurance, Western will articulate undergraduate and graduate learning outcomes at the institutional level, taking into account the University’s distinctive mission, culture, and values. Institutional learning outcomes provide a framework for program- and course-level learning outcomes, which will identify the knowledge, competencies, and skills undergraduate and graduate students may expect to achieve. Curricular mapping and assessment techniques designed to demonstrate specific learning outcomes will support program innovation, student learning, and outstanding academic quality.” (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, Page 11)

Ideas we advocated for not included in the final draft

 

  • More Students involved in University Governance: Read our specific asks here.
  • Affordability of our Education: More Needs-based Bursaries, Per-Credit Tuition, Referendum Planning, Student Donation Fee Reform, Fair Payment Deadlines: Read our specific asks here and here.
  • Early Outreach to youth to encourage involvement in post-secondary education: Read our specific asks here.
  • Exams and Evaluations: Read our specific asks here.
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