News  There’s room to improve grad student resources

40 per cent of ombudsperson complaints come from grads

Three years ago, when McGill set their sights on raising gradate admissions by 25 per cent before 2010, they may have underestimated how this could affect the equilibrium of services provided to graduate students.

In their 2006 White Paper, which laid out priorities and policy guidelines, McGill emphasized that graduate students were “an essential part of [our] research mission” and pledged to step-up their retention, supervision standards, office space, and funding availability for grads student.

But Daniel Simeone, the president of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), said that many graduate students feel short changed when it comes to office or lab space, funding options, and faculty supervision.

A glance at statistics from the McGill ombudsperson’s report, presented at Senate on September 16, clarifies this issue: 40 per cent of claims filed with the ombudsperson last year came from graduate students. Taking into account that grads compose roughly one-fifth of the university population, this figure represents a disproportionate amount of concerns.

Ombudsperson Professor Spencer Boudreau, who’s been in the position for nearly a month, explained the imbalance as an effect of the highly intense nature of graduate students’ worries about supervision.

“If something goes wrong during your graduate degree, the stakes are so high,” Boudreau said. He was unable to comment on the trend of concerned grads.

However, Richard Janda, McGill Law professor and president of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), thought more could be done overall to improve the quality of the supervision experience, which he identified as a critical problem.

“We certainly have the capacity [to improve the graduate experience,] and we all believe in its importance,” Janda said. “Whether there’s an adequate commitment is another question.”

There is movement afoot to improve graduate supervision with best-practices workshops and panels geared toward both faculty and students. In a presentation made to Senate last April, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Martin Kreiswirth indicated that although most graduate students had a positive experience with their supervisors, McGill was still out-of-step with the current best practices.

“[Supervision] is a priority for PGSS and for McGill University, so we’re very excited by some of these workshops,” Simeone also noted.

The PGSS is also hoping that graduate students will see their space concerns swept away as McGill prepares to invest considerable resources into updating its research facilities.

“We’re asking that graduate student space is a priority in the design and redesign of university space,” Simeone said.

McGill seems committed to their White Paper plans to push ahead with the growth of their graduate program, with an eye to improving services as well.

In an email to the Daily, Dean Kreiswirth emphasized, however, that the University is being responsible about admissions by balancing the staff, support, and space required for graduates.

“High-quality graduate research student enrolment is based not just on increasing admissions, but on evidence-based ‘Strategic Enrolment Management’,” Kriesworth noted.

As McGill is vying for a top slot on the world stage as a leading research centre, there’s no doubt that they will need to build their graduate base. During an interview with Macleans, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and the other leaders of the Big Five, an elite academic quintet of schools, requested funding to boost their institutions’ capacity to train graduate students.

The Big Five’s pitch for more money and special status as graduate magnets didn’t quite catch with most provincial governments, who by-and-large control the purse strings for post-secondary funding. Most Canadian universities, including McGill, also witnessed their endowment funds shrink considerably last year, leaving them in a financially strained position to absorb a high influx of new staff and expand their services.

McGill has committed to making the graduate experience a world-class one, and we should expect that the services required for students to excel are part of that mandate.

Connecting the Dots is a bi-monthly news analysis column