In April 2019, the University released its long-awaited Green Paper strategy for improving the student experience at the University of Melbourne.
The “Belonging to Melbourne” discussion paper suggests a number of potential changes, with the goal of developing a “single vision” for student life at the University.
The desire for a new approach was motivated by recent data from the Student Experience Survey, which indicated that the University of Melbourne has slipped below the national average in the areas of student support and learner engagement.
The survey found that students are struggling with feelings of isolation, and want to feel more connection and a sense of belonging to the University. Students also reported that the pressure of daily life and balancing paid work with study is affecting their ability to participate in campus culture.
A Green Paper is a document published to stimulate discussion on a particular policy issue or topic, and presents a series of possible solutions or actions. Historically, these were printed on green paper to distinguish them from other kinds of documents.
So “Green Paper” = “consultation paper”.
Disappointingly, the Green Paper aims to focus on the concerns of undergraduates, and treats graduate student concerns as a lower priority.
The University has told us it will focus on the undergraduate experience first, though it will be embarking on a similar graduate-specific strategy later in 2019. While GSA welcomes this, the pressing issues that have been found are not exclusive to undergraduates.
Graduate students account for more than half of the total student population at Melbourne. If the University is serious about developing a whole-of-University approach to improving student life, our perspective matters, and our voices need to be heard – without delay.
That’s why we decided to host a town hall on Thursday 18 April: to give all graduate students the opportunity to discuss the ideas proposed by the University, and how they could be improved to work better for graduate students. Sacrificing their mid-semester break eve, over 15 passionate graduate students joined GSA councillors in the Gryphon Gallery for an evening of spirited discussion.
In the end, we made seven key recommendations to the University for ways to improve the strategy.
- The University must seek genuine and continuous input from students, and the participation of graduate students should be encouraged. Any effort to improve the student experience (no matter how well intentioned) will fall short without leadership from students.
- The Green Paper acknowledges that students are struggling with the pressures of daily life, but largely underestimates the impact of this. More consideration must be given to the social equity and external influences that affect students’ ability to thrive and participate in campus life.
- There needs to be more opportunities for cohort and community-building to address isolation among graduate students. We want to see graduate-specific spaces, separate from study areas, in every faculty, including non-Parkville campuses.
- Orientation needs to be better coordinated, and possibly extended to include a pre-orientation onboarding program, to give students the opportunity to talk to later-year students who have been in their position. Orientation programs need to be offered more regularly to accommodate PhD students, who often start their project outside traditional semester timelines.
- Students’ participation in extra-curricular activities should be recognised and valued by the University as a fundamental part of the student experience, and a way to improve employability and develop transferable ‘soft skills’.
- We want to see more high-quality and individualised face-to-face support for course planning and career advice. The current generalist approach does not meet the specific needs of graduate students.
- Many sessional tutors for first-year undergraduate classes are often also graduate students themselves. If the University wants to improve the experience and transition of undergraduates, it needs to recognise that graduate students play a pivotal front-line role with these students.
So what’s next?
With your help, we have been able to kick-start the conversation about the graduate student experience at Melbourne, and send a strong message to the University that graduate students are eager to contribute to this discussion, and that we aren’t prepared stand by and wait patiently in the meantime.
GSA is committed to holding the University accountable to its promise to develop a graduate-specific strategy in September, and we’ll be looking for your input again when the time comes.
But tackling the issues raised in the town hall discussion (isolation, mental health, financial situations of students, etc.) doesn’t end with discussing the Green Paper with Chancellery. We’re always keen to hear your thoughts on what we can do to improve the situation – get in touch with us here at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Roberts and Madeleine Johnson
Emily Roberts and Madeleine Johnson are 2018/19 General Secretary and Council member, respectively.