Your Best Student Experience: A Call to Action

What exactly is the “Best Student Experience” we’ve all heard so much about since we first set foot on Western’s campus?

Perhaps there’s no need to bother with the question, since the university’s administration has defined it for us in a document titled “Institutional Vision, Proposed Mandate Statement and Priority Objectives” – a paper that formally kicked off the process of creating a Strategic Mandate Agreement for the future. Moreover, Western administration took it upon itself to do this with very little student input. The little input they sought amounted to a few meetings with the USC president and vice-president (whose recommendations didn’t come from direct Western student involvement but rather the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance’s discussion paper), and limited interaction with higher-ups in Western’s Senate and Board of Governors. A group of us, Western students all, have decided this doesn’t sit well with us and so we’re doing something about it.

Ask yourself: where were you in the development of Western’s vision and “Best Student Experience”? Because how the administration has chosen to define it is troubling, to say the least. To them, our best experience boils down to valuing money over learning.

Western’s paper outlines the “Best Student Experience” as its primary draw for students, as well as what the university should be known for in the future. It’s a phrase that sounds nice, but here are some of the unsettling realities lying behind the so-called “Best Student Experience” of tomorrow:

What They Say: Providing a learning environment that fosters creativity through exploration, discovery, invention and innovation
What They Mean: Greater collaboration between the university and its industrial and business partners, including its “commercialization agency” WORLDiscoveries and LANXESS Inc., in order to bring economic prosperity to Southwestern Ontario.

What They Say: Innovation in curriculum development
What They Mean: Increase the number of online courses by using so-called “innovative delivery mechanisms” (a business-y buzzword for “Internet”). Already, online courses account for 10% of all instruction.

What They Say: The Best Student Experience is reflected in our resource allocations
What They Mean: Western is a lean, mean, economically efficient machine. Its “operating efficiency” has increased dramatically over the past few decades because our expenditures are way down.

How It Will Affect Enrollment: Large growth in undergraduate programs (as much as 800 new students) is projected, as well as enrollment growth in Master’s and Doctoral programs.

These are just a few examples of the paper’s troubling focus on economic efficiency over real student benefit. Is it our “Best Experience” the university is focusing on, or putting more students in seats to collect tuition cheques while palling around with corporate sponsors? This is a disturbing trend for Western, and one that has been undertaken without direct student involvement. Shouldn’t we have had a say in our own so-called best experience?

We don’t see our student experience here as being defined by “commercialization agencies,” more students for the sake of more students, online courses, and cost/profit analyses. We’re after a definition that focuses on student learning, processes of intellectual discovery, exploration–in short: the human, not economic, aspects of the university experience.

It’s not too late. This is just the beginning of a long process to garner student input for the Strategic Mandate Agreement. It’s time to have our voices–your voice–heard, on what your idea of the “Best Student Experience” is. Follow us on Twitter, tweet with your thoughts using #YourStudentExp, and like us on Facebook to join the conversation and get updates about what comes next.

This time, the best student experience is our student experience.

2 thoughts on “Your Best Student Experience: A Call to Action

  1. Props on starting this. I’ve noticed this tension between university as a romantic period of enlightenment vs. path to a career for a while. It’s also been a theme in previous zine articles, and presumably a popular dinner table discussion among students and families.

    Upon quick glance of the report, I can’t help but notice one simple point: the University wants to be more like a College. Colleges are quite clear in their marketing and mandate: “enter this program, and get a job doing x” (I know I should cite). To do so, programs’ have direct relation to industry, constantly adapting to produce employable graduates. Colleges also emphasize hands on learning, industry placements, and smaller class sizes.

    Western’s mandate proposal stresses similar traits, aiming to expand “experiential learning”, “put knowledge to work”, increase faculty/teaching fellows, and “optimize investments made by students.” For part of me, this is highly valued. Some courses are taken for overall enlightenment , but the shit reality is that my experience here is to provide a foundation of knowledge for career ambitions. I’m not alone, and the mandate is speaking to this feeling among individuals who valued employable graduates. It’s speaking to investors.

    Of course, Universities should serve a different purpose than Colleges, and the direct relation to industry has the potential to neglect initiatives that are beneficial for the sake of education, enlightenment, and the public good. I’m interested what programs are already starting to be neglected/cut.

  2. I’m thrilled that students are taking these proposed changes to Ontario PSE with the seriousness they require, and are critical of Western’s SMA. When MPP Glen Murray initially issued his white paper, and engaged in the consultation process throughout the summer, many were the student groups who felt disenfranchised by not being invited as participant stakeholders in these discussions (and hosting them over the summer when students may be occupied with summer employment could be construed as an oversight by the ringleaders of reform). If you and your readers suspect that these changes are simply a way of masking cost containment strategies through inflated enrollment, and to reduce overhead by shifting more courses into an online format, that is most likely the right answer! Many of us in the faculty ranks are also very concerned about the proposed changes and how they will impact academic culture at Western, and throughout the province.

    Those who take my course on propaganda know all too well that the continued positioning of “best student experience” may in fact be a glittering generality. What is a “student experience,” and can that be considered some sort of homogeneous quality? Are not experiences, by their definition, highly subjective and variable? Worse still are vacuous euphemisms such as “innovation” which, as you rightly point out, attaches the connotation of digital learning as the magic bullet for all PSE’s financial woes.

    Nowhere in the white paper is it acknowledged that actual innovation happens all the time in the classroom through blended learning techniques and the interaction between faculty and students in the ongoing process of learning discovery.

    The “economy” (however that is defined beyond being a mystical term!) has been leveraged to dictate the neo-liberal university. Ideally, it should be the task of the university to drive the economy and not the other way around!

    We will all keep fighting to end this kind of “black box” of what our universities should or will look like, and this through ensuring our autonomy as stakeholders and decision makers.

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