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Career Advice

The art of helping students

Being the messenger of policies you don’t like.


In any career in postsecondary education, you will eventually run into a situation where you have to be the messenger of a policy or decision you disagree with. For me, this is the requirement by some British Columbia universities, that local applicants coming from high school must have taken a course in a second language. For a variety of reasons, I don’t believe this is a well-designed requirement, and it is always difficult for me when I meet a student in their senior year of high school who is well-qualified, but missing only this requirement.

Should you be faced with a similar situation, there are two approaches that I have found helpful:

1. Place the situation in context for the student.

What is the real impact of the decision on the student’s educational goals, and what is in your control that can help mitigate it? It’s important to help the student see some hope in the situation. In the case of the second language admissions requirement, I’ve taken some time to learn exactly where the flexibility is within the requirement. If admission is going to be impossible without it, I try to help the student refocus on the long-term goal of graduation instead of the more short-term admission goal. There are a lot of transfer options available in B.C. without ever taking a second language and even some ways to quickly fulfill the requirement if the student prefers.

It can also help to explain the purpose of the policy to the student. While you might personally disagree with the rationale, this approach can often help the student see it as an intentional and useful policy instead of a high-handed or arbitrary decision.

If the student is truly dissatisfied, explain to them how they could advocate productively for a change to the policy. Who could they talk to? How could they frame their request for a change? Over time, if enough students articulate reasoned concerns with a particular policy, it will probably have an impact on the evolution of that policy. Suggesting appropriate ways of channeling their concerns is also a teachable moment: it is one of the ways we can help students be contributing members to civil society.

2. Be an agent for positive policy change.

It is very often through thoughtful advocacy by those who work directly with students that policies at universities evolve. The first thing to consider is whether the problem at hand is unique to the case or whether it is a policy issue. If it is the latter, you can avoid the challenges associated with being too strong an advocate for a particular student by instead focusing on an improvement to the root of the problem:

  • Have a chat with the person responsible for the policy.
  • Write a one-page policy brief: what change do you think would be appropriate and why? Send it to the committee or person responsible for the policy and invite them for coffee to discuss it informally.
  • Do a little research on how other parts of the university or other universities are handling this kind of issue.
  • Identify others who might care about solving this issue and seek their support.

Throughout the process, be sure to remain positive, respectful of the other perspective and be explicit about wanting to move towards productive change.

But also make sure to choose your battles. Successful advocacy for policy change can be very time consuming – spend your time wisely.

It’s important to accept that sometimes you will lose. That’s okay. Policies evolve on both short and long cycles, and the people involved change over time. If it’s a recurring and serious problem and your solution is the right one, then chances are the issue will organically build its own pressure for change and the ground will shift. When it does, have your policy alternative ready to go.

Stephen Price is manager of student affairs in the faculty of applied sciences at Simon Fraser University.

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