The recent Canadian Association of Graduate Studies conference saw a heated debate over the issue of student representation, but the decision taken last year, to remove the seat, was maintained.
CAGS celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, and graduate students held a seat on the CAGS Board from the early 2000s until it was controversially removed at the 2011 conference.
Noreen Golfman, newly elected president of CAGS, said after this year’s conference (held Nov.4- 7 in Ottawa), that last year’s decision “came down to us not having confidence that the representative was truly representative of all grad students.”
The student seat alternated between the Canadian Federation of Students and the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec. However, Dr. Golfman said CAGS conferences were often marked by fighting between students as to who should represent them. In addition, graduate student interests were not always aligned with those of the CAGS Board. Students have their own agendas about tuition and funding, said Dr. Golfman. “You can see all of this very clearly now in view of what happened in Quebec this summer.”
The removal last year resulted in a small protest demonstration, but no similar actions were taken this year. Instead, many students voiced their discontent during a session for graduate students at what they saw as a lack of inclusion of graduate student interests.
Some student representatives called for the reinstatement of the position. Adam Awad, the chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, said that it is important to have formal student representation on the CAGS Board, and that removing the seat sent a negative message to students. He argued that advocacy work about graduate studies should also include graduate students’ perspectives.
Dr. Golfman said she doesn’t see these perspectives as always compatible. “Although we might be arguing and advocating and watchdogging on behalf of student interests, we’re not necessarily always aligned,” with how graduate students define their interests, she said. “We thought it was healthier for us, and more forceful for us, to be lobbying on behalf of graduate studies, not necessarily on behalf of grad students. These are maybe subtle distinctions.”
Mr. Awad disagreed, arguing there is no distinction between graduate studies and graduate students: “To see graduate studies as separate from graduate students is like discussing research without considering the researcher,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, which never held a seat on the CAGS board, wasn’t advocating for the seat to be restored, but it did want CAGS to be more inclusive of graduate students.
”I’m not 100-percent happy right now and I say that because after the seat was removed last year, I suggested to CAGS at the time, and I suggested it again this year, that we really need to make sure that there is ongoing dialogue throughout the year,” said Amanda Nielsen, secretary with the CASA. “It has to be a more structured format that invites inclusive participation.”
Ms. Golfman said “I think there’s a misunderstanding of our intentions and the effectiveness of the kind of engagement we’re seeking. The last thing we’re interested in is excluding students. It’s quite the opposite. We’re trying to seek more space for them in [the CAGS conference] agenda.”