Educational and Student Policy
Supporting graduate students
Key points from the LTS event held on 25 February 2010
On this page:
- University support (via the Board of Graduate Studies)
- College support
- Students' Union support (from CUSU and the GU)
- BGS and GU/CUSU presentations shown at the event
Dr Kate Maxwell, Secretary to the Board of Graduate Studies (email@example.com)
The role of the Board of Graduate Studies (BGS)
Kate distinguished between the BGS Committee, which focuses on governance and policy, and the BGS Office, which has a remit for administration and procedure.
BGS' role in supporting graduate students is to:
- offer advice on correct procedures;
- generate new policy in support of graduate students;
- ensure that the quality of teaching provided to graduate students is appropriate.
However, BGS cannot provide pastoral support or offer subjective advice as this might lead to conflicts of interest with the Board's decision-making powers.
BGS' main areas of advice for graduate students are:
- student complaints (procedures and timetables etc);
- fees and funding (fee status, hardship, award eligibility etc), where necessary directing students to further sources of information and contacts;
- graduate examinations (special arrangements and procedures etc);
- registry functions (intermission, leave to work away etc), in partnership with Colleges and departments.
In addition to advising current and prospective students the Board advises and consults others who support graduate students, including: the Colleges (particularly Graduate Tutors), departments, Schools and Graduate Schools, the Disability Resource Centre (DRC), the University Counselling Service (UCS), the newly formed Points-Based Immigration (PBI) Office, GU & CUSU, and the International Office. BGS also takes the priorities of external stakeholders (e.g. the funding bodies and government) into account when determining policy.
BGS involvement with the quality agenda
The results of the recent national Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) highlighted particular concerns, so the Board will ask Graduate Schools and Schools what actions they plan to take to improve the student experience in these areas. The University will participate in a similar study of taught graduate students this year. BGS is also involved in the quality agenda though its work with the Education Section, scrutiny of External Examiners' reports, and contribution to the annual Quality Update process.
In accordance with QAA requirements, BGS publish a Code of Practice for Research Degrees which sets out the University's minimum expectations in areas such as supervision and examination. A similar Code will be published for taught Masters Degrees (MPhils and MRes) in 2010. Students are increasingly aware of the Code and refer to it in complaints so it is important that all those involved in supporting graduate students are familiar with the Codes.
BGS' website (www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/gradstud/) contains further information about the Board. It will be revamped during 2010 to be more informative and easier to navigate.
Dr Patricia Fara, Senior Tutor at Clare College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Bobbie Wells, Senior Tutor at Clare Hall (email@example.com)
Emergency and routine support
Colleges offer a huge amount of financial and pastoral support to students, both as a matter of routine and in emergencies. Exceptional support can encompass everything from giving emergency financial help to students affected by currency crashes, to accommodating the needs of students with disabilities and severe medical conditions, and dealing with student deaths and accommodation crises.
Routine support includes providing accommodation and a supportive network and environment. Many Colleges make major efforts to involve graduate students in College life; for example, by engaging them to help teach undergraduates about study skills, holding research symposiums so that they can present their work in a non-threatening environment, and offering social events and specific workshops in areas such as academic language conventions.
Unlike BGS Colleges can offer advice and negotiate between students and departments to help resolve any problems. Consequently Colleges work closely with departments to ensure that they are up-to-date with graduate provision.
Sharing good practice between Colleges
College Tutorial Secretaries and Administrators have a key role in supporting graduate students as they are often in most frequent contact with students and so are more able to identify early warning signs. The Graduate Tutors Secretaries' Committee is consequently an important forum for sharing good practice which feeds into the Graduate Tutors' Committee (GTC), a sub-Committee of the Senior Tutors' Committee, to share concerns and ideas between the Colleges. The GTC includes representatives from the PBI Office, International Office, GU, CUSU, BGS, UCS, Senior Tutors' Standing Committees on Education and Welfare and Finance, and the Graduate Tutors Secretaries.
At the start of this academic year the Senior Tutors' Committee and GTC established three working groups to explore how graduate student support could be enhanced in the following areas:
- the Collegiate University;
- student finance;
- student support.
The working groups will report their findings to Senior and Graduate Tutors at a Breakfast Meeting in April.
Findings to date of the student support working group
The student support working group has particularly focused on the experience of part-time and international students. There are still relatively few part-time graduate students at Cambridge, but numbers are likely to increase so the working group is keen to learn from students what additional or special support is needed. Suggestions have included: giving a Graduate Tutor responsibility for part-time students, creating a special welcome pack for part-time students, allowing part-time students to use any spare College rooms, and offering help with time-management.
There are an increasing proportion of international students in the graduate student population, particularly from China and North America. It is vital for students (especially those on one-year courses) to rapidly acclimatize to studying and living in Cambridge, so they need support from the outset. Where possible Colleges provide accommodation for these students, and many also provide special induction activities to help students to be aware of any cultural differences that might affect their study (e.g. in areas such as appeals and plagiarism) and special training in the use of academic English. It was noted that PBI had added a new financial and administrative burden to Colleges, although it could be used as an opportunity for students, Colleges and departments to work more closely together. Supporting overseas students with disabilities can also be expensive for Colleges as overseas students are not entitled to the Disabled Student Allowance.
More generally, in response to concerns about the graduate student experience in general, including concerns with regard to supervisions which were evident in this year's PRES results, the working party would like to encourage students to familiarise themselves with BGS' Code of Practice, as this will help to manage any unrealistic expectations about supervisors. The working party is also keen to encourage training for graduate supervisors.
Amiya Bhatia, CUSU Welfare & Graduates Officer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jenny Harcourt, Graduate Union President (email@example.com)
Roles and aims of the GU and CUSU
The GU is the only students' union in the UK that works exclusively for graduate students. It provides individual student support, representation on many University-wide committees, social events, and a café and study facilities at 17 Mill Lane. A flexible group of sub-committees can explore and make recommendations for addressing concerns about graduate student support as they arise.
CUSU, is the representative body for all undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University. CUSU campaigns in the interests of students while providing academic and welfare support, services, entertainment and representation in Cambridge and nationally. CUSU provides confidential and impartial support for all graduate students and has a team of six full time sabbatical officers and 40 students working on campaigns, events and student support.
The GU and CUSU work closely together and share the following aims:
- to support, train and connect MCRs and Faculty representatives;
- to represent students in University committees;
- to represent individual students in colleges if necessary;
- to work with University bodies (UCS, BGS, DRC etc), college nurses and chaplains;
- to provide confidential and impartial support to all students;
- to refer, signpost and highlight sources of support and advice in Colleges, the University and in Cambridge;
- to address key welfare issues across the University.
Key current issues for graduate students
- Accommodation – the development of North West Cambridge and how and where to accommodate the increasing numbers of graduate students, especially those with families.
- Finance and funding – the need for clear and transparent information as well as hardship support.
- Dignity at study – encouraging the approval of cohesive University-wide guidelines.
- International students – visa information, orientation, and support.
- Disabled students – encouraging students to disclose any disabilities at an early stage and ensuring that they are aware of available support.
Plans and priorities
The GU and CUSU have recently received permission for the creation of a new sabbatical post of Student Support Officer to work jointly with the GU and CUSU from July 2010. This new Officer will be able to undertake more of the student casework. Funding has also been secured to appoint a full-time Student Advisor who will be able to offer professional and impartial advice to graduate students. This is an exciting development as Cambridge is currently the only Russell Group University which does not provide such support and the Advisor will help to ensure continuity in support between Sabbatical Officers and ensure that students have access to impartial, professional and confidential support.
At a University-wide level, CUSU and the GU plan to improve engagement with MCRs and further empower Faculty representatives so that they feel comfortable raising their ideas for enhancing student support.
The following presentations are available to download in pdf format: