Learning on the job: Involve students in the decision-making in universities (6)

(Cartoon: Courtesy of Washington Post)
David Schryer
11/28/2014 4:50 PM
Category: Opinion

David Schryer, a research fellow at the University of Tartu, argues that by including students in the decision-making processes within their respective universities and providing them with the means to assume responsibility for some of the services they depend on, we would create the perfect opportunity for many students to develop critical skills they can use to improve the productivity of Estonian businesses after graduation.

Often, transforming an organization into an effective organization requires balancing the conflicting interests of the parties involved and requires an array of soft skills such as negotiation, conflict resolution, and consensus building. Perhaps these are the most important skills required to accelerate the maturation of many Estonian businesses into business clusters with improved productivity and ability to compete globally.

The modern Estonian republic is by all important measures an effective state and was transformed into one by a diligent, and often youthful and inexperienced team of citizens who gained valuable experience in the process. But today's youth in Estonia do not have the same opportunities to jump into positions of power and learn on the job.

To counter this lull in opportunity for the inexperienced, we should create positions where Estonian youth are able to negotiate for their own success and learn both the soft and hard skills to lead businesses. It is clear that a traditional learning approach will fail in this task because the requisite skills do not often fit into standard curricula and cannot be objectively tested. However, it is equally clear that the required experience must be gained during one's university years without impeding traditional learning.

I argue that by including students in the decision-making processes within their respective universities and providing them with the means to assume responsibility for some of the services they depend on, we will create the perfect opportunity for many students to develop critical soft skills they can use to improve the productivity of Estonian businesses after graduation.

Not a theory, but tried and tested

As a member of the Graduate Student Union executive at the University of Toronto, I witnessed that participating in effective student government can be a truly transformative learning experience. The GSU at UofT is paid a percentage of the total graduate student tuition and employs its own full-time staff and executive members to both provide a wide range of services for students and represent their interests with voting rights at all levels of university governance. Interestingly, we employed staff that were very experienced and often understood the university system better than the university administration. Because students come and go, these dependable people would support our institutional memory and act as professional mentors; two critical components of any effective organization.

For example, Estel Pukk has experience as a student leader, university staff member, university administrator, and now is the head of human resources at a large bank. When asked if students have the skills to work as university administrators, she replied: "I strongly believe that students are far better in providing services to other students than university admin staff. They are closer to the end customer, more flexible and motivated. And most probably the will manage to do it with less costs. I’m sure that providing studies-related support services to fellow students is more educative and a better input for professional careers than working as a waiter in restaurant, also it may seem to be more usual option for students today."

Currently, most university students worldwide interact with university administrations as clients and assume almost no responsibilities for the services they depend on. However, I have yet to meet someone naive enough to believe that university administrations would hand over a portion of their budget and core responsibilities to aid in the professional development of university students. Instead, the state should decree that a fraction of the funds allocated to educate each student must be given directly to democratically elected student organizations. This fraction would be small at first and gradually increase over a number of years as the student organizations mature and assume responsibility for an increasing number of essential services.

Eventually, I envision that students would assume full responsibility for the services they depend on, and the current administration would metamorphize into one that supports university staff, core academic activities, and the management of intellectual property. The political process of dividing and integrating these responsibilities would be very difficult, but can also be viewed as a critical learning experience for the students involved. It has been said that university politics is brutally harsh precisely because the stakes are so low; critical mistakes do not lead to swift punishment by a nuclear armed megalomaniac neighbor.

University politics would certainly allow the next generation of Estonian leaders to test their mettle, however, we must first grant them a seat at the table.

 

David Schryer is a chemical engineer and programmer who works as a molecular biologist at the University of Tartu. He is the founder of ScientificScribe.com and a dedicated advocate of free and open source software and society. The opinions in this article are those of the author.


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