This post is by Nick May, a final year PhD Candidate in RMIT’s School of Computer Science & IT who is looking into how to make service based computing more reliable. In a past life he was a Software Engineer, so he continues to work part of the time, for the University’s eResearch Office.

Nick has been representing research students in an advisory capacity for the School of Graduate Research at RMIT over the last year. Nick writes about why research students at RMIT – and elsewhere in Australia – need to think about recent government legislation on voluntary student unionism. Continue the discussion on the Research Student Association: Google Site

Now is the right time for a Research Student Association

I guess your first question is going to be: Why?

Well, simply put: Money. A more complex answer revolves around the need for a student run organization that supports research students and has a budget to do so.

But first, a bit of history:

Compulsory Non-Academic Fees

Before 2005, it was the rule, with some variations, that Australian universities required students to belong to a student organization that provided on-campus services and amenities, at RMIT this was the RMIT University Student Union (RUSU).  A compulsory fee for membership to this organization was charged to every enrolled student.

In 2006, the federal coalition government abolished this practice. Their main argument was that: the right of association includes the right that no-one should be compelled to join a union. In the wake of this legislation, student union membership plummeted, and consequently funding for services was affected.  As an example, as of 2011, the RMIT Postgraduate Association (RPA) has only 170 members (paid up with RUSU) out of 11,500 postgraduate students enrolled at the university, despite the membership fee only being $60.

The current government has sought to address the reduction of funding for services by again allowing universities to charge a compulsory non-academic fee. The bill, called the ‘Student Services and Amenities Bill’, passed the Senate in July 2011 and will allow universities to charge an annual fee of up to $250 from 1st Jan. 2012. In our case, the fee will be collected and distributed by RMIT: however, the main outstanding issue is: how will the funds be distributed?

The legislation is quite prescriptive about what can be funded by this money. Political activities are specifically excluded, but activities allowed include: student health and welfare, the administration of student clubs, helping students develop study skills, advice on university policies, advocacy for student interests, and others. However, this bill does not specify how much should be spent on each activity.

To address this issue, DEEWR have just released a draft of the funding guidelines; see Dept. of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations: Support for Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy. This requires that the university must determine its funding policy in formal consultation with elected student representatives and major student organizations. In addition, they must consider the needs of different campuses and student cohorts.

Why a Research Student Association?

Over the last six months, I have been involved with the School of Graduate Research (SGR) through a student consultation group. This informal group has been providing feedback to SGR on a range of issues including: research student privileges, orientation and transitions, annual reviews, etc. The discussions within our group have highlighted that research students do indeed form a distinct student cohort, with different goals and needs, which are more like those of the staff than coursework students.

However, these needs are not currently being met. Currently, the most appropriate organization for our cohort is the RPA: however, there are significant factors limiting how useful they are for us;

  • The RPA cannot fund activities outside of the coursework semesters. So all events must be scheduled when most research students are busy with teaching and working with coursework students. Therefore, no funding can be allocated for the five months when the campus is quiet and research students have more time for career development, etc.
  • The RPA cannot spend money on specific events and activities for any membership sub-group, such as research students. Also, the student participation rate in RPA activities is typically low. This means that research students will have to organize their own activities and without any funding from the RPA.
  • The RPA does not actively engage with the SGR, who are a major influence on the research student experience at RMIT.

A Research Student Association would allow us to organize and fund activities specifically for research students at a convenient time in the calendar year. In addition, it could provide an ongoing  conversation with the Research & Innovation Portfolio (via SGR) to help improve the research student experience.

There are, however, significant services that the RUSU and RMIT do provide.  These mainly revolve around the welfare services that all students require, such as health, counseling, legal advice, career advice and accommodation. An RSA would not need to provide these services.

Why do we need an RSA now?

As a separate cohort, we lack the numbers to influence existing student bodies. By forming our own association it will allow us to have a say in how the funds from our fees are distributed and used to support the special role we have within the University.

So what now? Who wants to get involved? What activities would you like an RSA to organize? How would an RSA be run?

That’s what I’m asking you… Continue the discussion on the Research Student Association: Google Site

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