The fight for no deadlines: the time/quality debate on students’ theses

Do the deadlines kill the investigative mind? Is introducing fees for submitting a thesis during the next academic year unfair? Would it lower the academic quality of student work?

The Engaged University, or Uniwersytet Zaangażowany, is a student-based initiative at the University of Warsaw devoted to ‘democratization of the university’. With ‘university is not a company’ motto, they constitute a visible, albeit marginal, local movement at the biggest Polish public university. Their stated ambitions include increasing student (and faculty) voice in decisions regarding administration of the university, most notably introduction of additional fees (tuition is generally free in Poland, in the public sector).

Let’s democratize the Polish university!

The Engaged University demands include, among others:

  • shifting the percentage of student members in university Senate from 20 to 30%,
  • introducing elements of direct democracy (referenda),
  • increasing transparency of the university by publishing reslutions and contracts in public domain,
  • dismantling all additional fees (for diplomas, student ID etc.),
  • introducing diverse modes of course evaluation,
  • limiting the bureaucratization of faculty work, by removing learning outcomes from the syllabuses,
  • smaller classes,
  • restoring ‘absolutorium’ (institution similar to ABD), with the right to submit thesis at any moment without further fees.

I will focus on the last demand, as it was one of two that sparked the students to create Engaged University. After six months of consultations, new study regulations were accepted by the Senate of University of Warsaw. The Student Parliament has the right to veto the regulations during the next session. A fraction within the Parliament has deemed new regulations unacceptable, and attended the session with transparents, as well as invited 100 student supporters. Their main claim was that the university is not a company, while new regulations are aimed at maximizing profit by charging students that fail to submit the thesis by the end of September with a fee that is to be determined by the departments (up to 20% of tuition for paying/international students).

It is less interesting if they were right, ie. if the situation of students was better under the old regulations than under new ones that have been finally accepted by a narrow margin. This is as debatable as an ad-hoc proposal made by Engaged University late into the session to hold a university-wide student referendum on the regulations, before the student parliament make their decision. What is truly interesting are the arguments that Engaged University has used to promote their demand of free absolutioria as a student right.

Thesis writing as a piece work?

In short, the initiative ‘liked’ by 3.000 people and supported by 160 faculty members presented absolutorium as a traditional academic institution that constitutes a safety margin for many students. Over 1450 signatures have been placed under a petition that wanted to remove the fees for submission of the thesis after the deadline. Students held transparents reading “University is not a corporation”, “I won’t do research over the weekend”, “No new students rules without students’ consent”.

It has been stated that introduction of those fees is a symptom of academic capitalism, that the university wants to earn money from students, that it promotes less demanding tasks and topics, is a sign of dumbing-down in higher education and that it does not take into account the situation of students, whose big percentage is working part- or full-time while studying. And, to top it all, that the best theses take much longer than two years of MA studies to complete.

Apogeum of this discussion took place at the student parliament on May, 11th. The session has been attended by the Rector of University of Warsaw (Marcin Pałys), who defended the changes in study regulations and hold that the situation of students has not worsen with a new proposal. After his statement, he participated in Q&A session, which has been live transcribed by members of Engaged University.

Here is the translation of some relevant voices:

Eliasz Robakiewicz (student, philosophy): Why do you (rector) support changes that de facto introduce financial penalties for submitting a thesis after the deadline? It will lead to a situation in which many student cannot afford studying. Why a fee, and not other way to handle the issue?

Rector: If the thesis requires too much work, maybe it is beneficial to find a shorter topic and work on it instead. (…)

Rafał Skrzypaszek (student, political sciences): But two years for writing MA thesis is not all – those who extend this period often receive awards in nation-wide contests.

Rector: The case of award to a post-deadline thesis is an exception, not a rule. (…)

Ryszard (student, MISH): Most students awarded “Diamond Grants” – the best future scholars – have not sumbitted their MA theses on time.

Rector: Indeed, it is not the best solution. One can also apply for a grant after submitting MA thesis. (edit: As a holder of Diamond Grant myself, I do not get it. The grant can only be awarded to holders of a BA, and was aimed to facilitate the transition to PhD studies by starting research for dissertation earlier. University of Warsaw continues to require Diamond Grant holders to apply for a PhD as regular candidates, who are required to have MA before entering doctoral program (October 1st). Deadline for applying for Diamond Grants is in Winter.)

Pachowska (MISH): University of Warsaw wants to promote promptness. But how to promote quality of academic work? I understand that we are left with two options: sabbatical leave for students (but you then do not complete your studies), or by PhD studies – but it only happens at the next stage. Maybe the same learning outcomes can be achieved in 5 years instead of 9. (…)

Rector: But one thing should be in common to all departments: it is not normal that a student comes to director of studies and states that he can only work on one project, regardless of how much time it takes and whether it leads anybody anywhere. As to promptness and quality, I see it that we promote quality. That’s why a thesis is graded.

Voice from the audience: University has to take into account those who work while studying, to even enter university (…)

Rector: If a student works on very important research, he can go on compassionate leave. There are other leaves as well. It is also an option to extend studies for three months, if there is a need to. But somewhere we need to place the border – and it is always open to discuss, if we are in the right place. (…) Let’s not build a system based on exceptions. (…) Doing a good job, and doing a good job on time are both fine situations, but the second is better. (…) There is no need say the longer the better – after completing your regular studies you also have to sustain yourself. It is best when both well and on time. Let’s stick to this idea.

 

After the rector left the session, a fascinating story has just unveiled. Students gathered at the parliament wanted a discussion, while student representatives wanted to end the consultation process by voting. Their contradictory claims were basically a legitimacy issue, and they gave rise to further discussions of students’ democratic representatives and their role in wider university governance. A secret ballot was held, an unusual procedure, and accusations of betrayal took stage. But this is another story.

Why should we want the opposite?

Few things come to mind when it comes to absolutorium itself.

First of all, students (as well as faculty members who really like this mantra) do not really know what a corporation is. The tend to present ‘publish-or-perish’ and ‘complete-on-time-or-pay-fees’ as something substantially different than ‘do your job or get fired’. Not everyone has to be a student, after all, you can have other priorities. But those priorities have consequences for your standing as a student. In Poland, higher education is ‘free’, that means significant part of students do not pay tuition at public universities, and all are eligible for scholarship for academic achievement (10%), or income-based support. With numerous, but in many fields undemanding courses, many students do combine studying and working. But it is a little bit obscene to ask a university to take into account that students may do other things and subject the time of university employees to a student schedule.

When we are at the time issue, time-management is also important. Part of studying is learning the responsibility, and this means also not to bite off more than one can chew. In Poland it is considered a student right to take one re-sit in February and September for each exam of autumn and spring session subsequently. With coninuous grading extremely unpopular, a significant part of work (both on faculty and stuent side) is to be made outside of class – and well after the course concludes. Faculty members in public universities are low-paid, and expecting them to work for a student whenever he or she finds it convenient is a little bit too much.

But all of it is less personal, and more a work ethic problem. Neither party in Polish university has a really strong values related to keeping with the deadlines, or doing particularily good job either in class or outside of it. The argument that the longer a thesis takes, the better it is going to be, is an example of questionable organicism. But this organicism is already well grounded in Polish academia, and it takes various forms: defending university autonomy from governmental regulation, demanding direct subsidies instead of research grants, obstructing work on learning outcomes of programs and courses. The effects of long-ruling organicism in Polish higher education are hardly visible, but it only makes their supporters more convinced that we did not have enough of it.

As for program design, there may be too many MA courses, especially questionable are those attended during the last term that do not contribute to the thesis. But it is not to be solved by extending the thesis submission, but by relevant decisions of departmental councils that approve study programs. Do students really spend their time productively, but still they cannot meet a two-year deadline?

Without fees, the position of student members in convincing the councils that current policy is ill defined is even weaker than with them in place. Only with a system of financial penalties their devotion to academic standards may be believed, because such system would promote meeting deadlines and structuring the work on a thesis. In fact, if students would really want to secure academic level of their work, they should propose mechanisms that would promote regular supervision, and claim the time of director of studies long before September – if only to make sure the faculty would not obstruct the process. I cannot see how doing your thing on time make it less relevant; for students entering job market after graduation learning the lesson of systematic work may be equally important as the course materials.

Finally, neither party has presented data showing the scale of aproblem. The rector suggested that best students who do not finish on time are an exception, not a rule. On the contrary, students have claimed that best theses are submitted only after the deadline. It is not really that hard to imagine that an institution with 50k enrollment could check the facts, and numbers. If not for the sake of transparency, then maybe for making a case for new regulation.

The only partial evidence that may be relevant here is that students wishing to pursue their PhD directly after their MA has to defend their MA thesis in September at most, so their work in general have to be completed by the end of August. Without numbers of students paying fees to restore their student status (required for final MA exam), this discussion has more to do with values than academic governance, fees or real students.

Generation Y: the need to feel important

It started from absolutorium, but soon grew to include other matters of univeristy governance. After the famous parliament of May, 11th, Engaged University held a rally at the university, claimed to be the first student protest there since 1987. Now their website is a full-throttle proposal to change a university into a more democratized environment. Members of Engaged University have also been interviewed in English and have thus shown their views to international audience. Interestingly, they do not say much about the thesis deadline and fees.

The summer holidays have just started in Poland, and sustaining media and student attention over this period may be more difficult for Engaged University than they imagine. Their new aim is to win the students’ parliament election this autumn, and then promote their demands as students’ representatives.

If they only were better students.

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