MSc/MA Supervision Credit

This article, written by Russell Wyeth, appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The Beacon.

Following the conclusion of our recent collective bargaining process, an inequality amongst our members has been established. Faculty in Education will receive teaching credit for supervision of Master’s theses, while faculty in science and the arts will not (Section 1.3.6 of the 4th Collective Agreement).  The Administration has indicated that their refusal to provide credit for supervision of MSc and MA theses was linked to the longstanding practice of providing “tuition waivers” to MSc students.  However, during bargaining, the inequality created by discriminating between faculty members in different disciplines was recognized by both parties, and a letter of understanding (LOU #1) was signed by the administration and the union to strike a committee to explore options for providing Master’s thesis supervision credit outside of the Faculty of Education.

There are several important considerations to be tackled by this committee:

  1. Supervising Master’s student theses requires substantial amounts of time, regardless of the faculty in which the Master’s student is enrolled.
  1. Teaching of Master’s students is not limited to thesis supervision. Master’s programs also require faculty to prepare and deliver graduate-level courses (for which no credit is currently given in MA or MSc programs).
  1. Teaching credit is enshrined in our collective bargaining agreement as a mechanism to manage equal teaching duties among faculty. Linking this to tuition waivers provided to certain students conflates faculty workload (and compensation) with a student support program. Should faculty teaching varsity athletes receive diminished teaching credit if those athletes receive financial support to defray the costs of tuition?
  1. In the sciences, the “tuition waivers” are not, in-fact, a waiver of tuition with no strings attached. They are, in fact, compensation for teaching duties (in labs, grading, etc.) that amount to the value of one year’s tuition.  They are, in fact, a paid teaching assistantship (TAship), as found in most graduate schools in North America.  The use of “tuition waiver” is a misnomer that has unfortunately persisted.
  1. In addition to providing important financial support to individual Master’s students, the TAship (“tuition waiver”) is a critical research support.
  • Standard practice in science is to pay all graduate students a nominal salary each year, sufficient to cover living costs and tuition. Recruiting good MSc students in competition with other institutions depends on whether or not we can offer sufficient financial supports.  Other institutions can draw on a variety of internal funding options in addition to provincial and national fellowships and faculty research grants.  At StFX, our only internal support is the TAships program.
  • In sciences, supervision of graduate students is becoming (has become) an essential gatekeeper for any chance at Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and other funding sources. Without graduate programs at StFX, anything more than token scientific research will dwindle in the future.  The TAships are the only concrete support of graduate student training that faculty members can use in their grant applications as evidence of StFX’s commitment to training future researchers at the graduate level.
  • Supporting graduate students has important knock-on benefit for undergraduate research experiences. Graduate students act as valuable role models and mentors as undergraduates are introduced to research.  Moreover, funding undergraduate research opportunities is also tightly linked to research support in general and graduate student support particularly.  In sciences, 14 NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards are available annually, subsidizing salary of Honours and other undergraduates conducting scientific research in labs at StFX.  The number of these awards is directly tied to the total funding we receive from NSERC.  Thus, once the effect of graduate student support on grant application success is considered, the graduate student TAships are a critical piece in supporting our undergraduate research experiences.

In summary, given the insistence by the administration to link “tuition waivers” to redressing the inequality in Master’s supervision, the committee has some important work to do in order to ensure that adequate research, graduate and undergraduate student support are maintained (or improved) while ensuring faculty outside of education receive credit where credit is due for Master’s thesis supervision.