By Megha Kaveri Puthucode Sreeram
With the official start of the new academic year just days away, the Graduate Institute Students Association (GISA) conducted its Town Hall on September 16, 2021, Thursday. As it rained outside, around 25 students gathered in the theatre of Grand Morillon Students residence to discuss and debate the issues concerning them. This was the second Town Hall overall that was conducted by GISA.
The Town Hall started off with opening remarks by Aishwarya Tendolkar, the President of GISA, who reminded the students about the upcoming elections to the student organisation. She said that all the relevant communication regarding the elections, candidacy, spending limits, open positions etc will be sent via emails to the students and implored everyone to actively take part in the elections. GISA is an elected student association of the Graduate Institute that conducts elections every semester. Essentially, half the board members change every semester and the tenure of each position is usually a year.
Among the issues raised by the students gathered for the Town Hall, the first one was about how there is a lack of information regarding the professors and courses. Students expressed their disappointment in that the Institute or GISA do not share enough information or reviews about the professors, that would enable students to make informed decisions while selecting courses for the upcoming semesters. Though course evaluations happen at the end of every semester, those are official processes put in place by the Institute. The feedback given by the students is held by the Institute and is not available for the students to read and make choices.
While the GISA President acknowledged the issue, she reminded everyone that the ‘Unofficial Course Evaluations’, which is a collection of professor-reviews written by students from across programmes, came into picture only in 2020 and that the folder is available to students to read and know more about the professors. She also invited suggestions to make more information available from the audience.
Among the suggestions were: using digital tools to provide feedback on professors that can be accessible to the students, sharing a similar feedback form (as the Institute does) among the students, and also to get back to basics — write feedback on papers and collect them from the students so as to ensure anonymity. The GISA President thanked everyone for their suggestions and added that while submitting feedback on paper is a good idea, it will also require considerable amount of backend work to digitise the content received.
The next topic of discussion at the Town Hall was based on the suggestion of a student submitted via the online form sent by GISA. The student had flagged the issue of scholarships offered by the Institute. The GISA President told the audience that the association is actively working on demanding more transparency from the Institute in relation to the scholarships provided to students. Elaborating on the issue, she said that GISA has demanded the Institute to provide the criteria based on which scholarships have been allotted (the total number of ‘merit-based’ and ‘need-based’ scholarships) without compromising on the identity of the beneficiaries. She added that the Institute is yet to respond to the demand and that GISA will keep the students posted on the progress based on what transpires in the meeting with the Institute later this month.
Bilingualism as a policy
The Graduate Institute is a bilingual institution with French and English as official languages. Students receive most emails from the Institute in both languages and are allowed to submit their class work and thesis in French and English. However, most communications sent out by GISA are only in English, which puts students who are comfortable with French but not with English at a disadvantage. This issue was raised by a student at the Town Hall, who questioned why GISA was not following the Institute’s language policy in their own communications. The GISA President acknowledged the oversight in their emails and added that they should have been more thoughtful about the language of the emails. She added that moving forward, the association will strive to stick to the language policy of the Institute by sending communications in both French and English. Another student also flagged the issue of how a majority of GISA are not French speakers and said that some positions in GISA ought to be reserved for those who know and speak French fluently. The GISA President responded that mandating fluency in French to be eligible to contest for GISA positions will amount to discrimination. She highlighted that all the students who are enrolled in the Institute are anyway learning French compulsorily and that the Graduate Institute, unlike many institutes of higher education in Geneva, is made up of a diverse and global student body.
Students also suggested that the Institute must allow academic submissions like assignments and theses in other languages like Spanish, Arabic etc, provided the professor and the specific student are comfortable with that.
This conversation also veered into the possibility of creating a few new positions on the GISA Board that requires French knowledge. One of the participants also highlighted that since the elected members of the GISA Board enjoy tuition waivers (which is a form of remuneration), they ought to do better to represent the interests of the student community.
The GISA President said that the Board is deliberating on the matter of creating new positions and that students are welcome to propose and vote on the issue in the upcoming GISA General Assembly. The President also spoke about how a student can work for GISA without being a part of the Board and encouraged the audience to volunteer for it, in the interest of the students. She added that just because the elected members are effectively paid for the work they do, they don’t get to be bullied.. She reiterated that GISA is for the students and that the goal is to work in tandem with the students’ welfare and needs .
She said that GISA has been tirelessly working on some issues over the past six months and that creating a new position on the Board will not solve the lack of intent from the side of the (Institute and housing) administration. She elaborated on an example of how the students association has been demanding ‘Residence Assistants’ to be posted at two residences to work as a bridge between the students living there and the administration. While the Institute has allegedly assured action on the idea, GISA is yet to hear back from the residences, as per the GISA President.
During the Town Hall, Monideepa Mukherjee, the President of the Welfare Committee also highlighted the different matters in which GISA’s advocacy has succeeded. She said that GISA had demanded gender-neutral bathrooms and an increase in the number of scholarships and special aids given to students. She said that as per the Institute, the students who do not receive scholarships during the first year of study are not eligible to apply for it in their subsequent years. However, Special Aids are available for students in their second years even if they don’t receive scholarships in their first year of study.
She also listed the items GISA is currently working on like ensuring that the Institute refills the tampons-sanitary napkins dispensers on campus, demanding better response from the housing administration about issues faced by the residents, increasing student spaces within the Institute and others.
The COVID conundrum
It is common knowledge that the Institute has ramped up COVID-19 precautions within its premises and in the premises of its students residences Picciotto house and Grand Morillon. Students, on Thursday, expressed their angst at not being able to participate in a lot of events organised by GISA and other students initiatives due to the requirement of a Swiss COVID certificate. Students, especially from outside the European Union, who have received vaccines other than Pfizer, Moderna and J&J, are at a disadvantage since Switzerland does not recognise other vaccines for the purpose of issuing certificates. It was only a few days ago that the Cantonal authorities started accepting applications for a Swiss certificate from people who have been vaccinated abroad with other vaccines like AstraZeneca and Covishield. However, the delay involved in processing the applications submitted by students who are fully vaccinated with one of the other vaccines like AstraZeneca and Covishield means that they will not be eligible to participate in many Welcome Month events.
The GISA President assured that she is aware of the problem and implored the students to wait till Monday for a clearer picture of the rules. Alison Eddy, the Administrative Director of GISA said that since the Graduate Institute has a wider international student body, it is already doing just the bare minimum in relation to the COVID precautionary measures to ensure that students are not left in the lurch. She added that ‘Internal events’ of the Institute wouldn’t require COVID certificates and are hence open to every student. Clarifying that ‘Internal events’ refer to the events that solely consist of the Graduate Institute community. Alison said that ‘External events’ which will have guests from outside will require COVID certificate. GISA representatives also added that students can plan in advance and get Rapid Antigen Tests, which are free of cost in Geneva, to be able to participate in events.
While the GISA President said that free vaccination days for students are in the offing, she advocated against getting vaccinated again if one is already completely vaccinated. She also propped up the upcoming Town Hall to be held by the Director of the Institute exclusively for COVID-related queries.
The students, meanwhile, suggested thatGISA add the details about COVID certificate requirement in the emails they send about the upcoming events, so that students can plan accordingly, which was accepted by GISA.
After around two hours of deliberations and discussions, the GISA Town Hall came to an end with Monideepa reminding the audience that they have five free therapy sessions to avail if needed and to ensure their wellbeing through the upcoming semester.
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