Open Letter to Science Advising

Written by an anonymous math student:

I would like to draw your attention to how poorly Science Advising treats its honours students. In particular, Science Advising’s right to approve or deny an undergraduate student taking graduate courses and counting the credits towards his or her degree is unjust and frankly absurd.

Firstly, this leads to disastrous logistics. Science Advising’s approval or denial of an undergraduate student taking a graduate course often happens well after the start of the term in which the student plans to take the course. This means that the decision of which courses to take often needs to be made before the approval or denial to take the graduate course, which leads to two scenarios. The student could assume that the request would be approved, thus risking a demotion from honours standing, a rescinding of a scholarship, and a timely graduation if the request gets denied. On the other hand, the student could choose to enrol in an enormous course load to retain honours standing, scholarships, and a timely graduation in case the request gets denied, however this is often exhausting and costly for the student. If the request to take graduate courses is denied, it is then upon the student to rally involved faculty members and department administrators to advocate on the student’s behalf. Often this process of petitioning to enrol in a graduate course is more tiring than the curriculum of the course itself.

Secondly, this is a hindrance to the students’ rightful education. Imagine a student who obtained the approval of his or her department to take a graduate course, only to be denied by Science Advising who deemed the course load to be too demanding. Although Science Advising may be trying to help the student, this only creates an even more demanding term. The student would then need to take an extra course to fulfil the credit limit to retain honours standing, and on top of the increased course load, the student would attend the lectures of the said graduate course unofficially and without recognition in the form of credits for his or her degree. Furthermore, Science Advising had no reason to believe that the course load is too demanding other than being scared by the high course numbers. They know neither the student’s capabilities, nor the detailed contents of the course, nor how the course would benefit the student, nor how the student would benefit the learning environment of the course. If the instructor of the course is convinced that the student is academically prepared to take the class, and the department offering the class sees fit to allow the credits to be counted towards the completion of its program, then why should the faculty advising office hold the right to prevent this?

Finally, the 6 credit limit on graduate courses imposed by the faculty is an infringement of academic freedom. Imagine a successful undergraduate student who was accepted into a prestigious PhD program, only to be notified that he or she will not be able to graduate from UBC because he or she could only count 6 of the 12 credits of graduate courses for the undergraduate degree. International students are further hurt by this limit since paying for courses that don’t count towards their degrees could be financially crippling. I do not think it is wise for the faculty to prevent students from pursuing their interests, and penalize students for taking graduate courses instead of other upper year electives. Moreover, many classes that are important in preparation for graduate studies, and indeed expected by graduate programs, are exclusively graduate courses. For honours students, it is often impossible to achieve an acceptable education without going far over the 6 credit limit. For example, the algebraic geometry sequence and algebraic number theory alone puts one at 9 credits. It is understandable that the university’s resources are limited and thus the educational opportunities are inevitably limited, but the faculty going out of its way to further cripple the education and prospects of its students is absurd.

The natural unit of the university is the department, not the faculty; just as the natural unit of society is the family, not the neighbourhood. It is convenient to partition a city into neighbourhoods and to delegate minor administrative matters to neighbourhood associations, but there would be riots in the streets if the state one day demanded that all parenting be regulated at the neighbourhood level. In the same vein, the faculty should only exist to the end of supporting its constituent departments, and any overreach should be considered an affront to academic freedom. The most expedient and just solution to the grievances above is the devolution of powers from faculty advising offices to the departments. Certainly, a mandatory part of this process must involve the complete surrender of approval and denial powers regarding undergraduate students taking graduate courses for credit towards their degrees.