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  • Ethan Rogacion

Revealed: The University (Finally) Explains The Advanced Graduation Debacle

(spoilers: its their own fault)


ETHAN ROGACION (HE/HIM)



PICTURED: A large green banner at Pipitea Campus congragulates students who were told they couldn't graduate in May



It's graduation season—if you’re marching down Lambton Quay and receiving a shiny piece of paper this week, congratulations! As you do, though, spare a thought for students that have not been able to join you in celebrating your accomplishments due to changes in University policies.


Documents recently obtained by Salient under the Official Information Act reveal that the University’s changes to advanced graduation have not been done in accordance with its own advice, which indicated that scrapping the option would only be possible if there are three graduation ceremonies per year.


Until last year, students who finished their courses but had not yet received their final grades had the option to apply for “advanced graduation”, allowing them to participate in the next graduation ceremony. For example, a student that finished their course in November of Trimester Two would be able to apply for the December graduation. Without this option, the next ceremony that students would be able to attend would be in May of the following year. 


In 2023, Salient discovered that the option had been quietly removed from the University’s website, without full communication to staff and students. This had a disproportionate impact on international students; advanced graduation allows them to participate in a ceremony without having to fly back to Aotearoa the following year. 


Policy documents revealed to Salient via an OIA request the University acknowledged that, despite advanced graduation greatly benefiting international students and students doing thesis programmes, “The advanced graduation process is an administratively burdensome process and faculties would welcome its removal.” 


In order to eliminate the administrative burden of allowing students to celebrate their graduation in a timely manner, staff came up with an alternative proposal: having three ceremonies per year. “It won’t be possible to eliminate advance graduation unless we do that,” wrote former Vice-Provost (Academic) Stuart Brock. There are still two ceremonies.

 

As part of the policy, the University also decided to make degree conferment an automatic process, unrelated to the graduation ceremony itself. As former Vice-Chancellor Grant Guildford explained in an email, “Council have already made the decision that [degree] conferment occurs at the Council meeting and the graduation ceremony is simply a celebration.”

The OIA request also revealed a number of documents showing miscommunication between the University and VUWSA during consultation. In its policy outline, the University told VUWSA that, “Advance graduation is removed in the expectation of having three ceremonies per year”, and also included a clause which “[allowed] flexibility to change the number of ceremonies per year.” This led to the 2021 VUWSA executive agreeing to advanced graduation’s removal on the assumption that this would be done alongside the establishment of three ceremonies per year.


VUWSA Advocate Erica Schouten was critical of this discrepancy, telling Salient that, “the move to remove advanced graduation was coupled with a decision to bring in three graduations a year, and the fact that the three graduations a year did not happen means that any of the decision making around that is invalidated.”


“Essentially, VUWSA and other student representatives would never have agreed to students finishing their degree in February and having to wait until December to graduate, because that’s just fundamentally unreasonable. But, it makes sense that we agreed with the removal of advanced graduation if we thought that there would be three graduations a year.”


The University responded to this saying that, even within its own staff, the reason for there not being three graduations a year, despite advanced graduation still being unavailable to students, is unclear. “Those involved in the decision making are no longer at the University and we are unable to provide the rationale for the decision,” said Logan Bannister, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students). However, she explained that there is potential for this to change.


“…[T]he current Te Hiwa team is focused on ensuring graduation is as good as it can be and will be looking for ways to enhance the timeliness of graduations and improve the student experience with graduation, which may include a third graduation ceremony.”

 

In any case, this continues to have impacts on students. As Salient has previously reported, some students that finished at the end of Trimester Three in February had been told by the University that they would not be able to attend a graduation until December. According to revealed documents, this was because, “The Student Success advising team do not commence the auditing of the second half of Tri Three, until after the start of Tri One, and these degrees are conferred at the next available University Council meeting which will be in May.”


Some students appealed this, applying for special permission to attend May’s graduation ceremony—but this was by no means a simple process. 


One case uncovered by the OIA involved a student who had moved out of Wellington due to personal circumstances, and took a Trimester Three course aiming to graduate in this week’s ceremony. They argued that they were told by their student success advisor that they would be eligible, but later found out that they were in fact not. They told Adrienne McGovern-Faircloth, the Associate Director for Tītoko that, “The lack of communication from the university has been disheartening.”


In response, McGovern-Faircloth told this student, “We are not able to check on the result for each student daily and we must use the official grade deadlines to commence processing for graduation. The student was subsequently denied an exception to attend the ceremony. 


Other students faced similar rejections from Tītoko, with others saying that they were “utterly disappointed”, and felt “quite confused and frustrated, as [they had] no communication” about changes to graduation deadlines. Tītoko staff proceeded to argue that the changes had been “widely consulted upon” and were “driven from student feedback” which, as explained, is factually untrue.


Some students who cited exceptional circumstances (such as moving overseas or having loved ones already book flights and accommodation for the May graduation) were granted special permission to attend the ceremony, but this was not universal.


Bannister acknowledged student discontent, telling Salient that feedback given to Tītoko “will drive improvements for our students and will include a particular focus on communication. This includes providing clarity around what happens between grade submission and graduation to ensure a smoother transition for graduates.”


“A review of the current Graduation Procedure is currently being managed by the Academic Office.”


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