The little student association that could

To kick off the MGA’s 60th anniversary, read the story of two MGA staff members who have been with us for half that time!

Back in 1961, a small group of Monash graduate research students saw a need to start up an organisation that would shine a light on the specific needs of graduate students. Now, after many executive committees, staff transitions, lobbying campaigns and a few name changes, we are still going strong as the Monash Graduate Association and this year, we are proud to celebrate 60 years supporting graduate students at Monash University.

When it comes to understanding the evolution of the organisation for at least half of those sixty years, there are no better people to ask than two of our longest-serving staff members: current MGA Executive Officer Jenny Reeder, who began in 1991, and Senior Advocate Zuzana Quinn who started in 1993. 

“That was in the pre-Cambrian era,” jokes Zuzana. “Back when the MGA was called Mesopotamian Student Association.”

Jenny adds, “and can we please just forget the shoulder pads, shiny materials and crimped hair… forever?”

Jokes aside, Jenny reflects what the organisation was like when she began as a part-time Off-Campus Development Officer when it was known as the Monash Postgraduate Association (MPA).

“There were only three other staff members: a Project Officer who started on the same day as me; a secretary, and a wonderful Executive Officer Margaret Sloan, who was one of the most passionate, ethical and dedicated people I have ever met, and from whom I learned a lot about persistence, lobbying, integrity and kindness.”

At the time, the organisation was woefully under-funded and under-resourced. The four staff members were squashed into a tiny office space where chairs had to be moved every time someone needed to get out of the office. However, Jenny says, these conditions actually gave the staff and committee a feeling of camaraderie and the impetus to lobby hard to promote the needs of the graduate student community.

Zuzana joined the team a few years later in 1993. She was a graduate student herself, half way through her Master of Laws. When Jenny went on maternity leave, Zuzana applied for her position temporarily and then never left. 

There were very few graduate coursework degrees in the ‘90s, so the team supported a student community made up of mostly research students. 

“We used to get a lot of students from Arts wanting to join our committee,” says Jenny. “Now we get a lot of students from Business and Economics, which reflects the growth of enrolments in that area.”

Both reflect that the issues graduate students faced in the 1990s were not that different from now. They were concerned about scholarship rates, student-supervisor relationships, the cost of parking on campus, the lack of public transport to Clayton campus and striving for the recognition that graduate students have different needs to undergraduates.

The main difference is that, back then, the staff attempted to solve these issues without computers. “As advocates,” says Zuzana, “we used to resolve most cases by knocking on doors and having a chat with relevant staff at Monash. Monash has become more bureaucratic and corporatised and that doesn’t really happen anymore.”

Jenny agrees that when she started, the University staff and student populations were smaller, and the atmosphere was more collegial. “You would often bump into a senior manager buying their lunch in the Campus Centre and have a quick conversation about an issue,” she remembers. 

The MPA achieved a lot over the next few decades. They were instrumental in convincing the University to address problems with student-supervisor relationships, which led to the Code of Conduct being developed jointly by the University and the MPA, the first of its kind in Australia. They also implemented programs which were firsts in the country for graduate student bodies, such as leadership and study skills training, a graduate-specific careers fair, and the Supervisor of the Year award conducted by students, which still runs to this day.

Of course, there have been struggles along the way. The MPA waged a constant battle over eight years for research students to own their own Intellectual Property, which was suddenly lost at the stroke of a Vice-Chancellor’s pen. Five years were spent convincing the University that coursework graduate students had different needs to undergraduates, and they lobbied for another five years for an office space and graduate lounge on Caulfield campus. 

A big change came in 2014 when the MPA was finally successful in having the graduate student services and amenities fee (SSAF) directed to the MPA instead of the majority of the graduate funding going to the undergraduates. Once properly funded, the organisation grew rapidly and were able to deliver the services that graduate students had long been lobbying for. 

“We’ve survived three attempts by the University to merge us with the undergraduates,” Jenny points out, “and one attempt by a senior manager to dissolve us altogether, so it’s testament to the resilience of our graduate student executive committees, our staff and the graduate student community that we are still standing.”

Both Zuzana and Jenny put these successes and resilience down to working exclusively for students in an organisation run by students. “We always know exactly what graduate students want and need because they open up to you in a way they won’t do for the University,” says Jenny.

As senior staffers who have seen the organisation evolve over thirty-odd years, they both have theories about where they think the MGA will go from here. 

“The graduate student cohort continues to change as it always has,” says Jenny, who makes notes of the current situation: a growth in graduate coursework degrees and the relative increase in intensive (micro) units that can sometimes overshadow the HDR cohort; changes in the delivery of degrees on-campus and online; along with the expansion of overseas campuses and satellite sites.

“The challenge for the MGA will be to continue to deliver tailored, quality support to all these different cohorts who will all want slightly different services. As always, we will work on how to continue to connect dispersed graduate students with each other so that they have an educational experience that is more than just the sum of their lectures and research.”

In a world where it is rare to find people who stay committed to one organisation over a long period of time, why do Jenny and Zuzana keep on keeping on?

Jenny says she loves working with graduate students because they are community-minded and join the MGA because they want to do something for the greater good. She observes that they are not out to advance their personal or political careers, and with that as a background, the job is really about helping them find solutions to problems. “This is a challenge I enjoy,” she says, “and no two years have ever been the same.”  

“I have been the MGA Senior Advocate for many years now and I coordinate an advocacy service that sees over 1000 students each year,” says Zuzana. “Graduate students sacrifice a lot to come to Monash and I have a brilliant, dedicated and inspiring team of advocates who help to resolve any problems or queries they have.”

She adds, “the MGA has always had the best and most supportive culture of any workplace I have known.”

Stay tuned for more updates on the MGA’s 60th anniversary. If you have a connection with the MGA, or have in the past, why not send us your birthday wishes?