Thursday, 26 March 2015

A RESEARCH RABBIT HOLE: STUDENT EMPLOYMENT AS CULTURAL POLICY

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: ROBIN NELSON

In light of Katie’s post on research addiction that discussed her ‘research rabbit holes,’ I am going to talk about one of mine, which has turned into a chapter in my thesis. Prior to beginning my thesis, I had defined cultural policy as whatever a government says it is, varying across jurisdictions (Grey 2010). However, during my interviews I kept hearing about the benefits and challenges associated with the Student Employment and Experience Development (SEED) program. Through SEED the provincial government provides non profits with student employees for eight to ten weeks. While SEED does not fit within my original definition of cultural policy, the program provides museums with student employees during the summer and, therefore, has a major influence on public programming. As such, I began looking at other policy definitions and employment programs as cultural policy – entering a research rabbit hole.

There is just so much I could learn!
An alternate definition of cultural policy, which I am now using, is any state action that effects “the cultural life of its citizens” (Mulcahy 2006, 267), including the SEED program. Within this definition, I have distinguished between implicit and explicit policies. An explicit cultural policy “deals directly with culture” (Throsby 2009, 179). An implicit cultural policy “influences culture only indirectly, the overt intention of the policy being directed elsewhere” (Ibid, 179). For instance, SEED’s objective - that is, to “provide students with employment related to their skills and education…. while enabling them to finance the continuation of their education” (PETL 2013, 3) - is not explicitly cultural. However, SEED has a direct impact on culture when museum employment is effected.
Student employees allow museums to accomplish more than they can with only volunteers and/or limited permanent staff.
SEED influences museum public programming because museums need people to plan and implement their public programs. In museums with few or no permanent staff, one paid employee for two months completely changes what they are able to offer and how they can operate. For instance, many New Brunswick community museums only open regularly for the eight to ten weeks that they have students to work as guides

On the surface, SEED sounds like a great government program for museums and students – museums get employees that they would not otherwise be able to afford and students gain skills and money. However, there are several longstanding issues with its implementation:
  1. Politicians distribute SEED to the nonprofits and, as such, the selection criteria is  unclear.
  2. SEED positions are usually eight weeks (There is also a longer Priority Employment program through SEED, but those positions are only ten weeks.)
  3. The SEED jobs have gotten shorter over time.
  4. There are delays in notifying museums as to whether they will receive SEED/PEP, meaning some summers museums have been preparing to open for the summer before they know how many, if any, students they will receive.
  5. There is a lack of consistency as there are no multi-year contracts.
These issues raise questions regarding the best use of government funding. For instance, the quantity and quality of the student applicants may be effected because the contracts are shorter than a university summer, museums do not know what positions they have until May or June, and museums cannot guarantee a good employee can have the same position the following year.

SEED is not the only student employment program influencing museums in Canada. Most notable, the federal government provides funding through Young Canada Works. I am interesting in hearing about people’s experience with this form of employment. Do you have any experiences with student employment programs? What other challenges do you think this employment structure presents for museums? What are some benefits for the students and employer?

1 comment:

  1. Great article Robin! The experience I have had with YCW positions was excellent. Working with smaller museums allows students to take control of the projects they are assigned, have a sense of leadership, and an in-depth experience with museum work. However, I believe they create a real instability for many small institutions. Students can dream big and implement great programs, but may not have the opportunity to carry them out the following year or the museums may not be able to sustain programs introduced by students after they leave

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