It’s that time of year when student elections are on and occasionally I get asked a question like “what’s the future of student unions?” and “what could student unions be doing better”? These are good questions. Here’s my answer.
For the most part, student union budgets go into providing “services”. Often, an awful lot of this ends up simply paying for light, heat and maintenance of student union buildings. Big chunks also go to managing and overseeing the vast number of clubs. This is irritating, nitpicky stuff, but it’s what most students actually find useful about student unions, so it’s probably money well-spent.
As a result a fairly small proportion goes in to actually representing students, which is odd since in theory that’s the purpose of student associations. And the majority of that money goes to the external/government relations portfolio to talk to government. Only a tiny fraction of funds in student unions goes to representing students inside their institutions.
And yet representing students to their administration is the one thing students can’t count on anyone else to do for them. Lower tuition? Any number of outside groups can argue for that. Actually changing things inside an institution to improve the standard of education? Only students can do that.
The number one issue for most students today is the fear of not getting a good job after graduation. There’s not a whole lot student unions can do about that directly, but what they can do is put a lot more pressure on institutions to make sure they are as well-prepared as possible. They can push institutions to deliver experiential learning. They can push administrations to look at how to display co-curricular records on transcripts. They can push faculty and departmental units to engage more with the labour market and adjust teaching and assessment accordingly. These are all things which student organizations could do (but usually don’t) in a co-ordinated, effective, and meaningful way.
One of the reasons student leaders don’t focus on this area is because victories – when they occur – are so slow in coming. It’s a rare student politician who can push a change in academic process or planning and expect to see a positive decision within the one-year lifespan of his or her career as an executive. Student unions, by nature, are after quick hits. But this is where provincial and national organizations like the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Canadian Federation of Students can play a role: student leaders there have slightly longer tenures and are thus able to focus on longer-term issues. For instance, in the UK, the National Union of Students puts a lot of work in on helping student associations work on quality assurance within institutions. Now that’s somewhat easier to do in the UK than here because quality assurance processes are a lot more transparent, public and standardized over there. But it’s not impossible to imagine it happening here.
Imagine local student unions spending time engaging their members to find out what kinds of outcomes they want from their time in university. Imagine them spending time translating that into real policy options within the institution. Imagine national student organizations spending time training people at the local level, teaching them how to understand university administrative and political structures, how to talk “Senate-ese”, and how to be effective champions of curricular change. Imagine local student organizations putting time and effort into making sure that every student on every periodic review knew how to advocate effectively for change during the review process.
(Actually, if they were smart, universities themselves would get on this effort: increasing the number of students who can make intelligent contributions to university governance activities can really only be to the good).
To sum up: Canadian students have talked for years about access. Less frequently have they really faced up to the question: access to what? It’s past time they engaged more on this question, and just as importantly, empowered their members to act effectively in this area.