Student associations have difficulty being effective, what with leadership turnovers over every year or so, and corporate memories that rarely extend beyond 36 months. But every once in awhile, either because of some astute hires, or a lucky co-incidence of good leaders being elected at the same time, a student group gets on a hot streak. StudentsNS, which represents the majority of associations in Nova Scotia, is in that zone right now.
The latest evidence: their recent review of governance at student unions. Quite simply, it’s incredibly refreshing to have representative associations think aloud – thoughtfully, I might add – about their own deficiencies in terms of effectiveness and democratic procedures. For that alone, StudentsNS deserves high praise and widespread emulation.
One of the key issues the paper deals with is elections. Student associations have enough problems with legitimacy, stemming from low participation in student elections; but they often complicate this problem by making an absolute farce of how they conduct these elections. At many associations, election rules are from the pre-internet era, and are fixated on trying to create level playing fields by means that, by any modern standard, violate freedom of speech (not to mention common sense). Chief Electoral Officers are given enormous powers to set the terms of the game – and with that power comes the ability to potentially game the election if they so choose, something they are frequently accused of doing. The StudentsNS paper gives some very good suggestions in that respect.
It also gives some very good general advice about the relationship between student unions and universities. Rightly, it says this attitude needs to be collaborative rather than adversarial: both have an interest in seeing students complete their studies with the tools (academic and otherwise) they need to succeed in their subsequent careers, and both have a role to play in helping students deal with social and academic barriers to integrating into an institution. They can do a lot more together to affect and improve campus culture than they can separately. That’s not to say students shouldn’t hold institutions to account: particularly when it comes to keeping universities focussed on their teaching mission. But the basic tenor of the relationship needs to be one of partnership.
Where the report goes slightly awry is in its recommendations on governance. The paper conceptualizes student unions as dispensers of member services, and student union councils as needlessly focusing on organizational minutiae instead of more narrowly on governance. Of the latter there is little doubt. But the paper’s solution is effectively to get rid of most of the campus-wide elected positions (for instance, Presidents and Vice-Presidents) and just get students to elect a governing board, which can then elect a president who in turn manages a largely professionalized staff.
This strikes me as an unnecessarily bloodless definition of a student association. Granted, there is real ambiguity about their true role: they aren’t “unions”, though they do provide political representation, and they aren’t “governments”, though they do manage services for members. This paper tries to do away with this tension by redefining political representation as simply another service to members, one more thing to hand over to unelected staff whose work is overseen by a President and governed by a council.
I don’t buy this, and I kind of doubt students will either. Representation is a matter of politics, not just “governance”. Students want and need a forum to express how they feel about major issues with respect to how universities are governed, and how provinces pay for universities and colleges. The main way they do that is by voting for specific representatives who run on specific platforms. Under this plan, representation would be handled by someone who is hired (perhaps annually, perhaps longer) by a President to execute the (possibly quite muddled) compromise views of a governing council elected on widely differing platforms. This is both more complex and (probably) less effective than what exists now, and I suspect would lead to a decline in student engagement with their student unions rather than an increase.
But that’s quibbling on my part. The report is basically a good one, and student associations across the country should ponder its recommendations. The more important question for the country as a whole is: how can we develop more student associations as thoughtful as StudentsNS?