Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: student unions

March 10

A New Focus for Student Unions

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.

March 31

Quebec’s Student Strikes: Does History Repeat?

So, many of Quebec’s student unions are on strike again (if you’re interested in a running total, check out this site).  Only this time it’s not about tuition or even (mostly) about university funding – it’s about “austerity”.  If I were the government, I would welcome this, because it’s likely to end in defeat for the radicals.

Let’s dial the clock back to 1986. Back then, there were two big pan-Quebec student organizations: the Rassemblement des associations étudiants Universitares (RAEU), roughly the equivalent of the present-day Féderation étudiante universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ), and the Association nationale des étudiants et étudiantes du Quebec (ANEEQ), which roughly represents the same unions as does the present-day Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), and sometimes goes by CLASSE (the CL standing for “coalition large”).  The Liberals had replaced the PQ late the previous year, and there were rumours that their first budget would remove the freeze on tuition fees that had been in place since the late 1980s.  It’s unclear that the Liberals did in fact intend to do this (in their first budget at least), but ANEEQ led an impressive student mobilization that definitively took this option off the table.  RAEU, which had been more luke-warm about mobilization, lost members and folded soon thereafter.

Flushed with a sense of power, ANEQ called another strike in the fall of 1988 over what were a pretty minor set of revisions to the student loan act.  The strike didn’t go very well: students could see the point in fighting a tuition fee freeze, less so with something that didn’t seem as negative.  The next December, sensing weakness, the Liberals finally broke the tuition freeze and increased fees from about $550/year to $1,300/year (still well below the Canadian average, even then).  RAEU re-invented itself as FEUQ, a more “presentable” option than the communist/syndicalist ANEEQ, but was still unable to stop the tuition hike.

(You think I’m exaggerating about communists?  I vividly remember being at a student “summit” in February 1990 in Quebec City, at which the leaders of ANEEQ kept running to the back of the room every few minutes to get instructions from this dude no one had ever seen before.  He was dressed in fatigues, combat boots, a red beret, and a Che Guevara beard.  Totally surreal.  And this was three months *after* the Berlin wall fell.)

Anyways, you can see where I’m going here in terms of the parallels.  The 2012 student mobilization was superb, the best ever seen in Canada.  But the conditions this spring just aren’t there for a repeat.  The leadership is not as inspired (FEUQ is falling apart, ASSÉ’s Camille Godbout is no Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois), the issue at stake is much vaguer and much less likely to resonate among students, and most importantly the Couillard government has a public legitimacy that the late-stage Charest government, worn out by scandal, fatally lacked.  It’s 1988 again, and the student movement is fighting the wrong fight.

In short, this strike is pure hubris on the part of the syndicalists.  It will likely end in failure, and weaken the student movement.  The door will then be open for the Liberals to finally raise tuition fees.

February 27

Clearer Thinking About Student Unions

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?

January 16

Some Interesting New Models of Student Representation

Historically, the development of student movements has been heavily linked with nationalism, anti-colonialism, modernity, and the development of the welfare state (i.e. they were pro all four of those).  However, as higher education has become massified around the world, students have by and large become less concerned with larger social issues, and more concerned with narrower, student-based concerns.  That hasn’t always led to a loss of radicalism (viz. the carré rouge), but it’s broadly true that over time student leadership has become increasingly demure.

Arguably, this trend actually began in Canada.  The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and Canadian Alliance of Student Associations – both formed in the early/mid-90s – were possibly the first student groups anywhere in the world that viewed themselves as interest groups rather than “movements”.  This is an important distinction: interest groups are prepared to act as insiders in order to gain benefits for their members, while movements resist working with insiders for fear of losing “purity”.

But I would argue there are a couple of other student organizations that have taken things considerably further.  The first is the European Students’ Union (ESU), which is a federation of various national unions.  Their focus is to lobby Brussels, which might sound like a pretty easy job since education policy is still mostly decided in individual countries (though of course our own Canadian Federation of Students [CFS] has managed to lobby Ottawa on tuition for 35 years without realizing fees are under provincial jurisdiction).  But by adjusting its work to mirror the rather technocratic work done by the European Commission, the ESU has turned into one of the nerdiest and best-spoken student groups in the world.

Want proof?  ESU talks intelligibly (arguably more so than some national governments) about quality assurance and the role of students in ensuring it (do take a look at their series of publications on the subject).  It also has done a lot of work looking at graduate employability and how to improve it.  This is really good stuff.

But the UK’s National Union of Students has perhaps gone even further in that it seems to have made a strategic decision to become partners with institutions, so as to drive improvements in student experience.  It co-sponsors the National Student Survey (which is kind of a cross between NSSE and the old Globe and Mail) and the Student Engagement Partnership, which acts as a resource for institutional practitioners across the country.  It creates a set of tools for individual member institutions to help students benchmark and improve teaching quality at institutions.  And while I can understand people being upset that NUS has chosen to focus on this stuff rather than lead a fire-and-brimstone attack on the Tory government for fee hikes, the fact remains: this is a really impressive contribution to improving educational quality and the student experience.

Could these kinds of innovations happen here?  I’d say it’s a pretty solid no on the CFS side, where this stuff would look too much like giving in to The Man.  For the non-CASA schools, it’s possible, though unlikely.  Organizations like OUSA and CASA are, for the moment, quite focused on lobbying government on financial issues rather than dealing with institutions.  The real innovator lately has been Students NS, whose members have launched an independent governance review of… themselves.  More self-centred than the UK and European initiatives, perhaps, but still a novel and welcome step to protect students’ interests.

Bon weekend.

November 14

CASA at 20

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) turns 20 early next year (January or June, depending on what you take as a founding date).  But since the real founding events actually happened the previous November, I thought it would be worth offering some thoughts on it now.

Until the early 1990s, there had never been more than one national student association.  There was a National Federation of Canadian University Students dating from the 30s; this eventually became the Canadian Union of Students, which eventually collapsed in a paroxysm of anarcho-syndicalism in 1969.  It was briefly revived in the 1970s as the National Union of Students, and then again in 1981 as the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS); until the early 1990s, this was the unquestioned “natural” state of affairs.

CFS in the early 1990s was a nightmare of factionalism, but the policy towards non-members was still at least somewhat ecumenical.  The very biggest schools – Toronto, UBC, McGill, Alberta – stayed out because CFS’ one-school, one-vote policy was a turn off.  But they would still go to CFS meetings every year because that’s just what one did – it was the place all student leaders went to meet.  Despite any internal strife, it would all remain pretty good fun unless one side won.  In 1994, one side did.  The left faction, led by Guy Caron (now an NDP MP) and Brad Lavigne (an NDP strategist I profiled back here) took control, and proceeded to purge the opposition.  That led a number of the more moderate schools to start a series of escape referenda to start planning a new organization.

As it happened, a new organization was already being formed.  The 1993 election was the first to be fought after the internet became widespread, and a group led by (amongst others) now-Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, co-ordinated their own moderately-effective “vote Education” campaign.  This led to continued contacts and – eventually – a determination to create a new organization.

And so, by late 1994, there were three groups of non-CFS student unions circling each other – the ones (mainly from the Maritimes) who were leaving CFS who knew what kind of organization they didn’t want, the ones from Ontario who had just set up the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in opposition to CFS-Ontario, and wanted an exact copy in Ottawa, and the ones who had never been in a national student organization (Alberta, Calgary, UBC, McGill), and who were just pleased to be doing something new.  Suffice to say, there was a fair bit of mutual suspicion, and they didn’t all get on.  Indeed, in the fall of ’94 – 20 years this month, in fact – there was a moment where it all could have fallen apart when some of the western schools tried to disinvite the on-their-way-out-of-CFS schools from a major preparatory meeting in Edmonton.

Cooler heads prevailed and eventually CASA came to be in early 1995 (though it’s notable that some of the political fault-lines of the mid-90s still exist – culture matters, even in student unions).  And though it’s changed considerably since its inception – it’s significantly more centralized and bureaucratized than anyone thought possible or necessary in the mid-1990s – it has played a significant role in Ottawa over the years, not least by serving as a constant reminder to MPs that CFS’ nonsensically specious policies and methods don’t command unanimous support among Canadian students.

So, L’chaiyim, CASA.  Here’s to 20 more.

February 25

Is This the Worst Student Movement Ever?

I’m trying to imagine a worse excuse for a student movement than the one Quebec has at the moment; and I have to say that I’m not sure I can.

I mean, sure, the Canadian Federation of Students has talked some awful crap about how reducing net tuition for poor students is unacceptable, unless richer kids get a break too – really ludicrous stuff, which objectively favours richer students over poorer ones.  But so far as I know, they’ve never actively aided and abetted a government that was intent on making universities poorer.

But that’s what FEUQ, and the rest of the Quebec student movement, seem to be doing right now.

True story: a few weeks ago, the Conseil des Recteurs et Principaux des Universites du Quebec (CREPUQ) put together a paper which argued that Quebec universities were underfunded relative to their Ontario counterparts to the tune of $850 million per year, or a shade over $4000 per student.  These kinds of comparisons are always a bit fraught, but it was not a bad paper and, obviously, it was meant as a bargaining chip – a way of setting some markers in negotiations with government.

So, what did FEUQ do?  Something that, to my knowledge, no student organization in world history has ever done. They became mouth-pieces for the PQ government, curtly dismissing the study by saying, “just because our schools don’t have as much money as somebody else doesn’t mean they’re underfunded”.

No, seriously, that’s what they said.

FEUQ’s train of thought seems to run something like this:  1) Universities want more money; 2) the provincial government is broke; 3) therefore, new money can only come out of tuition fees; 4) therefore, we’d better oppose this.  The problem is, if you concede point 2 you’re more or less screwed in terms of asking something for yourself, like a more generous student aid system (which Quebec certainly needs, at least for dependent students).   And you’ve gone and hacked-off one of your most natural allies as far as higher education is concerned.

And, frankly, you’ve failed students.  I mean, if the student movement can’t argue on behalf of better funding for education, who can?

I understand and support the students’ argument that universities could better manage their affairs in order to keep pressure off tuition.  Certainly, there have been a number of inexcusable high-cost screw-ups in building construction, which have reflected badly on Quebec universities’ managerial competence, and put needless pressure on university budgets.

But starving universities to keep tuition low is a recipe for long-term decline.  A student union would have to be extraordinarily short-sighted, selfish, or stupid not to see that.  FEUQ’s clearly not stupid; draw your own conclusions.

September 05


I was listening to an interview on American radio this the weekend with one of the leaders of CLASSE. The proceedings were sensible enough until the interviewee claimed that Quebec not only had the country’s lowest tuition fees, but also that it had the country’s highest levels of access.

This is, simply, a lie. Quebec’s participation rates are inflated by its CEGEP system, which includes grade 12 – a which is offered in secondary school elsewhere in Canada.

Then came the usual stuff about how higher tuition leads to lower levels of access. This is not quite a lie, but it is far from truthful. If the tuition increase is large enough and there are no new grants to help the neediest, then yes, access could be affected (though as we’ve seen in the UK, the effects still aren’t as large as one might imagine). But since neither of these conditions holds true in Quebec, using it as a rationale for the strikes is also, essentially, a lie.

I know we’re not supposed to use words like this. We’re supposed to indulge student leaders, to praise their youthful, idealistic enthusiasm. If they make factual mistakes, it’s just because they’re young and can’t be expected to know the social science.

But student leaders are not innocent part-timers. In Quebec, student leaders receive government “scholarships” to subsidize their work as professional union leaders. Outside Quebec, the CFS has dozens of professional staff, some of whom have been on the student payroll for over a decade. These people read. They know the statistics. And yet they continue to spout untruths and advocate policies which are actively regressive.

Both the Quebec student unions and CFS support policies which benefit richer families at the expense of the poor. When political parties and governments choose to pay attention to this nonsense, it has real, adverse consequences. Excusing the objectively regressive policy objectives of some student organizations as “youthful idealism” lets them off the hook for the real damage they do.

Why do they do it? I think it differs across the country. Outside Quebec, I’m pretty sure it’s pure cynicism, playing on people’s fears about social inclusion so they can deliver bacon in the form of lower tuition fees to their members. Within Quebec, there’s also the statism element. One gets the impression sometimes that student leaders are less concerned with accessibility than with reverting to an economy where government plays a much more dominant role. Which makes sense: today’s Quebec student leaders seem to have clear designs on being tomorrow’s politicians and they have an interest in ensuring that the state they will one day inherit is a powerful one.

Regardless of their motivations, there is no reason anyone else need accommodate them. Lies are lies, and they need to be confronted.

April 23

Good Governance and Student Unions

Some interesting news from New Zealand recently, where a bill on Voluntary Student Unionism recently became law. Basically, what this means is that student unions there won’t be able to collect automatic membership dues, the way ours do – rather, they’ll need to raise their money directly through voluntary contributions from students. This isn’t unprecedented – Australia’s Liberal government did the same thing in 2005, and the results weren’t pretty.

Why hasn’t such an idea come to Canada? I’ve been told by reasonably reliable sources that it actually was on the table during Ontario’s Rae Review in 2004, but was left out of the final report. It’s certainly easy to see that as in Australia and New Zealand, the impetus for such a move is likeliest to come from a right-wing government under constant attack from student unions (Quebec, anyone?). But there would need to be a pretext for such a measure – and a good financial or voting manipulation scandal is probably the likeliest route.

These, unfortunately, are a bit too common for comfort in Canada. Concordia’s student union’s travails are beyond parody, but are still nothing compared to those at Kwantlen. And that’s all in addition to the shenanigans that have been ably documented by student union guru Titus Gregory in his magnum opus Solidarity for Their Own Good.

Most student unions, of course, are run ably and democratically. Levels of professionalism vary but that’s to be expected in any youth-run organization. The Unions at Western and U of A, for instance, regularly produce great executives, and the standard at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance is also unfailingly high. The worry is that a few bad eggs might spoil the party for everyone else. Make no mistake, voluntary student unionism would be devastating for campus activities and would have all sorts of negative knock-ons as far as student engagement was concerned.

I wonder if student unions might inoculate themselves against this kind of thing by coming up with a self-imposed process of accreditation which would certify adherence to standards of good governance. Apart from any inherent good such a process would bring to participating unions, it would ensure that anyone wanting to regulate the field wouldn’t be able to tar all student unions with the same brush.

Alarmist? Maybe. But it’s one of those things: if you delay implementation until a crisis actually hits, it will already be too late.