HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

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.

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3 Responses to Good Governance and Student Unions

  1. anonymous says:

    Whilst I was very interested to read this article, please note that Students’ Union has an apostrophe after the s!!!

  2. Ute Walker says:

    One of the serious side effects of voluntary student union membership is the consequential lack of funding for services formerly drawn from student levies. Different universities might enter into contractual arrangements with their respective student bodies and fund them directly for providing certain services. However, this is by no means certain as New Zealand universities are cash strapped themselves. Therefore students, members and non-members alike, are likely to miss out.

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