It’s that time of year again, where across the country students become interested in student government. Between now and the end of March (depending on your location) wannabe student leaders will be traipsing around campuses, giving 30-second class talks, putting up posters, and making promises of one sort or another. Like welcome week and spring break, it’s one of those campus rituals by which you can measure the passing of the seasons.
One of the surprising things (to me anyway) about Canadian student politics is how little is changes from year to year or decade to decade together. In fact, student politics has arguably changed even less than universities have over the past 30 or 40 years (and holy moley is that ever a low bar). But let me suggest two ways that aspiring student leaders could break the mold over the next 12 months.
- Provincial politics > federal politics
Student leaders like to talk about national politics because national organizations (the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations) seem like a big deal. Many of them seem instinctively to have an understanding of federalism whereby the “higher” level of government deals with the “more important” issues, and so obviously national policies matter. But to all practical intents, the feds don’t matter that much. Around the edges, Canada Student Loans Program policies matter a bit, as do tri-council policies with respect to graduate student funding. But the real action is at the provincial level. That’s not just because they have direct control over levers like funding formulae and regulatory power over tuition: it’s also because provincial student aid policies tend to be a heck of a lot more volatile than federal ones.
The provincial > federal rule is always true, but it has extra resonance this year. Students in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick are facing provincial elections in the coming year, and those in British Columbia are under a minority government. In all four provinces (which collectively make up over 85% of the national student body), there is likely to be a lot of very consequential action at the provincial level over the next 12 months which makes this maxim even more important.
So here’s a suggestion: for any student leader not already living in Ottawa, make it a commitment not to go to Ottawa this year. Focus all your time in your provincial capital. That’s where the action is, and it’s where student leaders should be spending their time.
- Make academic affairs a priority
Canadian student unions are a bit odd in international context mostly because of how big some of them are, and how many business operations some of them manage. That gives them a very different character than student unions elsewhere which tend to focus exclusively on politics (it also mostly accounts for the differences between CFS and CASA – the latter tends to attract bigger student unions with more businesses attached to them, which as a corollary tend to attract more conservative, management-oriented leaders.) but what is striking is the extent to which Canadian student unions prioritize external politics (dealing with government) versus dealing with internal ones (dealing with their own institutions). This is 100% backwards.
At the end of the day, there are lots of organizations out there who will advocate for more money for institutions (notably, the universities themselves) and for lower fees for students. Students don’t actually need to advocate for either of those things. But nobody else can advocate for students inside a university. Nobody else is in a position to say which student services are working well and which are not. Nobody else can articulate what kinds of education outcomes students want and how programs of study could be improved. Nobody, in short can actually advocate for quality the way students can. And yet, by and large, this is a secondary focus for student unions.
Focussing on quality is tough – it’s a lot more than just slogans about the need to hire more TAs. You need to understand how institutional finances work, how outcomes are (or are not) measured, and how policy at the institutional level gets translated into action at the departmental level. It’s very difficult for individual student leaders to get to grips with institutional machinery quickly enough that they can make a difference in the space of a year or two. But that’s all the more reason why student unions should focus their efforts on creating institutional solutions which can help make those hundreds of individual student positions on committees across campus more effective.
Anyone who wants to really re-set the mold for Canadian student politics should do something bold. Pledge to shift student union spending so that a quarter of it is spent on academic affairs. Invest what it takes to get a corps of students up to speed on academic quality assessment. Spend time having genuine conversations with students about what kinds of experiences they want in their degrees, and lots more time talking to professors about how that kind of change could happen. If you want some inspiration, look to the UK for how student unions focus on academic quality assurance – they are pretty much the world leaders. Canadian student leaders could learn a thing or two from them,
So, to all this year’s candidates: good luck. Make your institutions better.