All Posts Tagged With: "student government"
Why I hope this venture goes ahead
When the Alma Mater Society here at the University of British Columbia revealed last year that the planned new Student Union Building (SUB) will house a brewery, students were overjoyed at the prospect of cheap, local craft beer.
Not only would a SUB brewery add some flavour to UBC’s decidedly drab cuisine, it would also significantly up the ante of our campus culture. Right now, our coolness factor is suffering. Our version of the Harlem Shake has only 156,000 views on YouTube. The University of Toronto’s has more than 2.2 million views, even beating out that legendary Lip Dub we made last year (remember that?) with its mere two million views.
You won’t believe what they’re spending it on
It’s the time of year when most students in Canada ignore posters imploring them to vote for student government executives. Although student unions may seem irrelevant, they’re not. They collect millions of dollars each year in mandatory student fees and spend it, sometimes on things most students wouldn’t support—if only they knew.
Here are six stupid things Canadian student unions did with your money. If this doesn’t motivate you to research the candidates and vote in your campus elections, I don’t know what will.
1. Spent it on big parties you didn’t attend
Avicii, one of the top electronic acts in the world, doesn’t usually show up in places like Windsor, Ont. Snoop Dogg doesn’t often party in St. John’s, Nfld. It should be no surprise then that the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance lost about $40,000 on their show in September and that the Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union lost $100,000 on Snoop. The Kwantlen Student Association may hold the record though. They lost $128,000 on Jay Sean. Jay… who?
Bank robbers? Embezzlement? A former executive reflects.
Two years ago, I was a second-year student considering running for Vice-President Academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union. Though I expected to learn plenty if elected, it was impossible to predict just how much I did learn on the job. If you are a student considering running at your school, I encourage you to give it a try. It could totally alter your life’s trajectory. Here are eight of the most memorable lessons I learned.
1. Unpredictability is just part of the job.
Unforeseen events can often get in the way of platform goals. In June 2011, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry plagiarized his speech to the graduating class, which packed my days with television interviews. A few months later, our executive learned that a student from the business students’ association was accused of stealing $27,000, so I did more interviews. Media relations wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time.
Student group seems distracted and afraid of transparency
What do the War of 1812, the Israel-Gaza conflict and bottled water have in common? They are causes the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided, on the closing evening of the semi-annual general meeting (AGM), to campaign about. How odd for organization that’s supposed to be focused on student issues.
During that Nov. 30 meeting in Ottawa, the CFS voted to organize letter-writing campaigns against the Harper government’s representation of 1812 and its opposition to Palestine’s observer status at the United Nations. This came after hours of debate on transparency and openness—two areas the CFS would do well to improve on. Some of the measures that would improve openness and transparency were, unfortunately, rejected.
The Canadian Federation of Students, funded by mandatory student fees from dozens of universities and colleges, is meant to represent students on issues like tuition. The fact that these non-student (albeit important) issues take up so much of their time shows the CFS may have lost its way. Worse, students may have no idea what the CFS is up to because it seems to fear transparency.
Because really, it’s a worthwhile investment
For those in the Toronto area, city councillor Rob Ford is revving up for a probable campaign for mayor. This wouldn’t be especially relevant to student politics, save that Ford’s attitude towards budgeting and reasonable expenses in fulfilling his role as a city councilor has always struck me as symptomatic of a problem in student organizations. Ford is a cost-cutter and a penny-pincher. This is his major claim to fame and the source of his popular appeal. He’s against office budgets and funds used to communicate with constituents and he thinks everyone gets paid too much to run the city. And I’ve got to admit, any time I see money spent in stupid ways or on stupid things or paid to stupid people I feel the tug of his message too. But then I remember where it’s coming from.
Ford, you see, is quite independently well off. Rather than spend taxpayers’ money he’d prefer to spend his own. That’s how he funds events in his riding, and how his official office budget each year is $0, and how he can afford to suggest that everyone running Toronto (including himself) is overpaid. He doesn’t need the money. And while his public spirit is admirable, and sometimes I even like him despite my disagreement with his politics, I also have to wonder where it would lead us if we follow that attitude towards its logical conclusion.
When folks look at students’ unions and see people getting paid to represent their peers they often wonder how it can be justified. This sometimes applies to the student press as well, and other organizations where students may be paid to varying degrees. One common reaction is to think “if they really cared about doing the job, they’d do it for free.” Some even think “hey, I’m willing to do it for free — why would anyone want them instead?” And while these ideas are commendable, in a Rob Ford kind of way, they do circumvent an important question. Who can afford to simply volunteer and to do these jobs for free? Or more importantly — who cannot afford to?
Some positions on campus represent very significant commitments of time and energy. It’s not uncommon for these positions to simply require a reduced course load — either formally in the by-laws of the organization in question or informally due to the demands of the job. And again, while there’s some justice to the notion that these roles are assumed voluntarily and anyone who goes in with their eyes open should be prepared for the demands, this notion necessarily suggests that a certain kind of person need not apply. So the students who are poor and can’t afford to volunteer dozens of hours each week, or cannot possibly afford to extend the duration of their studies without some compensation, they are effectively barred from the jobs entirely. And is that what we want?
Here is where I think there’s a special onus on representative organizations to ensure that it’s possible for anyone (or at least most people) to represent their peers. Much as I may applaud some of Rob Ford’s sentiments, his politics essentially imply that city council should be run by independently wealthy individuals who can afford to pay their own costs and fund their own activities. And this is not representative democracy in any real sense. It can only lead to skewed politics and bad outcomes. Government by the wealthy inevitably becomes government for the wealthy.
Now in a student context, there are obviously two important limits. First, some student groups simply can’t compensate their representatives adequately and so must run on volunteerism. If there’s simply no other choice then so be it — you do what you’ve got to do. Second, there’s no reason that students need to be paid well for their commitments — only adequately. And yes, I have seen some student organizations where executive compensation seems to have got out of control. This too can lead to unfortunate outcomes, so really it’s all about striking a balance.
When there are competing demands for every dollar in an organization — and this is inevitably the case because there’s never enough money — it’s easy to wonder why we’d bother paying students or funding their commitments. But in fact it’s one of the best investments that any organization can make. If the people who run your organization and who represent students are not themselves typical students then your entire mission is skewed. It undermines everything you are hoping to accomplish. There will always be examples of money that isn’t spent well or of people who don’t earn what they’re paid. And it’s useful to have someone around who will keep an eye out for that, even if it’s a Rob Ford type. But that attitude cannot be allowed to deflect the entire mission of a student organization, which is to represent real students. And students, typically, cannot afford to take on full-time jobs for free.