Next month, university students will cough up money for tuition, textbooks, residence, and additional fees. Student fees, which include transit passes and health and dental insurance, range from $500 to $1000 a year at Canadian universities, of which approximately $100-$200 goes directly to student unions.
Student unions have many responsibilities, including administering health plans, funding student clubs, and advocating on behalf of students to the university administration and different levels of government.
Unfortunately, many student unions are leveraging a passive majority of students to advance the agenda of a fringe minority. They are spending their levy fees to fund controversial activities and political causes unrelated to post-secondary education.
For example, student unions in Ontario fund the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, which supports Israeli Apartheid Week, along with other proposals guided by the principles of anti-oppression, anti-capitalism and decolonisation. Thousands of dollars could be redirected from political causes to improving services such as student food banks or bursaries for low-income students.
As a result of such activity, some might suggest that student unions are more appropriately considered clubs for student activists than organizations that represent their entire student bodies. Complaints about unfair student election practices and financial mismanagement are not difficult to come across. For instance, Concordia’s Student Union was criticized for conducting a vote to strike using a show of hands, and the Kwantlen Student Association made high-risk loans and undocumented payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While students should have access to some of the services currently provided by their unions, students who want to attend taxpayer-funded universities shouldn’t be required to give money to groups that support political causes they do not believe in or to other students that they believe will mismanage their money.
Some may say the solution to these problems is to address student apathy and ensure that students keep their representatives accountable by being more involved, with student election voter turnouts typically around 10 to 15 percent. Addressing student apathy may be easier said than done, as the vast majority of students are focused on completing their education, covering their expenses, and keeping other commitments. There is limited time for them to devote to holding their fellow students accountable. While these excuses do not legitimize student apathy, it does raise the question of whether students believe their unions are relevant to them or play an important role in student life.
Even when student unions are not funding political causes using compulsory student fees, their decisions can be needlessly polarizing. Consider that the Carleton University Students’ Association dropped a cystic fibrosis charity as the beneficiary of one of its fundraising campaigns, because the student representatives erroneously understood it as only a white man’s disease. Unlike their student union, most students recognized that cystic fibrosis does not discriminate based on gender or race. Similarly, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa voted against a motion to stream the 2014 Olympics on campus because they thought it would validate the controversial anti-gay legislation in Russia. Most students felt that supporting Canadian athletes living their dreams did not translate into support for Russia’s domestic politics. On the other hand, at the same meeting, a motion was adopted to see higher quality toilet paper purchased for students. Some students might consider the issues focused on by student unions as too trivial and not focused enough on the big picture.
University students in New Zealand and in Australia have faced similar challenges and controversies, and their governments have responded by rendering student union memberships voluntary at all institutions. This change aimed to encourage student unions to provide services that would attract memberships as well as respect each student’s right of wilful association.
Recognizing the importance of student services, Australia amended their Higher Education Act to ensure universities can charge a compulsory fee to support former student-run services such as sports facilities, health plans and student shops and bars. However, the fees collected by the universities cannot fund political activities organized by student unions.
Voluntary student unionism can separate the role of providing student services from the role of student advocacy, which are currently both performed by student unions in Canada. Student advocacy is an inherent role of a student union, but rather than imposing political stances on students, student unions will need to work harder and actively listen to the needs and interests of all student constituencies if they wish to succeed.