We are in a time when high levels of apathy are increasingly apparent in traditional forms of student involvement. Many post-secondary institutions are seeing a decline in students willing and wanting to run for elected positions through their student associations. Voter turnouts in these elections are stagnating as low as 15 percent for some institutions and rarely peak above 30 percent.
Despite this disengagement from student politics, students are showing their concern over fee increases using methods outside of traditional institutions. A cold February day in 2009 saw over 500 students from three of Alberta’s universities march to the Legislature to loudly voice their displeasure about proposed mandatory non-instructional fees. This level of engagement and issue-based passion is what the members of the Council of Alberta University Students are hoping to capitalize on.
Alberta’s student associations have a strong history of going to their constituents to decide on appropriate fees. In the last 10 years U of A students have voted in 11 fee-related referendums, U of C students in 19 and U of L students in six. Those referendums have varied from decreasing SU fees to approving yearly fees for new buildings, athletics, Students’ Union operations, or independent medias such as campus-community radio and newspapers.
“Putting fees to referendum has been what the UCSU has done since we were created, it is the only way we increase or take away fees. That is the practice that we use and that is reasonable for out institutions to use,” says Hardave Birk, current Chair of CAUS and the Vice-President Academic for the U of C SU.
The mandatory non-instructional fee put in place by the U of A and U of C administration last year increased the financial barrier students carry significantly. It was an issue that translated to the Students’ Union elections at U of C, as well as many other PSE institutions. Birk comments, “it definitely affects access. At the U of C we had a $450 fee put on us, at the U of A there was a $250 fee put in place. At the U of C that is almost like paying for an entire extra course to go to school. Furthermore, what services are being provided under that fee? They are services already being provided and the students do not have the option to say: ‘we don’t want those services provided for us.'”
Instructed last summer by the Minister of Advanced Education and Technology—then Doug Horner, who has recently stepped down to pursue PC party leadership—the three Alberta-based student organizations developed a plan to regulate mandatory fees in such a way that it would have to be presented to a student association before the institution could impose it upon the student body. This would then allow the SA to put the fee to a student-wide referendum.
While the U of A administration—as well as other PSE institutions in Alberta—has a consultation process in place to develop fees with student input, the disregard of student needs and wants in 2009 showed that process to be faulty.
Why the referendum? This process hardly guarantees a stoppage to increasing fees. In the last 10 years, students at U of A have voted in favour of fee increases eight times out of 10 referendums, including an SU operated Health and Dental plan that increased their fees by $192/yearly.
U of C, and U of L are no different. Both schools have seen the majority of fee increase pass through referenda. Birk believes even though they pass, the referena provide an opportunity for dialogue, “it is also about the institutions being able to rationalize to students, to explain to students why those fees are necessary.”
Keith McLaughlin, the vice-chair of CAUS and Vice President Academic of the ULSU agrees. “Referendums are the best way to gauge students support for a proposal. It is a way to force the institutions to rationalize their funding and fee increase proposals. If they want to increase a fee above the rate of CPI, they have to demonstrate to students why that fee is needed and where that money is going too. We [the ULSU] whole-heartedly believe that if you craft a well reasoned, rational argument to students about why their fees should be increased, if it is a strong argument they will agree with you.”
The agreement put forward by three organizations did stipulate that the fee increase would go through student council first then to a referendum if the council voted it down.
McLaughlin believes he could see the U of L SU support a non-instructional fee if the rational was sound: “We care about quality of education here as well. As long as it has a tangible benefit for students, and it is not an astronomical fee hike that is going to really challenge low-income students, then I could see the SU certainly supporting a fee hike of that nature.”
Realistically though, if any institution put forward a fee of the likes in 2009 Birk says unequivocally, “it would have gone to referendum. Our student council would have not passed the fee that was put forward last year … the university didn’t consult with the students, or explain the reasoning.”
It doesn’t seem the institutions agree with the three student advocacy organizations. No administration seems open to the referendum clause as of right now, despite their successful use of it in the past. Students will continue to press on though, says Birk.
“We are looking for the government to take leadership on this for sure, and we will continue to push that message forward. I think there are still a lot of opportunities to move forward on this issue.”
As published in VUE Weekly’s 2011 Education special, issue 802.