Should the mandate of student societies exclude political activism?
Universities in Quebec are in the midst of massive student protests (Montreal Gazette) and heated political debates surrounding the provincial government’s creeping tuition increases, which started in fall 2011and will continue for several years. Some students at universities and CEGEPs held a one-day strike in November to protest the increase, but further opposition has grown steadily. Earlier this month, many student societies, representing hundreds of thousands of students, confronted the possibility of a week-long strike (see this from Concordia’s the Link, for example).
In response, the provincial government has refused to budge. Some professors have joined the protests and cancelled their classes. Most universities have remained open, but some, like Concordia, have announced (the Link) they will be closed on the main day of the strike, March 22.
There are a number of interesting issues springing up from these events, even for students, faculty and university administrators far away from Quebec.
1. What’s up with a “strike” as a tactic of protesting tuition hikes
The tactic of students refusing to attend classes to protest tuition hikes - but rather to meet on campus and voice opposition instead – is not unique to Quebec universities. They have happened at plenty of universities across the country, including in BC. But the scope of support and participation in the strike in Quebec have forced the whole notion of a student “strike” into mainstream consciousness, prompting questions about the underlying validity or goal of such a tactic.
These questions stem from the distinction between a student “union” (i.e. the main word for a student society in Quebec) and a labour union. Labour unions are, naturally, subject to labour laws, which say, generally, that workers can unionize and, when a majority of members agree, a union can go on strike, forcing all members off the job and accepting strike pay.
The main differences between a student union and a labour union are obvious. The rationale of a labour strike is that workers are essential in producing a good or providing a service. By striking they throw a wrench in the works of their employer’s business, putting incredible pressure on the people in charge.
Students, on the other hand, are essential to the purposes of a university but in a very different way than workers. They pay, generally, for a service – to be educated. By refusing to attend class, they are denying themselves what they already paid for, thereby possibly delaying graduations and summer or other employment opportunities for an indefinite period.
So, are student strikes intimidating and disruptive? Of course. But are they rationally connected to the underlying greivance? That’s questionable.
2. How to go about “striking” and what does it mean for students
The process and implications of a student union’s decision to strike are also significant. Labour unions generally have strict rules for how to they can go about striking because of the far-reaching implications of a strike on a worker, his/her family and the rest of the community.
In that light, the sort of procedure followed by several student unions (see what happened at Concordia above, for example) would very likely fall short of the necessary threshold, where a small fraction of the student union’s membership shows up and has a show-of-hands vote.
But, of course, it may not matter if the process is deficient because the implications may be nil in any event. A strike vote by a labour union can compel every worker off the job, but it likely has zero legal pull for a student union. According to an anti-”strike” student group called the Student Coalition for Free Association (SCFA), this is all beyond the powers of a student union:
A student association is mandated by its members to represent the study body before the University’s administration. By law, a student association cannot prevent or forbid students from attending their classes, cannot unilaterally decide to cancel university classes and has no legal right to “strike”.
The current political context, in which students’ opinion is divided over the hike in tuition fees, has polarized and simplified this debate. In light of this, student associations have taken a political stance against the hike, and have thereby exceeded their mandates to the detriment of a large percentage of the students they represent.
3. Should student unions even have a mandate to engage in political issues
Like any strong political movement, the “striking” students have spurred the creation of their own opposition, which may ultimately be more successful. SCFA, for example, was founded by a group of law students (Montreal Gazette) at the Universite de Sherbrooke, with the following self-description:
The Student Coalition for Free Association (“SCFA”) aims to promote a voluntary, transparent, unbiased, and more democratic debate. To achieve this goal, the SCFA proposes the following: a clear separation between representing student interests from a political perspective and representing student interests from academic and student life perspectives. Accordingly, the student activities and interests pertaining to academic and student life would be represented exclusively by a General Student Association (“GSA”) specific to each university, while the political activities and interests of students would be represented by independent Student Political Associations (“SPA”‘s).
As such, the SCFA invites you:
- to revoke your current student association membership;
- to depolarize the debate concerning student tuition fees;
- to encourage and further develop this debate;
- to elaborate and establish legitimate and representative Student Political Associations.
The head of SCFA, Philippe-Olivier Daniel, is fairly media savvy and articulate. His group takes a very deliberate and carefully crafted position, which is better laid out in its french language site and in this petition posted on the website of the provincial legislature. The SCFA doesn’t necessarily advocate in favour of the tuition hike but rather approaches the debate more generally in terms of whether student unions should even have the mandate to adopt a position on this issue.
When I started as an undergrad in Quebec, the student union leadership at my university was overwhelmingly focused on political issues. It struck me very quickly that my student union leaders were claiming to act on behalf of all students when they took positions on questions that had very little to do with campus life. I was stunned that someone I apparently hadn’t even had the opportunity to vote for or against (elections were held the previous year, long before I set foot on campus) was using the membership dues of all enrolled students to register opinions on external political issues that only a fraction of their constituents probably agreed with.
The more I looked into the issue, the more concerned I was. I saw that out-going students had a say in elections, even though they would no longer be enrolled when the elected leaders took power. I also saw that student union leaders with relatively unpopular political views in terms of society at large were relatively content with low voter turn-out in student elections. My sense was that, to them, the student union was, oddly enough, a platform for a minority of students to advance their narrow political agendas and to lecture the majority of student on the minority’s fringe political views, while using the dues and representative authority of all students to accomplish those goals.
4. What does this mean for British Columbia
The student politics at many universities across Canada involve the questions raised by the SCFA at some level. Often, in student elections, one main slate is almost exclusively focused on local, campus issues (e.g. student transportation and housing), while the other main slate is also focused on broader political positions, including those that relate in some meaningful way to campus life (e.g. tuition hikes).
The primary justification for student societies having a mandate for political activism is that, like any other group, students need a collective vehicle to exclusively protect their interests. They won’t get that from any other organization or government, which means in terms of issues like tuition hikes, where there is a strong connection to campus life, the SCFA may have an uphill battle. An easier issue for the SCFA, however, is whether that mandate should include political activism on issues largely unrelated to campus life where substantial differences of opinion exist among students, like (as a random example) Canada’s role in Afghanistan.
That’s not to say that students shouldn’t be urged to become politically active or engage in any and every political issue, but it does raise the question of whether student societies themselves, which (unlike individual student clubs) represent and serve all students, should be wound up in those issues.
Currently, laws in BC are silent on this issue. Under section 1 of the University Act, a ”student society” is defined as:
an organization incorporated as a society under the Society Act whose purpose is to represent the interests of the general undergraduate or graduate student body, or both, but does not include a provincial or national student organization
In other words, a student society is a provincially incorporated non-profit organization intended to look out for students’ interests. The University Act goes on in section 27.1 to say that each university must collect student society fees for particular societies until a given society fails to meet certain financial disclosure requirements or ceases to exist. There is nothing there about political activism. The rest about a student society – its’ purposes, the powers of its board, etc. – is generally contained in the constitution and bylaws, which on the whole either permit political activism or encourage it.
Sometimes, people in BC assume that what happens in Quebec, stays in Quebec. Many of the laws are different, and the language may be different, but we would be foolish to ignore the lessons of their experiences that apply to us.