At a time when more and more Canadians are attending university at different stages in their lives and for vastly different reasons, the idea of students comprising a uniform political constituency is increasingly absurd.
Even the cultural lingo of university life—characterized by tired, broke, and hungry young students cramming for their next midterm—is more and more removed from reality.
A full-time student living in residence, immersed in classes and the campus community, is now the exception rather than the rule. Increasingly, students are attending university part-time and working to make ends meet, or living with their parents and working to pay their university tuition.
Moreover, as Canada approaches 70 per cent post-secondary education attainment, degree inflation is becoming a serious concern. A bachelor’s degree is slowly taking on the value of a high school diploma while a graduate degree has begun to replace a bachelor’s as the benchmark of higher education.
This has essentially created a market for post-secondary degrees that responds to supply and demand. Departments or faculties like theology, classics and philosophy—fields once valued as intellectual pursuits in their own right—are now subject to budgetary review and tough questions as universities compete with colleges to facilitate applied skills that can lead directly to employment.
In short, there is nothing uniform about university student life anymore. And, given that universities are now inextricably linked with the wider economy and labour market, there are no easy answers to some of the problems that post-secondary institutions must confront.
This is the environment that student unions like UMSU and the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) must contend with. To what extent can a student union advocate for issues or take a political stance given the different, and often contradictory, political views and practical interests of the student body it represents?
During the recent municipal election in Winnipeg, UMSU and the UWSA provided different answers to this increasingly important question.
As far as UMSU was concerned, there was no preferred result in the municipal election. Winnipeggers would determine the best mayoral candidate and council candidates to represent them without UMSU’s help.
“We supported the vote and the democratic process but we certainly did not endorse a candidate because we knew we’d have to work with whoever won,” said Al Turnbull, UMSU president.
Meanwhile, UWSA president Rorie Mcleod Arnould voiced disappointment at the success of several right-leaning councillors while supporting re-elected councillors Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Ross Eadie (Mynarski). Both Gerbasi and Eadie have ties to the NDP, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Canadian Labour Council.
The difference between the two student unions is illustrated by their degree of support for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which collects fees from student unions across the country in order to advocate for what it determines to be uniform “student causes.”
The CFS is notorious for harbouring a left-wing or social democratic ideology, supporting tuition freezes, bottled water bans, lower fees for international students, and a plethora of other left-wing causes. In 2012, they supported the Quebec student strike over a modest increase in tuition fees in the province; the strike led to protesters clashing with police in Montreal.
It was instructive that, when the Manitoba chapter of CFS retracted a Winnipeg mayoral candidate report card due to unclear assessment criteria, UMSU came down hard against the report card.
“It was a juvenile gradient of the candidates that failed to mask the subjectivity and bias of the organization; the Canadian Federation of Students represents all students and should be focused on presenting the information to its members and leaving them to decide,” Turnbull told the Manitoban.
“An arbitrary evaluation based on no metric is a fairly disgraceful way for a seemingly reputable organization to weigh in on civic politics,” Turnbull said.
Zach Fleisher, the chairperson for CFS-Manitoba, is the former vice-president advocate for the UWSA. He refused to comment on the report card when contacted by the Manitoban last month.
Indeed, the UWSA seems to agree with the CFS’s left-wing politics to a great extent.
In July, the UWSA was involved with a Winnipeg Social Forum event titled “Building a People’s Agenda.”
The Winnipeg Social Forum is part of the national People’s Social Forum organization, which, according to its website, seeks to build “a broad strategic alliance against neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies in Canada.”
The July event was held at the University of Winnipeg. Other groups involved with the event included the left-wing Canadian Dimension magazine, the Canadian Labour Congress, and the Council of Canadians.
It included workshops like “How do we stop Energy East?” (a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands), “How do we defeat the Conservative agenda?” and “Neo-liberalism and the assault on public education.” The latter workshop was led by both the president, Rorie Mcleod Arnould, and vice-president advocate, Peyton Veitch, of the UWSA.
Imagine for a moment that the president of the UWSA presented at a right-wing forum or was affiliated with an organization that sought to build a broad strategic alliance against socialist and social democratic policies in Canada. They would rightly be dismissed as paranoid and politically exclusionary.
Ultimately, as student demographics change and as the utility of a post-secondary education evolves, student unions are faced with tough choices. They can either indulge in their own political activism, largely separate from the diversity of political views and practical concerns of a changing student body, or they can accept their limited role in political and campus life.
In this, I think UMSU has taken the right approach. While the idea of a neutral and benign organization that simply delivers services and fosters respectful pluralism isn’t palatable to the more politically outspoken, it is ultimately the most realistic option available.
It is also an option that doesn’t preclude taking strong stances on specific issues. For example, supporting policies to mitigate sexual harassment is important in ensuring a respectful campus environment for everyone. Furthermore, the U-Pass is a policy with broad-based appeal and universal benefits for students.
But these issues are few and far between, and should be debated and eventually supported for their universal benefits, not because they correspond to some radical ideological agenda, either from the left or the right.