We return to the continuing drama of Bill 43. In this episode, four students”?members of CAUS”?supported by two policy researchers and a note-taker ascend to the 11th floor of the downtown Edmonton offices of Alberta Learning. In their satchels, the CAUS emissaries carry important documents that outline the locations of dead ends, blind curves, and dark corners contained within the innocent-looking white pages of Bill 43. The CAUS mission: to have a frank discussion with a top Alberta Learning representative about the pitfalls of Bill 43.

All right, it wasn’t really all that dramatic. But in reality, no other government action in at least a decade has had the potential for such broad reaching negative effects on students’ organizations as has Bill 43. It’s not only Alberta students who are concerned about the implications. National student groups like the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) are keeping an eye on Bill 43, knowing that if it passes without amendments in Alberta, other provincial governments may follow suit.

On May 29, CAUS members met with Connie Harrison of Alberta Learning to go over the proposed Post-Secondary Learning Act. This Act amalgamates the Universities Act, the Colleges Act, and the Technical Institutes Act into one piece of legislation. The Act received first reading earlier in May and was then tabled until the fall session.

One of the key areas of concern with the Act is that a good deal of critical detail, such as the tuition fee policy, and purpose and structure of students’ associations has been removed from legislation and will, instead, be captured within regulations. I realize this doesn’t sound like cause for alarm; however, while changes in legislation are done publicly with opportunities for public debate, changes in regulation can be made with or without consulting with stakeholders.

The usual reason for moving something from legislation to regulation is to give it more flexibility. CAUS strongly believes that areas such as the tuition fee policy, which is the government’s commitment to accessible and affordable post-secondary education, should not be subject to the whims of government. Accessibility and affordability should be chiseled into stone.

Another dark corner that CAUS pointed out to Alberta Learning is that of the mandate of students’ associations. In the new Act, the mandate has been downgraded from being the “official medium of communication between the students of a university and the board” (Universities Act, section 57.1) to that of “maintaining appropriate communications” (Bill 43, section 95.1). Unfortunately, “appropriate communications” is such an ambiguous term and can be interpreted so many different ways.

CAUS also discussed the auditing of students’ associations, and when we asked why this section was included, we were told that some politicians wanted it there in the event that a students’ organization “runs amuck,” and that the section was added late, just days before the Act was printed. It appears that some politicians aren’t aware of the extensive accountability practices already in place within students’ unions’ constitutions and bylaws that have been effective in reprimanding and removing negligent councillors and executive in the past. It also appears that little forethought on the organizational implications went into the inclusion of this section. Students’ unions have a mandate of representing the voice of its members and being fully accountable to them. If a students’ union is put into a position where, on one hand, it’s accountable to the students, and on the other hand, it has to be accountable to the board, the students’ union could find itself in a position of severe conflict. Which masters should they serve?

Besides the areas of concern I’ve mentioned, there are numerous other ones, such as the proposed Act giving universities the power to delegate authority to any committee or sub-committee, including the authority to develop and implement additional mandatory student fees. CAUS has brought all these problematic issues to the attention of Alberta Learning and will continue to do so through informal and formal submissions and meetings.

In spite of, or more accurately, because of Bill 43, there have been some positive happenings. For the first time, CAUS has teamed up with its counterpart, the Alberta Colleges and Technical Institutes Students Executive Council (ACTISEC) to develop and propose amendments to the Act. The resulting alliance represents the voices of 150,000 Alberta post-secondary students, and thousands more Athabasca University students across Canada and around the world.

Another positive is that the President of Athabasca University, Dr. Dominique Abrioux, is pushing Alberta Learning for more student representation on AU’s Governing Council. AU administration has also expressed its opposition to the auditing section.

I invite any AU student who would like more information about Bill 43 or about CAUS to email me at sbarg@ausu.org.

Shirley Barg
AUSU VP External
Chair, Council of Alberta University Students

The Council of Alberta University Students provides a combined provincial voice for all students of the four Alberta universities: University of Alberta, Athabasca University, University of Calgary, and University of Lethbridge. Post-secondary education decisions made by the Alberta government affect all Athabasca University students. Shirley Barg, Chair of CAUS, is the Vice-President of the Athabasca University Students’ Union