SUDS Conference July, 2003

This article is part three in a report on the Student Union Development Symposium, held in British Columbia on the campus of UBC. To read the first two reports, see The Voice August 17 ( and September 3 ( issues. This report will conclude next week:

The following morning, sessions began with a talk on administrative lobbying by Dr. Piper, President and Vice-Chancellor, UBC. She encouraged students to not underestimate our ability to make a difference both individually and collectively, stating that we are the best advocates and spokespeople to make the case for quality and accessibility of education. Some of her suggestions for successful lobbying:
“¢ there is no substitute for face to face dialogue.
“¢ think strategically about who you want to see. The president is not necessarily the best person to approach first, since they take advice from others.
“¢ rather than just going in and complaining, bring solutions and ways to work collectively to problem solve
“¢ be focused and go in with only one thing rather than a “shopping list”.
“¢ be direct and don’t get sidetracked. Even if the meeting is a half hour long, you have only 3 minutes to make your point!
“¢ protests can be very effective if done thoughtfully – if you cross the line of safety, security and civility, your cause is finished.

Dr. Piper also stressed the importance of following up. If you do get what you want, follow up with a thank you – you are quick to complain so be quick to thank. She also commented about the effectiveness of partnerships, encouraging us to get “as many people singing from the same song sheet as possible.” After some discussion on working respectfully with elected government officials, regardless of your personal opinion of these officials, Dr. Piper concluded that “lobbying is the fine line between being a pest and being thoughtful,” adding that there is “nothing wrong with being nice about your issue.”

The second morning session dealt with provincial lobbying, and included Johanne Galarneau from Dalhousie once again, along with Naeem Datoo, President, McGill, and Shirley Barg, VP, AU. The focus of the discussion was how student union alliances in each province were structured and what types of things they had been lobbying for. Not all provinces have such groups, and in some, such as Ontario, provincial alliances are relatively new and in the formative stages.

Johanne commented on NSAC, which is Nova Scotia’s provincial group. NSAC is in a difficult transitional period right now, and undergoing restructuring. She stated that they elect a chairperson, who cannot be a student union executive – the reasoning being that not only is being chairperson and an SU executive too much work, it also forces them to wear two hats, which can create conflicts.

Nova Scotia has several issues. In the previous day’s session Johanne had already commented on the serious lack of consultation with students, something that NSAC has been working with CFS to address. Other problems are the student debt relief program, administration of the millennium scholarship, and default rates on student loans. Defaults are tied into programs, and programs with high default rates are “designated,” meaning students can no longer get student loan funding.

Johanne gave some suggestions about what not to do when lobbying provincially:
“¢ Don’t send mixed messages that divide the movement
“¢ Stay away from politics and personal agendas
“¢ Don’t get the bureaucrats angry at you
“¢ Don’t throw a last minute campaign, do your groundwork
“¢ Don’t expect to get everything you want, be realistic.

Nova Scotia has an upcoming provincial election, and NSAC is taking advantage of this to make PSE a campaign issue (the challenge is to remain non-partisan while doing this). Johanne concluded by stating that it is extremely important to get students informed and out to vote – since the government says, “why should we care about PSE when students don’t vote?”

Naeem began his comments by noting that McGill was the only Quebec school in attendance, asking why that was the case. Although he didn’t really answer that question, his comments about the nature of Quebec student unions, and the very different situation in that province, provided plenty of food for thought. Quebec has La Feuq (Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec), a large, powerful student organization, that represents all but one school and all but three SU’s. LF has twelve full time staff and two researchers, all of whom are funded by provincial government grants. The focus of LF and all student unions in the province is representation, not student services (these are outsourced), with about 90% of SU activities being political in nature. This political inclination could clearly be seen in Naeem’s tips for effective political representation, which included:
“¢ Have a unified voice. LF is consensus-based and represents common interests, with all members having influence on decisions.
“¢ Be the voice of youth, not just education. Ask what is important to the people you are trying to convince. Broaden the scope of education to include all things that affect students.
“¢ Find the decision makers
“¢ Tap into youth wings (political party) and build coalitions so that they will lobby on your behalf.
“¢ Research education, focus your time and money on educational issues. In Quebec they keep provincial tuition low and use international (and out-of-province) students as revenue generators.
“¢ Affiliate with other groups. Our expertise is education, not other things (i.e. the environment). Stick to your own area but affiliate with groups that lobby for other things.

Naeem disagreed with Johanne in where to focus communications – he advocated thinking big rather than focusing on small victories. He mentioned being careful with issues that your membership is divided on, such as differential tuition. In Quebec they charge a hefty out-of-province fee in order to keep the in-province tuition low. French students love it, but others don’t. Sovereignty is also an issue that divides students in Quebec, so they instead have to find and focus on common interests.

What are the accomplishments of the politically-focused Quebec student groups? Tuition is the lowest in Canada, frozen at $1665 per year for Quebec students. Student association rights are protected by Bill 32, a legislation that makes student unions the official voice of their constituency, with legal rights to collect fees and have membership list access, along with guaranteed representation on university bodies. Students also achieved the promise of a 400 million dollar reinvestment from the provincial government, and commitments on a law regarding ancillary fees. Naeem did note that a commission is currently reviewing education in Quebec, with “everything on the table,” including Bill 32. This has further served to unite the student groups, and they are preparing a worst case scenario in which the bill is revoked and the freeze lifted. I found his concluding comment quite revealing in terms of describing the very different student group atmosphere in Quebec. He stated that “if we don’t get what we want, a mass mobilization is being planned across the province.”

AUSU VP and CAUS Chair Shirley Barg brought the panel discussion to a close. She began by announcing that she had a new bed partner her husband didn’t know about. As she elaborated, offering that his first name was Bill, I could see puzzled looks around the room, wondering why she would be sharing details of her indiscretion with us. She then announced that Bill’s last name was 43, prompting loud groans and laughter! Shirley explained that Bill 43 was the main issue facing our provincial student groups and encouraged all present to ask questions of any of the Alberta representatives at SUDS, since the bill will have implications for all student unions across Canada. Alberta was well-represented at the conference, with student union executives from U of A, U of C, Grant McEwan, SAIT, and Mount Royal (and Athabasca, of course).

Shirley proceeded to give an overview of CAUS (the Council of Alberta University Students), explaining that it had been in existence since 1986, with grad student associations affiliated up until four years ago. She mentioned the composition; two large universities, one small, and one unique (AU); and spoke about some of the previous problems that resulted when the CAUS office was located in the school of the chair, leading to this year’s restructuring and transition to developing their own office. She offered the following lobbying tips:
“¢ Have solid policy. Know the policy, the rationale, all factors involved.
“¢ Know the political environment. Know the appropriate government contact and the strength of the minister, and which MLA’s hold power. She cautioned that what works in one province may not work in another. She also suggested working with the opposition, lobbying those who may be next in line, and those with portfolios other than education. Shirley also commented on the importance of knowing which province yours aligns itself with, noting that Alberta is similar to Quebec in disliking “meddling from the feds,” such as dedicated transfer payments.
“¢ Develop government contacts, and a relationship with the non-elected bureaucrats.
“¢ Meet with elected officials. Treat the session like a sales meeting, sell the message in the context of how it will help their constituencies. For example, student financial aid in rural areas has different implications. Always be respectful and professional, with a positive, non-combative attitude. Watch for social events where you can meet with officials.
“¢ Be well-prepared with supporting documents. Don’t just talk problems, offer solutions, ways to find common ground. Focus on only one or two issues, and follow through.
“¢ Lobby beyond government. Include students and the public, develop alliances with other groups and work for a unified message. Use the media, but remember that media attention is not always government attention.

Shirley concluded by reminding everyone that results don’t happen overnight, but that it is important to believe you can make a difference.

In the question period that followed, there was quite a bit of discussion on the best way to form alliances without diluting the message. Some disagreed with Shirley’s comparison to a sales meeting, insisting that education is not a product to sell, and that we should be reminding the government that education is a right, an investment.

A concern was brought up about the situation in Quebec. If we students at the conference were talking about a united front, what about Quebec’s wariness regarding federal initiatives and desire to keep education provincial? Naeem acknowledged the concern, stating that Quebec is a different culture – a more political, socialist one. Overall we want the same thing, but the key is finding out how to go about getting it. Even within Quebec, issues are different for francophones and anglophones. He added that for the rest of the country to move forward in education, Quebec will have to step back – therefore we must find an agreed-upon goal to alleviate their fear. From a western standpoint, I found this notion rather troubling. The differences in Quebec already affect AU students, in that they are not eligible for provincial student loans to attend AU. Naeem’s discussion shed a great deal of light on why things are different in Quebec, but it raised a lot of questions with no easy answers.

In the afternoon session, Ian Boyko (chair of the Canadian Federation of Students [CFS]) and Robert South (Government relations officer for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations [CASA]) again led the forum, this time regarding federal government lobbying. Ian began by referring to the importance of being familiar with what the government is thinking, through a document called “Knowledge Matters,” something Robert also encouraged. Ian then gave a brief overview of the CFS and services it provides. He reminded us that a lot of people are making demands for finite dollars, so it is important to be organized. He claimed that the CFS is highly effective, noting that in November of 2000 the CFS was cited in the media more than any other group. Among issues the CFS is working on: grad student research funding; millennium scholarship improvements; better provincial/federal cooperation; and federal transfer payments. The latter is something that is undergoing change due to the pressures on how health care payments are allocated, and the CFS is looking at how to use this change to improve education payments. He concluded by reiterating the need for a united student voice.

Robert took over, providing some basic principles about lobbying. Most of what he listed had already been suggested by previous speakers, including the importance of following up and saying thank you. He spoke of the realities of what the government can do, pointing out that one-fourth of tax money services the debt, another third goes to the provinces, and the rest is spent on federal programs, 95% of which maintains current programs such as the CBC. For students to get a share of the small amount left we need to develop a strategy – “if you don’t know where you are going you will end up somewhere else.”

Robert detailed the different government departments and places to approach when lobbying. He reinforced Shirley’s comment on talking to the opposition, adding that doing so will “lessen the negative response opposition parties will have if the government implements your agenda.” He also cautioned everyone to remember that our purpose is to get results for students, not to raise our own political profile.

Robert also touched on the government position on WTO and FTAA. Although the government says they will maintain and regulate trade policy with Canadian interests first, not allowing access to PSE, it is worrisome nonetheless, and students should be keeping a close eye on the matter. The issue of transfer payments came up again, with Robert commenting that the feds want to take credit for money spent and do not like transfer payments without accountability.

I left that day’s sessions thinking about the issue of federal government funding. This is an important topic for AU. As we increasingly grow in other areas of Canada, it would make sense for us to lobby the federal government for more funding as Canada’s Open University. At the same time I had to agree with Shirley’s comment about Alberta not liking the idea of dedicated transfer payments from the feds – we saw Klein’s response on dedicated health care transfer payments! On the other hand, it does seem that the Alberta government wants to be free of responsibility to fund AU – so perhaps federal lobbying is the answer. If so, what role could we play as student representatives?

Next week: The conference conclusion

SUDS 2003 (Student Union Development Symposium)

Knowledge Matters: Achieving excellence:

La Feuq (Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec)

Canadian Federation of Students (CFS):

Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA):

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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