SUDS Conference July, 2003 – Conclusion

This article is the conclusion of a report on the Student Union Development Symposium, held in British Columbia on the campus of UBC. To read the first three reports, see The Voice:

August 17 (,
September 3 (
September 10 (

The final day of the conference began with a session on Communications Savvy: Keys to successful strategic communications, given by IMPACS, the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society. Unfortunately, by this point the utilitarian mattress at student residence had taken its toll on my back and I was in too much pain to attend the morning session. Fortunately the speaker provided a handout which gave a good description of what the session had included. Many suggestions were given on effective communication, including: defining success, knowing all the elements of your message, the importance of repetition, knowing your audience, and remembering that the messenger is as important as the message.

The first afternoon session took the topic of communication a step further. Although it was titled “crisis communication” it dealt with media manipulation techniques. Paul Patterson, Associate Director, UBC Public Affairs, used footage from an actual media news story he had been involved with to graphically demonstrate to us how the media manipulates viewers. It was a fascinating discussion, one that left me with a new “healthy” respect for the power of the media.

As he broke the video down into its component parts, accompanied by several entertaining accounts of different news stories he had covered, I realized how every aspect of a news story can be manipulated to create a desired impression. The lesson for student union executives, of course, is to take extreme care when responding to events in the media. This is something many campus-based SU’s have acknowledged by offering media training to all incoming SU executives. Paul summarized some important points to remember when dealing with the media:
“¢ You can generate free advertising through the media, but be careful not to lose credibility.
“¢ The media always covers a seasonal story, an anniversary, so use these opportunities.
“¢ Conflict stories are good. Reporters come for conflict. But also remember that if this becomes a crisis – defusing it will make them go away.
“¢ The media is interested in the student voice, so reacting to breaking news is good.
“¢ Don’t wait for the media to come asking, send them a press release or call with a comment. But remember that this must be balanced, sometimes it is better not to respond.
“¢ The more you fight, the media will be there. If you agree, they go away.

The final session of the conference was entitled, “Future of PSE Panel Discussion”, featuring James Kusie, National Director of CASA, Shirley Barg, and Ian Boyko. This session covered a lot of ground, accounting for some seven type-written pages of notes, which I will attempt to summarize briefly.

James began by stating the obvious – in four years most jobs will require a PSE degree. The social gap between those who can save for education and those who cannot is increasing. Tuition has increased more than 134% over 10 years. The government is unwilling to provide more funding if tuition is just going to increase. Students cite financial reasons as the biggest barrier to PSE

He asked questions about the Canada Student Loan Program (CSLP). What about parental contribution, given that 50% can’t or don’t contribute? Is it right to ask parents to liquidate assets to fund PSE for their children? Why are computers not considered an essential?

James pointed out that the demand for PSE is expected to increase 30% over the next ten years. We currently have 178 institutions in Canada, with most at their capacity. If these institutions are not funded to grow, what will happen? Higher entrance requirements and denied access as institutions are stretched to capacity. We need another major university in every province. In addition, we are facing the retirement of 20,000 professors during the ten year period, given that 33% of the current faculty is over 55. Greater emphasis is on the commercialization of research.

James concluded by stating that “education builds a nation,” reinforcing the importance of students working together to maintain a united voice, particularly in this upcoming election year.

Shirley took the stage next, first asking the question, “distance education – boon or bane?” After noting that many students use DE courses as a convenient supplement to their campus studies, she asked for a show of hands of students who had taken a DE course – and about half had. She clarified the difference between online and distance delivery (something we had first learned when attending the Montreal conference was that many, including the Alberta government, still confuse the terms).

Shirley mentioned some of the problems of DE:
“¢ the need to be motivated and self-disciplined
“¢ heavy reading commitment
“¢ don’t have the advantage of non-verbal communication cues
“¢ feelings of isolation
“¢ not all courses translate well into distance delivery, and those developing the courses may not have adequate technological knowledge
“¢ commodification of education can occur. Shirley pointed out that this is not exclusive to DE.
“¢ Non-recognition of infrastructure costs when governments look at funding DE.

Shirley also mentioned that AU’s administration is seeking SU support in their request to be removed from the tuition cap. She then stated that the ultimate question was, “does DE delivery reduce the quality of education?” If you are in a position with high quality one-on-one instruction with a tutor is this better than a learning hall filled with hundreds? She stated that distance education requires a much higher level of personal responsibility for one’s work, that distance education is not easy but requires greater emphasis on written communication, critical thinking, and a greater investment in time.

To tie this into the point of the conference, Shirley then posed the question, “what do we need to do to ensure DE quality?” Among her suggestions:
“¢ Push our universities (particularly campus-based) to employ professors that are comfortable and familiar with this form of educational delivery.
“¢ Encourage critical evaluation, institutions need to train teachers in DE methods.
“¢ Universities must provide tech support
“¢ Develop and implement ways to involve students at a distance in order to overcome isolation. Shirley briefly mentioned some of the initiatives AUSU has made in this regard.

During the question period that followed, virtually all questions were directed at Shirley, with attendees seeking further information on what it is like to study at a distance and how problems can be overcome. I found it surprising that there was still such a lack of comprehension and so many misconceptions regarding distance education, and it highlighted the need for AU and AUSU to continue to work to raise our profile in the university community.

Ian Boyko (chair of the Canadian Federation of Students [CFS]) used his portion of the panel to send all of us out into three breakout groups to discuss hypothetical situations and speculations for the future. While an interesting exercise, I didn’t find it contributed much to the overall value of the conference – we all mainly found ourselves summarizing the different issues facing PSE into a worse case scenario.

Ian then quickly listed many Millennium scholarship issues, stating that change is in the air for the student funding system. He emphasized the importance of student aid reforms, and the need to look beyond student loans to fund PSE. He tossed out various figures, such as 6 billion a year spent on student aid, and 20 billion annual PSE spending; stating that universities have more money than ever before so its hard to argue for more government money. In his opinion, provinces are unlikely to see any transfer payments from the feds without extreme measures of accountability, and he added that we face the challenge of changing public priorities regarding PSE. One problem is that Canada is “number one in educational attainment” according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics. Ian notes, however, that this is on the back of colleges, and on Quebec’s’ Cegep system, which is a technical add-on to high school. Pull these numbers out and university attainment lowers, placing Canada below the U.S. in numbers of university graduates.

Ian reiterated that more rich than poor go to university, then reviewed all the different problems with the current student loan program, including excessive student debt. He asked several key questions.
“¢ What aspect of access most needs to be addressed in the current environment – having the opportunity to enroll in PSE or having the opportunity to complete one’s PSE?
“¢ What is the most important problem needing focus: low participation, unequal access or social capital deficits by income?
“¢ What is need, and who has it?

In addressing the question of defining need, Ian went into detail describing the current need-based system as a formula based on “need = cost – resources.” High need is dependent on both low resources and high costs. This means that a medical student in a high cost program has need; or a single parent, independent student or dependent who moves away from home has need. A single student living at home does not have need, according to this formula. The needs-based system therefore gives more assistance to:
– university instead of college
– high cost programs, i.e. doctors
– those who move away from home or become independent
– those who come from a low-income family
– those who don’t work during the school year

To illustrate the problem with this formula, Ian used the “sample student” in BC, who lives at home with parents in a family of four. This student wants to attend UBC:
– tuition = $4000 a year, books $850
– parents earn $55,000
– student earns $3200 summer, $3840 during school period.
For this student the assessed need is: $3,101 loan. Gets no bursary or anything else.

If the same student made different choices, the situation is quite different. For example, attending a cheaper institution results in less money, whereas if they choose UBC law school, they will get a $6400 loan. If they move out and attend the University of Victoria they will get more money for living costs, and if they move to another province they will get even more loan money. But the average student who wants to live at home and go to university “gets the shaft.”

The system also rewards older students who are independent since the parental contribution is no longer required. Students who move away “get a bonus.” Students who don’t work get extra money, in effect penalizing those who work. The “average” student does not get a Millennium bursary.

Ian also spoke of another important funding issue, that of displacement. This occurs when different levels of government attempt to fund the same student. Federal grants, such as the Canada study grant, clash with grants provinces are already giving – meaning the money is displaced, yet students don’t get more funding. The solution to this problem is that federal and provincial government levels need to communicate and choose different priorities, for example “feds support poor students while provinces support high cost students.”

He listed the different types of student aid currently available, along with some of the drawbacks. Loans and debt remission are the most common, but they have problems of unmet need (along with the previously mentioned funding formula problems), and leave a student with mounting debt loads. Students also receive tuition transfer payments in the form of education and tuition tax credits. Ian noted that 6 billion a year is given to the Canada Child tax benefit which targets poor parents, and he commented that something of a similar nature may be on the table for students. He was most critical of the Canada Education Savings Grant and the RESP trust fund, which he calls “rich kid” funding. Ian’s overview on funding contained far more questions than answers, leaving us with a realization of the enormity of the problem and the need for significant changes to the system as a whole.

When taking an overall look at the symposium, it was clearly built around two main topics: problems with student PSE funding and how to lobby the government about PSE issues. Having these issues detailed and repeated over the course of the four days was helpful in creating a sense of priorities in the minds of those attending, and in finding a common ground where students across Canada can unite their voice. For CAUS, the symposium was an excellent opportunity to raise the profile and credibility of our Alberta provincial lobby group, allowing further relationship building with other student unions. Like many of the other conferences I’ve attended this past year, SUDS also allowed us to raise awareness of the unique issues that face distance education students and our university, and to continue to work towards enhanced credibility as a distance university. At AU we may have different needs than students on campus, but we do share the responsibility as students, parents and taxpayers to work together with fellow students across Canada to address the issues of accessibility to post secondary education.


SUDS 2003 (Student Union Development Symposium):

Millennium Scholarship Foundation:

CESG Canada Education Savings Grant Program:

IMPACS (Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society):

Loan info:

Canadian Federation of Students (CFS):

Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA):

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD):

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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