Alberta student lobbying group loses almost half its members

Departure of Athabasca University could be good for unity of Council of Alberta University Students: CAUS executive

EDMONTON (CUP) — As the struggle to have student voices represented in Alberta continues, the province’s main student lobbying body has become 36,000 members smaller.

The Council of Alberta University Students, which lobbies on key post-secondary issues, has, until recently, represented 80 000 students. But with the departure of one of its member universities, its student membership has nearly halved.

The Athabasca University Students’ Union ceased to be a part of CAUS on Nov. 1, leaving three remaining students’ unions, those of the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge, to continue their lobbying efforts.

However, according to Samantha Power, CAUS Vice-Chair and U of A Students’ Union VP External, AUSU’s departure may be for the best.

“It could actually be a benefit for both organizations that they decided to leave [CAUS],” Power said.

CAUS attempts to operate on a basis of consensus in order to present a unified front when dealing with the provincial government, Power explained. But Athabasca University, an online institution created by the government of Alberta in 1970 to focus on distance education, had a significantly different mandate than other CAUS members, sparking the basis for separation.

Power explained that AUSU’s focus on ensuring that the proper quality standards were set up for distance education wasn’t a priority for the three other universities in the province that are still members of CAUS, as they are focused primarily on affordability and accessibility of education.

“[The AUSU] can now focus on what’s best for their students and [the remaining members of CAUS] can focus on what’s best for our students based on our different situations,” said Power.

“In the end, we might come to a better understanding and achievement of our goals because of the separation.”

Tamra Ross-Low, the AUSU’s communications coordinator, further explained that, as the first Canadian university accredited in the U.S., AU has become a pioneer in its field and has an obligation to raise the profile of distance education to a viable postsecondary alternative.

“A lot of people still confuse distance education with what they call correspondence school in the U.S., and it’s not the same thing,” Low said, stressing that a distance education can be just as academically challenging as on-campus learning.

In addition to the recent American accreditation, an exponential growth rate has placed strains on AU, creating internal issues that are foreign to other members of CAUS, Low explained.

“AU has been maintaining 10 per cent growth for about four years now, which is absolutely gargantuan,” Low said, explaining that most universities deal with a one per cent growth rate.

“[Leaving CAUS is] just a matter of limited resources and an awful lot to do,” Low further explained.

Despite the separation, Low said that AUSU is very receptive to the idea of working alongside CAUS members in the future on issues such as lower tuition, better student loan programs and better funding for universities.

“A lot of the things that CAUS is lobbying for benefit everybody,” Low said. “[AUSU] fully expect(s) to be supporting those initives [sic] as CAUS undertakes them.”

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