Do We Even Need Student Unions?
I recently transferred to Glendon from a college in my hometown of Red Deer, Alberta. I spent both of my years there serving as a councillor on my institution’s student union (SU). During this time, I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of accountability and representation, as well as the omnipresent corruption and financial irresponsibility. I naively thought this was unique to my institution and the fault of individual mismanagement. My journey to Glendon proved this intuition wrong when I learned about the stolen $20 000 of student money and the recent resignations of more than half of the executive team. Friends across the country attending different institutions have reported similar experiences with their respective SUs and some quick research will show this is nothing new—it is a nationwide problem. Of course, the members of the GCSU and the members of SUs across the country should be held accountable for what happens under their watch; however, corruption and lack of accountability are symptoms of a broken institution, something that can’t be fixed with well-meaning student leaders. Instead, it can only be fixed with structural reform or, potentially, the elimination of student unions entirely.
The real problem with SUs, just as with the GCSU, is that they aren’t really unions at all. A union’s primary goal is the use of collective bargaining to regulate the relationship between the worker (the student) and the employer (the university). So, if the GCSU were indeed acting as a union, the primary goal of the GCSU should be lobbying for student interests, whatever those interests might be. Instead, the GCSU—and all SUs—act as quasi-governmental vending machines, levying fees from students in return for services offered by the “union”. But we should ask ourselves: Is what we’re getting in return really worth what we’re paying? A student government (for that’s what they really are) might work if they had the accountability of a real government, but they don’t. The GCSU currently has no information on their current 2017-2018 budget, or any of their budgets from previous years available on their website. This is unacceptable considering they have control of nearly $180 000 in student money. Students not directly involved with the union have zero access to this information nor to the information on how much they contribute in student fees. According to a report by Macleans in 2011, only about 35% of student unions provide a breakdown of SU fees on their website—a disgraceful percentage in my opinion. Moreover, executives have no real incentive to actually help students; there is no “opposition party” to hold them accountable to their constituents and student apathy has always been too high for the average student to care what happens in their local SU. Even if there was active criticism, most executive terms are one year and most executives do not seek re-election. They are not beholden to a party; they are only beholden to their own initiative(s). The institution of a student union encourages the status quo: unaccountable spending.
But why are students so apathetic towards their unions? Again, it comes down to the structure of the unions themselves: student representatives do not mandate the student levy fee, they simply spend it. For students, it doesn’t matter who is elected since the same amount of their money is being taken either way. As such, there is no real incentive to pick one candidate over the other; the positions simply become about who is most charismatic and who will throw the best events. This is contrary to a real governmental system where real benefits and changes are seen in terms of levying (raising or lowering of taxes), which establishes real incentive depending on who is elected. Besides, some SUs run events which frankly under-attended, so there is also almost zero difference in services regardless of who is elected. Chalk this up to the transitory nature of university. Even if big changes were instigated, most current students would have graduated by the time they were implemented. This means that accomplishments are underwhelming at best, especially given the aforementioned budget. Again, this is contrary to real governmental systems, which work under a much longer time frame and as a result have the ability to drastically change the services available to their constituents. Given these two factors, apathy should be expected in this broken system. This student apathy reinforces the lack of accountability in student unions, and the unaccountability of student unions reinforces student apathy, creating a vicious cycle of wasted potential.
But what can be done about this? SUs have become entrenched in this hierarchical governmental model and as long as it exists in its present form, the trend of corruption and crisis will continue. The only way to solve the problem is through radical reform from within the institution itself; I believe students should join the GCSU with this intention. First and foremost, a referendum should be held listing the true cost of the GCSU and how student money is spent, with the question “As a student, are you willing to pay this price for your SU?” This creates a means to gauge the true value of the GCSU is. I’m not saying the GCSU should necessarily be dissolved, but it should be radically changed to reflect its roots. Primarily, it should be a institution based on lobbying; unnecessary executive positions and spending should be cut, and student money should be returned, to students! There are many ways this can be accomplished but the best way is by focusing on taking back control of student fees and with it, the power to decide how to spend our money. I hope fellow students will join the conversation and help decide how their money is spent.
Pro Tip: To learn more about SU reform movements, check out www.studentbeyourself.com.