“As soon as we grasp something … it’s gone! See?”
— Jacqueline Bisset, La nuit américaine
This week, UFV’s Board of Governors just happened to mention, in the minutes for its next meeting, that it decided to raise tuition for international students next year by 3.2 per cent. Oh, and there’s a new $700 fee each semester for international first-years too. The reason? Well, UFV has to stay competitive, and everybody else in the province is doing it! This isn’t much of a surprise — there was a raise last year too, and for all the homeowners thinking, “Glad that isn’t me!” well, you can expect word of the regular annual two per cent raise in a month or two — the maximum allowable by the province. And there’s another fee they’re considering adding as well.
UFV, we hear all the time, is stuck in a difficult position. It has to please many masters, and finances won’t grow on their own. But there is a voice in here that’s suspiciously silent: the student union. Many students are familiar with the SUS because it provides several useful services: the U-Pass, the Campus Connector shuttle, a coffee shop, a health and dental plan. But as a union that represents UFV’s student population, when those students are directly affected by changes, the SUS is more notable for flying to Ottawa, talking to politicians, and posing for photo ops with Justin Trudeau than it is for standing up, or even giving the impression it will stand up to UFV’s administration.
It isn’t easy being a student politician — the second anyone has enough experience to know what to do, how to crack through legal language and a history of shaky finances, how to truly help students, as the line goes, they’ve graduated (or left). There’s only so much you can cover in a year, a year still full of courses and exams — this means every year at the SUS, goals will be left incomplete, promises unfulfilled, hard lessons learned. But it’s possible to empathize with the task of reaching a dispersed, commuter campus while also finding fault with SUS’s leadership — run less like a union, more a business, and not necessarily a well-oiled one.
The structure of SUS, currently, is equipped to handle the millions of dollars of student fees paid into its accounts every year, dispersing them to enterprises, filling in gaps left by administration’s priorities. But its purpose ends there — are you hoping for a culture of determined, passionate support for all students, not just the handful that volunteer and buy-in to SUS’s current direction? Would you like for the SUS to let students know what it’s working on, maybe inform students in a timely, detailed way what it is spending money on? Or maybe you don’t care that much about any of this — but a moment comes when you need to find out something about a fee or a club, and you’d like to navigate a regularly updated website. In the past year, SUS has kept to its policies and standards, which say: no one at SUS is allowed to speak publicly except for the president. Information is available, they say, if you request it at the front desk, where you can expect to be handed a business card or two and referred to an arcane procedure — exactly the kind of welcoming, open approach you’d want from your union.
And so transparency has become one of the talking points in this year’s SUS election campaign. Because of regular turnover, none of the three main executives will be returning to their 2015-16 positions. Several staff, both permanent and student positions, resigned during the past year. And, as the voting period opens, a significant amount of work is left to do: hirings, potential restructuring, addressing a financial situation where multiple lines are already over-budget.
Are the candidates up to it? Do they have any idea what they’re getting into? I’ll say this: some of the responses from the interviews we conducted are not promising. There’s a candidate for president who clearly has no clue what SUS is (hint: it isn’t all-powerful); multiple candidates who think SUS is just fine as it is; and echoes, regarding the endlessly complex business of getting students to care, that students will somehow automatically listen to whatever SUS says so long as a new, idealist candidate is saying it.
Now, realism is boring, but this group of candidates (which, at least, is larger than in past years) is a sign of something: SUS has not paid enough attention to what students think or know about it. SUS’s shying away from sharing news with the student population, its ignoring of its purpose as something students are supposed to be able to gather with and be represented by, means that any first-year with a few ideas left over from high school can suddenly be 200 friend-votes away from being in charge of an executive portfolio (the usual margin of victory, or total vote-count, depending on the year).
SUS, to many students, is irrelevant — but so long as the fee list students pay into every semester goes to them, they will remain one of the most important figures on campus. Do you have the time to read through candidate statements? Maybe not. But consider this: over the years, a few votes in another direction means there isn’t a Student Union Building, or there isn’t a connector shuttle, or there’s someone working to reverse the incoming tide of additional fees. A student with little more experience than your friend taking ECON courses is about to gain responsibility over millions of dollars in student funds. Whether it’s a vote, or a word sent SUS’s way (a small step forward: most candidates are promising to instate office hours, or something close to it, when they will be reachable by students during the week), it’ll affect a new, impressionable leadership group. As politics, it might not be great, but it might be the kind of nudge they need to figure things out, the way this past year’s group never did.