Print Edition: March 14, 2012
As Student Union Society (SUS) candidates discussed a variety of student-related issues in the recent all-candidates meetings during SUS elections campaign which ended last week, a topic that continually resurfaced was that of SUS’s affiliation with the higher education advocacy group, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). But what is this group, and why is SUS’s membership a contentious issue among SUS board members?
VP academic Kate Nickelchok heads up student advocacy on all levels of government, as a part of her position at SUS. She explained that CASA is a national advocacy organization for students, specifically higher education students across Canada. There are 26 member schools from coast to coast and they represent over 320,000 students. They lobby and advocate to the federal government teaching, research and student issues.
“The general value for CASA… is ongoing advocacy for student issues at the highest level possible. Post-secondary education is technically a provincial issue, but all the money education/health provincial transfers. Most of the policies… are all federal level. Most direction in research and teaching comes from the federal level. It’s the highest authority you can speak to if you want to see change enacted in post-secondary education.”
“What CASA is known for, and what separates it from the other national advocacy group—the Canadian Federation of Students— is the easy in/easy out membership; also [it is] a member-driven model. It’s not staff run, it’s student run,” Nickelchok noted.
VP finance Samuel Broadfoot explained the fees associated with being a member of CASA.
“We pay $26,000 [annually] in CASA fees to be a full member. To be an associate member, if we were ever to go down a step, would be $16,000 [per year],” Broadfoot said.
Nickelchok went into detail about how the fees that SUS pays to CASA are used by the group each year.
“The membership fees go into several things: partly the structure of it as an organization, but also the home staff. While student unions call in every month, we’re all part of various different committees all working towards a lobby primer… or working on our advocacy efforts, we also have a home office staff who are almost right across the street from parliament head… They have that constant presence on the hill.”
CASA’s membership fees are still debated. At the recent all-candidates meeting during the SUS elections, SUS president Carlos Vidal was questioned by resident representative Christian Doyle about this issue.
“The membership fees for CASA plus sending people to various CASA conferences has cost [SUS] over $40,000 in one year. Do you feel that is a useful way for SUS to spend their money?” Doyle asked.
In response Vidal said, “I feel we’re setting a precedent and an example in our student community as being the only student union in British Columbia with the highest membership level in CASA. There’s no other school in BC that has the full membership… I think it is valuable, especially this year, current VP academic Kate has done a great job being involved and up to date with what CASA is doing. It is a high cost. I understand that,” Vidal admitted. “It’s probably something we could lobby for to CASA. Because the next level of membership down is seen as an exiting type of membership, there’s no membership level in between.”
Doyle, who had asked Vidal about CASA, later went on to voice his own opinions on the issue.
“While it is good to be involved and updated, I think that an associate member would be a better position for us: one, for financial reasons, but to be honest that’s not even the main factor for me. The main factor for me is I don’t believe SUS as it is at UFV, is quite ready to be a fully national level lobbyist,” Doyle stated. “At this point, we very much need to pay attention to our provincial level and work with what we can work with now and what we’re ready for, and once we’ve succeeded at the provincial level and we have actually done work there, gotten experience, and then go the CASA level.”
Doyle was not alone in his skepticism of SUS’s CASA membership. Disabilities representative Debbie Ellis thought that CASA membership funds could allocated differently within the SUS budget.
“I think dropping down our level [of membership] in CASA would allow use to have $10,000 to utilize more for our students, and I think it would be a more active way of helping our students get to and from classes…I think that for a shuttle would be a better use of money.”
Ellis was talking about the currently lacking Abbotsford-Chilliwack connector, which according to VP finance Samuel Broadfoot, would cost about $10,000 that SUS does not have available in its current budget.
SUS became a member of CASA in 2007. Before joining CASA, three members of the then SUS board of directors attended a Policies and Strategies conference. They wrote a report on what they thought of CASA and how it could apply to UFV. Shortly thereafter SUS held a referendum asking UFV students whether or not to join CASA, the referendum passed and SUS has been a full member of CASA ever since.
Nickelchok mentioned, “It’s federal government [advocacy], but they branch out into inter-provincial which is kind of also controlled also federally. They provide resources and networking for provincial level advocacy. For example, the WTF [What’s the Funding?] movement and the push for a BC lobby group really started with CASA membership schools… It was modeled after CASA, as a template, and brought towards the provincial level.”