The tuition of five per cent for international students was, once again, the topic of discussion at a recent University of Alberta students’ council meeting, and once again, the news coming out of the meeting was met with a resounding shrug by most students.
While that’s par for the course for engagement in student politics, one of the decisions made at this meeting was a bit more troubling than the usual council fare.
Still reacting to the international student tuition hike, council recently voted to direct the SU executive to spend up to $2,500 to obtain a legal opinion as to whether this increase violates the Alberta Human Rights Act, and whether the section in the Post-Secondary Institution Regulations defining tuition fees violates the Canadian Charter of Rights. Since this hike came in the wake of severe budget cuts to the university, accusations have been laid against the institution for using international students as a cash cow to make up for other lost funds.
But this allocation of SU funds sets what could be an awful precedent, and the decision-making process leading up to the motion’s vote displays a lack of foresight and cohesion on council.
The problem is that it’s $2,500 of students’ money going towards an initiative that, judging from the discussion surrounding it, could ultimately go nowhere. After all, the vote to even obtain the advice in the first place passed with just over half of the councillors present not voting in favour of it, with eight abstentions and six voting in opposition. This isn’t overly shocking. There’s no clear long-term strategy on council for how they could actually use the information, and hopes of using it in advocacy efforts towards the provincial government are pretty bold considering the SU is now publicly in favour of seeking their legal options against the government.
If there was some greater strategy for this information, students could feel safe knowing their money is being spent responsibly. Even if this wasn’t the case, if there was the option to seek legal advice that didn’t cost the SU thousands of dollars, it could be a harmless endeavour. But the divide in council comes from some being wary of the potential final result of this counsel, that being a lengthy and expensive charter challenge or court case that the SU may not be able to ultimately afford.
It’s not as if this is a case of seeking legal advice or doing nothing. Rather, council should have a better idea about the intent of this request and their overall strategy for representing international students in this initiative before they spend student money on it.
It’s true that $2,500 isn’t exactly going to break the bank for the SU. But it sets a difficult precedent for the future where a pet project and underdeveloped idea taken on by a councillor is reason enough to warrant thousands of dollars in expenses.
In a 39-page document put together to sway councillors in favour of this position, Arts Councillor Bashir Mohamed wrote that he’s presenting this issue “because it’s what students want.” But whether council is truly even connected with what students want on this issue is unclear. It remains to be seen how many students would be in favour of seeking this legal counsel, a battle in court paid for by the money they put towards the SU.
A petition is included in the document with the names of several U of A students signing off on very general terms that the SU explore “all legal, political and social avenues,” when developing a long-term strategy to regulate international students tuition. Even then, only five of those signatures actually came from self-identified international students at the time it was included in this document, and the two councillors who identified themselves as international students during debate on the motion voted against the initiative.
But the biggest problem with debating motions like these without more foresight is it furthers a deep-rooted problem of student disengagement with council. Spending so much time debating even just getting the opinion on whether to pursue further action doesn’t give students any reason to believe that council time is being well- spent or that their SU fees are being used responsibly.
With that in mind, meetings will remain poorly attended by the general public, some faculties will still struggle to find candidates who want to run for council positions and voter turnout will remain dismally low. It’s difficult enough already to convince the average student to follow the decisions of the council representing them, but this year’s group has consistently spent too much time debating subjects like these that seldom end up turning into tangible results or policy changes. This will inevitably breed more apathy in students who feel like their representatives don’t spend these meetings discussing truly important matters.
And so the cycle will continue as council meeting by meeting goes by with disengaged students responding to their decisions with nothing but a shrug.