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Editorial — Council making the wrong moves with international tuition

Andrew Jeffrey
Editor-in-Chief
Feb 12, 2014

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.



Comments

Agreed, the $2500 is money poorly spent. The SU probably could have obtained pro bono legal advice; maybe they still can.



Posted by A. Andersen on Feb 12, 2014

Andrew, here are a few points that I would kindly like to reply to your piece.

I disagree that “the news… was met with a resounding shrug by most students.” I can assure readers that the decision taken by the SU was applauded and appreciated by more than a few students, international and domestic alike. Perhaps chatting with students outside your own comfort zone would bring about a more balanced opinion.

The SU should represent and stand up for the interest of all its members. The $2,500 fee was approved to help international students obtaining a legal opinion to protect their rights. Last year the SU approved a $10,000 legal fee to defend the rights of Lister students against the university administration. That was way larger than what was approved this time, and it was directly benefiting a smaller segment of the population.  Lister residents in general were probably more vocal than the population of international students, but a fair SU should not pick and choose its favourites. The SU should take action to support whichever members in need, especially those in not-so-privileged situations, and this time is no different.

Yes, it could ultimately go nowhere, but it wouldn’t be a waste. Students went out during exam period in freezing weather and organized protests against the increase to international tuition fee, and the fee increased anyway. Was that a waste too? No. Only when you speak up will others hear your voice. If you don’t speak up, silence is what you will ever get.

Also, this is not a “pet project… taken on by a councillor”. This motion and the bigger issue of equal rights for students were spearheaded by students outside of the SU Council, with the collaboration and support of many more students and shareholders. In fact, equal rights is not just one person’s project, it belongs to everyone.

In short, does it set a precedent? If you think so, then yes. Is it a good precedent? Certainly.



Posted by Richard Zhao on Feb 12, 2014

Dear Andrew,

I have been following The Gateway much closer lately. Unfortunately, I’ve been noticing that many articles and editorials are lacking good and relevant information. In my opinion, this is very irresponsible because as the main newspaper on campus, The Gateway has quite a great power to influence the student body (whether that should be its purpose is a different topic).

One of the problems that the SU has been dealing with is passivity. People can complain on Facebook or Twitter and that’s fine, but it doesn’t really resonate much with the people that take the decisions. What the SU—and specially William Lau—did last December about the IDF hike is amazing. Around 150 people came out at 7am during finals, without caring about the weather, just to show that they disapproved the proposal. And that was just one of the many other projects to fight the proposal. The SU got hundreds of both domestic and international students to express their rejection to the proposal and, since the beginning, the legality of the issue was being discussed. To allocate $2500 for legal advice on the issue is by no means a waste of money. To discuss the issue in a council meeting is by no means a waste of time. I believe that mentality is ultimately just fomenting passivity, and that makes the job of the SU even harder.

Dear Andrew, giving up without exploring our options is not the appropriate thing to do. It may be a costly war to fight the legality of the IDF, but with the right information, it is much easier to find an alternative cost-effective path. Information gives you power after all. Even if the final advice is that it is indeed legal, students will know what path should not be taken to tackle this issue. The long-term goal will remain to have regulation in place that caps International Tuition increases.

I’m afraid that, in this case, the proposal made by Councilor Mohamed does indeed represent the student needs and desires. The fact that the two councilors that are international students did not vote in favour of the proposal is not a sign of lack of support by international students. I can tell you that because I have the chance to communicate to councilors (that consult me) the needs of a great portion of international students. Instead—and I do not mean this as an offence, but—, your editorial makes me wonder if you—specially as editor-in-chief—are gathering enough information before publishing what is in my opinion a polarising entry. I do respect your opinion and appreciate that you express it. In fact, I encourage you to keep questioning the system and if it’s working as intended. But let’s just say that a better informed piece is always better appreciated.

Sincerely,

Diego Luces



Posted by Diego Luces on Feb 12, 2014

Basically, this is $2500 spent on getting a lawyer to say “No, you don’t have a case”.

The actual law isn’t SU politics - it doesn’t respond to good intentions and feel good, self-congratulatory votes.



Posted by Collin on Feb 12, 2014

The words “I told you so” come to mind at this point, Andrew.



Posted by BK on Feb 14, 2014

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