Tipping the Scales: How the gap between SU executives and councillors is killing student engagement

Students’ Council has had a chaotic year so far, facing many Discipline, Interpretation, and Enforcement (DIE) Board hearings that forced councillors to focus their attention on internal problems. Between shoddy record keeping, a battle over the failed student spaces levy, and trying to mend council’s relationship with Indigenous students on campus, there’s been little time to address other projects. The inspiring protest movement that came together after last year’s international tuition and residence rates hike fizzled out, and the Students’ Union (SU) never wanted to be at the forefront of it anyway. How has the SU become so detached from students-at-large?

As a former SU Councillor (2016-17) and General Faculties Council (GFC) member (2017-18), I care deeply about the viability of the SU and have seen the difference it can make in the lives of students when it’s working effectively. I ran for vice-president (student life) in 2017, and, while I lost, I’ve stayed tuned into the operations of the SU. Frustratingly, the institution is frequently abused to advance the personal interests of student representatives.

Power in the SU is increasingly concentrated in the executive branch and in unelected staff, eroding the connection between the student body and the union. Similar to a government, the SU has three branches: the executive, the legislative (Students’ Council), and the judicial (the DIE Board). Students’ Council, the “ultimate authority” of the SU, drafts bylaws and political policies, represents students via a proportional system of faculty representation, and is meant to hold executives accountable. The executive is tasked with day-to-day operations of the union along with external and internal advocacy. The DIE Board is responsible for interpreting SU legislation and recommending appropriate remedial actions in cases of violations.

Students’ Council is still at the top of the food chain in writing, but in practice, executives largely control all aspects of the SU and council rarely blocks executive initiatives. SU bylaws and operating policies give executives a wide range of autonomy from council, minimizing potential avenues for oversight. The executive committee is the only committee of council that can approve motions without needing the secondary approval of council, meaning they can make decisions a lot faster than is possible for any other committee. The executive committee also has the unique power to spend up to $5,000 without council approval, allowing executives to approve funding for their own initiatives.

As essentially full-time employees, executives have a lot of power over councillors by just having more time and access to SU staff to work on their goals. Unlike executives, who get $39,500 per year, councillors aren’t paid — and it’s a thankless job. During my year as a councillor, I dedicated immeasurable hours to the basic duty of pre-meeting readings, along with working on committees and extra outreach initiatives. The only compensation I received was an SU notebook and pen, a subsidy for an SU jacket, and a 10 per cent discount on food and drinks at SU businesses.

Students’ Council is starved of funding and resources, and as such, councillors don’t have much of a budget to draw on for projects: in the 2017-18 academic year, only $27,017 was spent on council. That works out to around $844 per councillor, which is mostly spent on the Speaker’s salary, the two-day training retreat, and catering for every meeting. There’s little, if any, funding available for councillors to organize outreach or consultation events, making it difficult to fulfill their duties. Disengaged students don’t turn out to events without food or other incentives to draw them in, and executives can’t fill that gap because they don’t have the time to consult students on the ground across every faculty.

When I signed up to be a councillor, I knew it was a volunteer position, but it was still constantly disheartening to feel so undervalued. My time on GFC was even worse: treated as an afterthought by the SU, I worked on advocacy goals largely alone, and once even needed to respond to questions from university administrators who wanted to know why two SU executive members hadn’t bothered to show up to a meeting.

Combined with the pressure of being a full-time student, councillors are overwhelmed and have little support. They carry responsibility for big decisions and face (valid) scrutiny from the public and media, so it’s natural to want to rock the boat as little as possible. I’m proud of the work I did as a representative, but it took an undeniable emotional toll with little available supports.

Further complicating the relationship between executives and students’ councillors are the ever-increasing stakes of elections. Election bylaws attempt to create an equal playing field with a pre-campaign blackout period and strict financing rules, but this doesn’t stop aspiring executives from planning out their campaigns months or years in advance. It’s now common for future executives to announce their candidacy in January, weeks before the official campaign period even begins. In 2017-18, all of the executives who won were in their fifth year on campus or more. While the financial costs of a campaign are covered by the SU, the indirect costs are not. Students with the means to extend their degrees and take a part-time course load for the campaign are advantaged, and so are those who don’t need to have a part-time job to afford their studies.

Students who don’t follow SU politics will largely vote for whichever candidate’s campaign talks to them directly, meaning any candidate that can’t miss mandatory attendance courses loses out on priceless face-to-face time with students. It’s common for executives to enroll in a single course via open studies and withdraw so they don’t need to do any course work while still maintaining student status, at a cost of $1,261.09. With this new class of privileged career executives, it’s near impossible for regular students to compete.

It’s no wonder that tension is growing between councillors and executives when executives are increasingly removed from the experiences of average students, and councillors are left with no resources to make that connection. Solutions to these problems wouldn’t be easy: election bylaw could be reformed to mandate a longer pre-campaign blackout period, a minimum course load for candidates, or a limit on the years spent on campus. All of these could have unintended consequences on candidates, but might help limit the advantage older and wealthier candidates have in the current system. However, current executives are unlikely to support reforms to election bylaws that helped get them elected, and any council proposal without executive support faces an uphill battle.

A more elegant solution would be to pay councillors and provide proper administrative and outreach support: this would attract higher quality candidates to hold executives accountable, and allow councillors to dedicate more time to their duties. The salary wouldn’t need to be significant, but it would have the greatest impact to bring the SU closer to its constituents, which is badly needed in a time when student unions are under attack within Alberta and across Canada. It would also force prospective councillors to treat the position as a real job, rather than a resumé booster they can coast through. Members of the University of Calgary’s Student Legislative Council, their equivalent of our council, are paid $300 a month.

Council is the best place for engagement between the SU and students-at-large to happen, but executives disconnected from the needs of average students have their thumb on the scales of power. GovWeek and STRIDE, two SU outreach initiatives designed to encourage more diverse candidates,  have yet to make much of an impact, and more radical action is long overdue. It’s time to rebalance the SU before it’s too late. g

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