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SU Elections 2022 Q&A: Vice-President (Academic)

There are two candidates in the 2022 Students' Union vice-president (academic) race, Gurleen Kaur and Milan Regmi.

The Students’ Union vice-president (academic) is responsible for all advocacy related to academic issues at the University of Alberta. They work with all of the student faculty and department associations, and sit on boards and committees including the Students’ Union Policy Committee, General Faculties Council (GFC), the Council of Faculty Associations, and more.

There are two candidates in the 2022 Students’ Union vice-president (academic) race:

  • Gurleen Kaur, a second-year arts student and current Students’ Union arts councillor.
  • Milan Regmi, a third-year music and education student, and current Students’ Union senator.

The following interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

In one minute or less, can you tell us why you are running for the position of Students’ Union vice-president (academic)?

Gurleen Kaur: I’m running because I have been serving students as a Students’ Union councillor and a General Faculties Council councillor, and I really loved the work. Through that position, I could make really good connections, and I could even figure out what academic problems students are facing right now. And I really feel I could give my best to solve those problems, because I’m really passionate and dedicated towards this.

Milan Regmi: I’m running for vice-president (academic) because, I believe the time to act is now, and the time to move forward is now. We’ve gone through a rough few years, with the pandemic and with everything else shutting down with online learning. It’s affected students’ mental health, tuition has been affected, the quality of learning has been affected.

My goal is to ensure that when we come back to campus, we come back a stronger and a better university. My platform will include making sure that every student no matter their race, their sexual orientation, can see themselves represented in the demographic of the classrooms and in the class material.

My goal is to make sure that tuition is affordable for all students, no matter what their income is, and to ensure that things like residence can be easily accessed at low charge, so that way students can focus on their academics without worrying about high financial pressure. My goal is to also build accessibility to mental health and make sure that we have the resources needed for students to access mental health. My goal is to ensure that grading is transparent, assessments are transparent, and that students are able to know what their academic rights are.

Can you briefly and concisely describe your platform?

Kaur: My main focus would be academic accommodations. Due to the pandemic, for online classes, students who had visual or hearing impairments have been facing a lot more problems, and many of them don’t know how to get aid, so it needs to be made more and more accessible. For example, taking notes should be made convenient for students, so they don’t feel that they are left out.

The next thing I want to focus on is inclusion of other associations, like the faculty associations and the student reparative associations (SRAs), because I was an arts councillor, and to be honest, I had zero contact with OASIS; I didn’t know what was going on there. I really want the other student groups to have regular contact with the councillors of their respective faculties, and with the SU so that there’s more transparency, and the government works a little better, according to the faculty’s needs and priorities.

Thirdly, I want to make textbooks more affordable. I want more professors to make textbooks not mandatory, because that would save a lot of money for students, because it doesn’t make sense to buy really expensive books for just four months. So these are the main focuses that I want to work on.

I also want to make academics better. We have noticed, especially in online classes, that professors have been using old recordings. I think there should be fresh material for the students, because there’s a lot of enhancement in the research. Also, the workload has increased a bit due to online learning, because professors want the students to do multiple readings, or watch extra lectures. I want to improve the quality of education in that way.

A very, very important thing, I want a zero tolerance policy against class discrimination and harassment. It’s especially prevalent in programs that don’t have much diversity, and there should be strict actions taken. Regarding the quality of education, we always fill up the USRIs after our courses, but often we don’t see any changes, so I feel that they should be assessed properly. I’ll make sure that happens and that there are actions taken according to the convenience of students.

Also, we have the courses exploration, we already have it on the ground, for there to be credit/no credit for the electives that students take. That decreases the burden on students because often we are afraid of taking electives because we’re afraid that our grades would go down. I will be advocating for it and make sure that it gets implemented. And then I want to promote work-integrated learning. This would be something easy and I would work really hard on it, because it’s also the university’s priority. The GFC and the Senate had a meeting on this, so I will be advocating more for that, and make sure that even students in programs that are not co-op find it easy to do one.

Then, I want to increase or make better interdisciplinary advising, so that students have a chance to explore multiple programs and decide what they really want to do and what really interests them.

Regmi: My first major section is on tuition and affordable housing. Tuition has gone up by a lot because of the provincial government budget cuts by the Alberta government. My plan for tuition is to try to advocate for the U of A and work with the Board of Governors to see if we can to continue advocacy on tuition and see if we can move toward a better model for low income students. Part of that plan will include seeing if maybe we can get the wealthiest one per cent to pay higher tuition, so that the middle class can pay less and have the same opportunities.

My second point is making sure our services are accessible. The U of A for Tomorrow plan is planning to grow to 50,000 students, but we do not have enough infrastructure to support them. My goal is to make sure to work with GFC, to work with the executives to ensure that we have proper infrastructure, whether it be retrofitting buildings, or doing other things to ensure that we make space for students, and also makes that space more accommodating as well for people with different types of needs. I know there’s some spaces in SUB and CAB that aren’t very accommodating in terms of safe spaces for people with disabilities. I found that extremely unfair that the study space on the stairs has limited their ability, or options for them to get a safe space so they can do their studies. They have the same rights and I want to make sure that our safe spaces also are more accommodating for students with disabilities.

My third main point is increasing the presence of minorities — underrepresented groups — within the content of our courses and the demographics of our classrooms. It can’t be said enough that the only way forward to reconciliation is by acknowledging the truth, and that’s something that we need to do more of at the U of A. That’s in my platform too, to ensure that the SU Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Committee (ARRC) and our policy clearly states that we’re working to call for the University to fulfill their commitments and obligations to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

It also involves making sure that international students, Black students are getting equal representation too, which we have not seen in classrooms, and we haven’t really seen that in the SU as well. I believe this is the first time in which the majority of executives are people of colour. And I think that signals that we have a lot more work to do. If I’m VP academic, I’ll make sure that within the Council of Faculty Associations (CoFA), we have an international student seat and an Indigenous student seat so that way we can get a broader perspective of the issues that students and faculty are facing, so that we can reduce those barriers and power dynamics that come within faculty associations.

Many students have faced barriers to online learning such as online proctoring and accessibility issues. How would you support students if learning goes back online?

Kaur: In this time, we have really uncertain situations; we might go online again. In that situation, we need to get feedback from students on a regular basis. I want to ensure that there are surveys conducted on a faculty basis, and then assessed properly to see what problems the students have been facing.

Just recently, we came across that there are many courses that are fully online, and then the students just have to go on campus for their exams. That doesn’t make sense at all, because there might be students who are in their home countries because of online learning and it’s really inconvenient for them just to move for examinations. I will make sure to take assessment from students and then see what are the major issues and then meet with GFC to discuss those.

Regmi: Online learning has been a huge issue throughout the entire year. It’s affected students’ mental health and quality of learning. My plan is to ensure that the university is able to provide affordable internet for people who are staying in residence, because I think one of the problems like the online learning is the internet not being updated; we don’t have that capacity to support internet for students to learn. That’s one of the things I’m going to be pushing hard for is to make sure that every student who comes to campus to study, whether it’s in person or online, can come to a place that has access to high speed internet.

I also want to make sure that we have equitable access to technology too, because many students who might be studying from home or studying in a place around the world, they may not have equal access to technology and technology here in Canada is expensive. You look at other first world countries just like Canada, and their costs for technology and for service are way lower than what Canada is right now. For me, I think that’s outrageous, and I think we need to do more.

I definitely want to make sure that I work with the vice-president (external), vice-president (student life) to ensure that we can secure deals for technology and resources for students, or find a way to incorporate it in the fees; that way students can have those materials to learn with while they’re doing their studies. Another thing as well is to ensure that especially when it comes to students with disabilities, because they have a little bit more need for technology than general students in the population do. We need to make sure that students with disabilities are able to get access to the technology they need for minimum to no cost.

With course delivery going back and forth between online and in-person delivery, many U of A students have called for consistency. How would you support students who are struggling with the unpredictability of course delivery?

Kaur: I would ensure, in the GFC meetings, that all the decisions are taken way ahead of time. Sometimes they just give a decision on the spot, and it becomes really, really difficult for students in terms of moving and the fact that it’s hard to find accommodations so quickly. I will ensure that it’s made clear by the university, at least one month ahead of time, what the students should expect from the coming period.

Regmi: The unpredictability of delivery, obviously, is difficult, but I always believed that we need hybrid options. That’s one thing that I’m going to continue to push for more, is making sure that most classes, if not all, are able to have hybrid options. That way, students who do not want to go in person, they can stay home; students who want to go in person, they can. I think it’ll be very beneficial too, because we’re opening up, but we’re not sure how long the pandemic is going last — we’re not sure if another wave is going to come.

I think online learning will be beneficial too, for any students who will have to take a sick day, because I think a lesson we learned with this pandemic is that it’s important to stay home when you’re sick because you don’t know who you’re going to be infecting or what you have, and ultimately, it could save your own life by staying home and taking classes online. That’s a thing that I hope that not only continues now, but also continues in the future is that students have hybrid learning options so  that way students who are sick, or who have other things, like maybe celebrating a religious holiday, or caring for a family member, they can be able to study while doing all the things that they like.

It’ll also be very beneficial as well because, per the U of A plan for tomorrow, [the university is] expanding up to 50,000 students within the next few years. And I think hybrid learning is one way we can make sure that the expansion is affordable for the university and can increase class sizes for students who are trying to get into classes to complete their degree but can’t get in because their classes are too full in person.

What advocacy work will you do to ensure students feel safe in their classrooms?

Kaur: As I mentioned earlier, I want a zero tolerance policy against discrimination and harassment, because this is something not at all tolerated. It shouldn’t be. The university must be very, very careful about it. I would ensure students have access to a network where they can complain quickly and then their complaint is heard and also solved. There should be strict actions taken against the offender. This is my main focus.

Regmi: Obviously, toxic classroom environments have been a huge issue. I’ve definitely spoken to others within multiple departments that say that racism and misogyny is a huge problem within our classes. As I said before, we need to make sure that people, no matter what their identity is, feel represented in the course material in their class.

We also need to make sure that students can easily be able to address any questions or issues that they have with their professor. One of the ideas I had personally was trying to was working with the SU to make sure that we establish clear procedures around that. I think a huge challenge is that there are so many good resources around the university, but students don’t really know who’s the appropriate resources or where to call because there are so many resources — there are so many email and phone number lines that you can call or email, and that just becomes really confusing. My hope is to work with the SU or work with the university to be able to establish a central complaint procedure, in which our students who have a complaint can use that form and address it, and then we can direct them to the appropriate resources.

On sexual violence, I know that one thing that can contribute to a very toxic classroom environment is the stigma around talking about it in classrooms, and that’s something I’ll definitely be working on. I know there’s programs in some universities like UBC, that have courses and awareness campaigns about what consent is and what consent is not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), within the United States, has also put out a guide on how to reduce sexual violence on campus, so those are some ideas I want to look for. Obviously, it’s good that we’ve hired a sexual violence coordinator, but we need to go far beyond that.

What steps would you take to increase inclusivity within the classroom?

Kaur: The best way is the USRIs, but unfortunately, they are not evaluated and assessed properly. Also, USRIs are at the end of the course; so, I was thinking of having USRIs in the middle as well. I have seen some professors do that, where they take feedback before reading week. So that is something really important, and I want to advocate for feedback in the middle of the term for each and every course.

Regmi: Some of the steps that we’ll be taking is to ensure that materials are accessible, materials that would help integrate things like Indigenous ways of knowledge into the classroom, and making sure that the TRC calls to action are there. I think we need to make sure our materials not just reflect the history of settlers and colonialism in Canada, but a history of Black and Indigenous people and professions, because I believe that history is Canadian history.

Part of the TRC calls to action includes making sure that language services are accessible in Cree, and that we have some programs as well in Cree. That’s one thing that I want to be able to advocate for as part of the U of A for Tomorrow is to ensure that we have courses that meet the TRC calls to action and that will ensure justice for Indigenous people. As well, other courses in which a lot of Indigenous people contributed, or Black people, Asian people, etc. For example, I’m a music student; jazz has been something that Black people have contributed to, but that’s something that we haven’t had at U of A for many, many years now. That could be one example of a course in which people can see a different perspective of how Black people or other cultures have contributed to the demographics within Canada.

How will you ensure that student issues can be brought to GFC more efficiently?

Kaur: I might come across more relevant ways to tackle this problem later, but for right now, there should be surveys and assessments on a regular basis, and on a particular topic. We should look at what the main issue is, and then there should be assessment on that on a regular basis, and then assessed properly and then talked about at the GFC, and quick action take so that like students get out of that uncertainty.

Regmi: I’ve looked at GFC rules, and I understand them deeply. One of the things I definitely want to do more of is consultation. I think when it comes to consultation, not just using CoFA to hold those sessions, but also reaching out to departmental associations, because we’re not just a university of a few faculty associations, we’re a university of many people studying in many different departments. I want to be able to give to ISA and ASC a seat within CoFA, so that way, those perspectives can be included when we have our monthly discussions.

One of my other ideas as well is to hold monthly summits with each faculty and invite the departmental associations as well, because I think we can’t just leave departmental associations out on the sidelines. They have real legitimate issues as well that they are concerned about. Me being a music student, I know how that feels, having the music department being more underrepresented, just because we’re a smaller department. I’m not against smaller departments, they’re obviously really good, they’re very tight knit. But I think smaller departments don’t really get as much attention from the UASU when it comes to those issues.

That’s one thing I definitely want to do more of, by reaching out to more departmental associations and getting more of a broader perspective, and I’m hoping that the plan I had of creating monthly summits for each faculty will do that.

Fun question: If you could teach any course at the U of A, what would it be and why?

Kaur:  I would love to teach something of Native Studies, because that’s something I feel is really, really important because we are on the territory of Indigenous people. It is really unfortunate that the people who own this land are struggling, so I really want their voices to be heard. I want to stand in solidarity throughout their struggle, and I want to make sure that they feel important, because they’re the most important part of this community. So, I would prefer to teach Native Studies.

Regmi: As far as I could teach in the U of A, probably the symphonic wind ensemble, just because that’s one of our main bands at U of A. I’ve always wanted to be a music teacher; I’m in a combined degree for Bachelor of Music Education and I’m trying to be a music teacher. I’ve done some conducting before, with the pep band at my high school, as well as composing my own music and that’s just something that I really think is cool, just being up there, being able to lead a band.

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