Could this be URSU’s year of living dangerously?
Pressing for a radical union
Although the 2020 academic year has just begun, it already promises to be a challenging one. COVID-19 has introduced new unknowns to the way we learn and teach. It remains to be seen how students and faculty will adapt to fully online course delivery and it is likely that University of Regina students will remain without a fully functioning library until at least 2021. And alongside these new challenges the old ones, like tuition, austerity, precarious employment, and food and housing insecurity, remain. It’s an historical moment that is practically crying out for an organized, militant student/labour movement to push back on the managerial culture of the university and the austerity agenda of the Saskatchewan Party. But is the University of Regina Students’ Union prepared for the challenge?
Student engagement is low – the last URSU election saw a voter turnout of only 9.5 per cent – and some students who have been engaged with the students’ union aren’t impressed by the experience. “I find them very frustrating to deal with,” said Idella Maeland, a fourth-year honours English student who has dealt with URSU frequently because of her involvement in campus clubs. “The times where I’ve vocalized a complaint, or other students that I know of have raised complaints, they’ve either been brushed off or just ignored,” Maeland said. “I expect them to be there for the students and be on the side of students and make changes for [students’] betterment.”
Zeo Li, URSU’s Vice President of Student Affairs, who was elected last spring, is well aware of just how disengaged students are from their union and he said that said the current executive is “very passionate” about increasing student engagement. “Most of the students are not aware of the importance of the union,” he said. “They think the union is only a place to get your bus pass or provide insurance.” To that end the current executive has been meeting with students face-to-face to talk about their concerns and what they need from the union.
Li said they’ve been meeting with the administration as well, to talk about things like the tuition crisis, including the fact that students are paying full tuition for a university education that is simply substandard.* For their part, the admin has said that “costs remain fixed,” though it remains unclear why students are expected to cover the fixed costs of this ostensibly public institution in the first place. If URSU genuinely wants to increase student engagement, they will need to come forward with bold proposals for challenging the campus status quo, including the messaging that insists that the way things are is the way they always will be.
For his part, Li is particularly concerned about students’ mental health, saying that “students are one of the most vulnerable groups in society.” He’s put mental health advocacy at the forefront of his work. Sarah Nakonechny, the Executive Administrator of the Psychology Students’ Association, said in an email to the Carillon that she welcomes URSU’s initiative, especially given the unique challenges facing students this year. “The increased levels of stress regarding keeping on top of coursework, not being able to connect with professors and peers, potential toxicity of family environments and the burden of needing to do more to improve one’s mental health without potentially having the resources or knowledge to do so is going to be a huge challenge for many students,” she wrote. Nakonechny cautions that more than just advocacy will be needed. “Advocacy is important but it’s effectiveness is dependant on providing some sort of resource for continued conversation and potential improvement of the situation,” she wrote, adding that the union “could partner with student associations from psychology, social work, nursing, etc. in order to develop programs or promote the resources that those groups already have to the rest of the students.”
The work that needs to be done to improve the lives of students cannot be done by URSU alone, they will need to partner with other campus unions and associations if there is to be real, material changes in the way the U of R is run. But the course the students’ union takes isn’t totally up to them. While URSU works to engage students, the student body has both the opportunity and the obligation to hold URSU to account, to press them on the issues that matter to us, and to make sure that they are using their positions for action and advocacy. We need to widen the scope of what we believe is possible and we need to broaden our horizons. Faculty, grad students, and university staff are also facing challenges, from inadequate supports in transitioning to the online model, to precarious work and a devastated academic job market, to low wages and lack of input into the way the university is run. We should work collaboratively with these groups and recognize our common interests. We cannot rely on the administration or the government to do what is right, but we have collective power. This university cannot run without all of us. It’s time we put our bodies on the gears.
*To be clear, much of what makes this semester substandard is beyond the control of university staff and faculty. Professors have been working overtime on short notice to format their classes for online delivery and staff from the IT department to maintenance have been doing the same to ensure the semester runs as smoothly and safely as possible. But online instruction is inadequate for most courses and requires a different pedagogical approach. See Holly Worby’s article in this week’s paper for more.