URSU needs to push back

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Union under pressure to perform. Carillon Archive

Students need to push URSU

The University of Regina Student Union (URSU) exists for the benefit of all students. They exist to serve their members by offering a variety of services and supports to ensure – as stated in their mission – “that all students have a fun, safe and healthy University experience.”

Victor Adeolu Oriola, is beginning his first fall semester as the student union’s president. Oriola is an international student from Nigeria currently in the process of completing an undergraduate degree in psychology.

“There was, and there will continue to exist, a need for student leadership that is focused on creating an environment that enables students to be the best that they can be. When I decided to further investigate what I could do to improve my participation in URSU, I started engaging my fellow students on the premise that change is necessary,” Oriola said.

“To that end, one of the things that I’m hoping to accomplish in my very brief tenure is to bridge the gap between all the concentric circles that exist in the university and make the university a significantly more integrated space where students are able to truly have their concerns that they want to express heard by the people who make the decisions that impact the goings on at the university.”

In order to achieve this goal, one of the first steps taken was a joint town hall meeting between URSU and the U of R administration which took place Wednesday, Sept. 25.

When asked about the ways in which URSU is fighting for its members to combat staggering tuition fees, Oriola steered the conversation to a new campaign called Knock Out Interest that URSU is leading in partnership with the British Columbia Federation of Students, the aim of which is eliminating all interest on federal student loans.

In the face of skyrocketing tuition here at home, a joint effort to knock out interest on loans seems like a stop-gap that doesn’t go far enough to address the pressures on the student body URSU represents, although Oriola objects to the idea that the union hasn’t pushed as hard as it could.

“[URSU has] called for and encouraged the university to possibly investigate other models of funding that aren’t contingent to as large a degree as they are now on student tuition covering any shortfalls in government spending [on] education,” Oriola said, referring to the bi-model funding structure that the university uses, where any funding shortfalls from the provincial government are made up for in increased tuition fees.

A good indicator of the uphill battle the student union faces when it comes to getting a fair deal for students is the fact that the issues haven’t changed much since the 2011/12 academic year, when Kent Peterson was President of URSU. Peterson, who works as the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour’s Strategic Advisor,  says the financial burden of tuition and fees were central to his campaign nearly a decade ago.

“I ran a campaign on issues like affordability and accessibility in terms of being able to attend post-secondary education institutions like, frankly, the sky-rocketing tuition fees and the student debt crisis that we were experiencing then and has only gotten worse since,” Peterson says.

“Also, because we are really lucky at the U of R to have the First Nations University of Canada, a huge issue for me was Indigenous education and, in particular at the time, a long-standing funding cap on the post-secondary student support program that basically guaranteed fewer and fewer resources for Indigenous folks coming from First Nations communities across the province to actually be able to attend university and colleges. I felt the current student union leaders weren’t talking about those things.”

For Peterson, an organization like URSU has potential far beyond organizing social events.

“For me, a student union isn’t about keg parties and fun sports games. Although athletics are important, that’s not all it’s about. I think it’s an important institution for advocacy and lobbying,” adding that an election year – like this one – is an opportunity for the student’s union to press beyond the boundaries of the campus.

“2011 was a provincial election year, meaning that the things that I talked about in the student union election, I could actually now start talking with politicians chasing votes about those same things. We were actually able to influence at least one party’s platform by getting them to include things like a tuition fee freeze and additional childcare spaces on campus.”

Peterson said that it’s the student union’s role to advocate for students, even if that can sometimes mean pushing back against the administration.

“I don’t see it as the student union’s job to help the university administration spread its message or to help the university administration implement any policies or programs that, quite frankly, aren’t good for students. When I was president of URSU, we worked with administration as much as we could, as long as they were doing things we wanted them to do like put in refillable water bottle-filling stations so that students didn’t have to keep buying single-use water bottles.

“We worked with the university administration and pushed them to create gender-neutral washrooms at the university. If they didn’t do those things, we ran campaigns about it to encourage them to do it.

“In terms of the relationship, work together when you can, as long as you’re making good decisions for students, but when the university administration is not making good decisions for students – like when they jack up tuition fees or ignore that there is violence taking place on campus, then it’s the student union’s job to actively encourage the university administration to do the right thing, and that can take a number of forms like lobbying, campaigning, whatever the case may be.”

But he added that when it comes down to it, the members of the students’ union – the students – have a responsibility to make sure their needs are being addressed.

“The student union is not the president of the student union, it’s not the board of directors, it’s not the staff of the student union. The student union [is its] members. I think student unions are [as] effective as members want them to be. That means, if someone feels their student union isn’t talking about the things they feel are actually important, then I think individual students have a responsibility to say what [they are] prepared to do about it. That was my experience, I did a lot of complaining about what my student union president was talking about. I ultimately decided that, if I can’t bring myself to vote for him, then I’m at least going to offer folks a choice. It can be through elections like the way I did it, it can be showing up to the AGM, showing up to their office. I know URSU is currently running by-elections to fill a whole number of spots on the board of directors. If students have thoughts that it could be done differently, then I encourage them to actually do something about it.”

Information about the upcoming URSU by-elections and a complete list of their services can be found at their website: www.ursu.ca.

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