It often seems that no one, including students, take student government seriously. In the 2014 Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) elections, only 1,828 students out of roughly 18,500 voted; that’s less than 11 per cent of the student body.
An all-candidates debate, which was really more of an audience led Q&A, held for this year’s DSU elections at the Sexton campus, illustrates the problem: If all candidates and their avowed supporters were taken out of the lecture hall in which the event was held, the audience for the debate would have been very small indeed: just four people, including myself. While this isn’t exactly a surprising for a student election debate – especially on St. Patrick’s day – it is troubling.
Some researchers have suggested that this apathy stems from confusion about what, exactly, a student union does. Are they the ideological leaders of the student body, or the administrators of student services? Is student government an essential part of the university experience or nothing more than a training ground for career-minded students?
The Sexton campus debate may have suggested answers to some of these questions. The candidates were given time to briefly outline their platforms and explain how they would address issues relating both specifically to Sexton campus and Dalhousie as a whole.
Dalhousie is the largest university in the Nova Scotia; it’s population is large enough that were it a geographical community rather than an educational one, it would qualify as a town in some Canadian provinces. Yet Dalhousie’s campuses are scattered across Halifax and – as of 2012, when the Agricultural College became part of Dalhousie – Truro. Even though it’s the distances are relatively small, as the debate at the Sexton campus showed, the challenges meeting students’ needs on different campuses highlight the issues with student government as such.
VP Academic and External
For many, including university administrations themselves, university underfunding is a chronic issue. This is particularly acute at Sexton, said John Hutton, the sole candidate for Vice President (VP) Academic and External who was attended the debate, and is an issue that he would advocate on if elected.
Rather than just being degree-granting bodies, universities are public institutions than can participate in the debate about societal values. Hutton’s response to audience questions seemed to reflect this, touching on the future of fossil-fuel divestment campaigns at Canada and LGBTQ activism on campus, including Hutton’s hopes to bring the Canadian Universities Queer Services conference to Halifax.
In the past, there have been concerns that the demands of the VP Academic and External are too much for one person. Hutton didn’t address this issue particularly, but has a history in advocacy — including tuition fee reductions and Divest Dal — suggesting that at least the advocacy aspect of the position would be well-covered.
VP Student Life
The VP of Student life is responsible for spirit activities, event committees and overseeing the director of the enthusiastic first years that flock to Halifax’s intersections every Fall for Shinerama. It’s also the branch of the executive with the largest budget.
It’s telling, then, that all three candidates for the position dwelt more on services than events, including the lack of access that students on Sexton campus have to the levied services they contribute to. All candidates showed expressed a commitment to improving access to student services. Of the three, only Kathleen Reid offered an outline for how she would manage the budget to achieve these goals, while Ali Bee Calladine said that it’s more important to first have a vision, then work with the budget to achieve that vision. Hani Salem chose to not to respond to the question on budgeting.
With platforms based on the delivery of services rather than the promotion of events, the debate showed not only how complex and bureaucratic student services have become – such that a platform can be dedicated in part to the simplification of these services – but also the extent to which the financially constrained universities are downloading costs onto students, who must mitigate as best they can the effects of underfunding.
VP Internal, VP Financial & Operations
Two candidates were running unopposed: Kaitlynne Lowe for VP Internal and Mahbubur Rahman for VP Finance and Operations. Although there were more candidates overall this year than any previous election for a decade, it’s also the first time that two executive positions have had just one candidate since 2003.
Lowe’s responses to questions highlighted the governance challenges that student associations experience. The lack of clear communication between the student executive and the student council makes advocating on issues a convoluted and ineffective process. “Due process should be our highest goal,” she said.
In addition to writing DSU policy and sitting on the Board of Governor’s and the Senate, the President of the student union is the Chief Spokesperson for the Union. One of the candidates, Jennifer Nowoselski, is current VP Internal and a career politician by student union standards. This kind of institutional memory is valuable, but it does nothing to challenge perceptions of the DSU’s insider culture, a culture that is particularly concerning at a university with an explicit commitment to diversity. Daniel Nicholson, by contrast, is running for student executive for the first time.
The extent of DSU bureaucracy was cited by audience members several times throughout the debate; given this, it’s possible that Nowoselski’s platform, which she said draws on years of engagement with the university, could have more success than Nicholson’s broad commitment to bringing students back into the student union fold.
Graduate and professional students at Dal have expressed interest in disaffiliating from the DSU, going so far as to form a working group on the issue. In response to a question on how they would engage with those concerns, Nowoselski said that she would be willing to engage with those students to talk about the practicalities of disaffiliation, while Nicholson said that he thought many of those issues could be addressed within the existing structure of the DSU itself.
While both identified the importance of improving communication between the DSU and students at all campuses, Nicholson said that the lack of trust students at Sexton and at Dalhousie as a whole have in their student association risks undermining the viability of the association as such.
Consequences of Poor Turnout
As students are increasingly squeezed by cash-strapped universities, the need for student associations to both ensure the effective administration of services and advocate for their members is growing. But it’s clear that whether because of a truly prodigious level of student apathy – or a communication breakdown between students and their associations – students either don’t realize the role that their association plays, or don’t feel that the association is the right organization for the job.
The debate may have cleared up uncertainty about the candidates’ platforms, but the question of how student associations can meaningfully and effectively represent their members is one that will be a lot harder to answer.