What does a student association do? It’s a question that even current students might be hard pressed to answer.
Student associations are often understood in name alone – as unions or governments – but Michael Hughes, a Queen’s PhD student who prepared an independent report on student association governance, says that this understanding of what student unions are misunderstands their function.
Understanding student associations as governments, he says, means that the same arguments used to explain youth disengagement and voter apathy in the democratic process are applied to student associations. By focusing on this, Hughes argues, the real problems with student associations go unacknowledged.
“I think this misses the mark and it obscures what the actual problems are in these organizations because again, they’re not actually governments.”
Student associations, the report says, should be understood as not for profit corporations; students, therefore, are not citizens but owners of a corporation who invest representative members with the authority to govern.
What does this mean for student associations?
First of all, it highlights the governance challenges of student associations. The representative branch of student associations, in the form of the board, are not there to deliver services, says Hughes, but to provide leadership, yet they’re working within a governance model that makes it hard for them to fulfill this function. As a consequence, the interests of students are not as well represented as they could be.
Governing Board Structure
The existing student government model is called the “workgroup board,” says Hughes. For small not for profit organizations, he notes, it’s the appropriate structure, allowing organizations without staff to cover both governance and staff work.
The problem with its use in student associations, says Hughes, is that what were once small, volunteer-based organizations have grown in size and complexity. In addition to the board and student executive, student associations now include general managers and staff.
Yet because the workgroup model isn’t designed for so complex an organization, says Hughes “that leads then to these problems we see, which is duplicated work, lack of accountability, poorly defined job descriptions and a council that’s poorly trained — they’re mostly in the role of approving staff work rather than representing students as the owners of the organization.”
The report recommends changing to a “governing board structure” that would explicitly define the board’s role as providing leadership.
“If the time of council isn’t spent approving staff work and duplicating the work of management operations they can actually be focused more on doing the work of representation,” says Hughes.
“Most of the time could be devoted to what the actual job should be.”
Changing the Relationship with the University
The report also calls for a more formalized process of communication and collaboration between the association and the university. Importantly, by outlining the role of student boards and their relationship to the university, Hughes says that student associations will be better positioned to maintain their autonomy.
As it stands, Hughes says the relationship between the university and the board is inconsistent and contingent on the personalities of those involved.
The report suggests a Memorandum of Understanding that would be signed by both parties. With this document, Hughes points out, future student associations would not only have guaranteed autonomy within an explicit set of parameters, but would also, if the university restricted the association’s policies, “have a contract to point to, whereas at the moment the university can do that and they don’t even have a legal document to at least cite as a counter to university encroachment on their autonomy.”
Hughes stresses that the problems student associations have experienced with governance are not unique. “They’re very common for not for profits as they grow in size and complexity,’’ he says.
But because student boards are drawn from an essentially transient population, he notes, the high rate of turnover poses a challenge. Nonetheless, “having good policies and procedures in place and maintaining a good governance system is the best way to overcome these problems,” he says.
As far as student elections go, the report provides recommendations to facilitate student participation. Yet Hughes also says that “the important thing for student associations to do is to manage their expectations.” He points out youth participation in federal and provincial elections is at about 25 percent; to expect significantly higher than that in student elections, he says, is “ridiculous.”
Still, Hughes says that voter turnout could be improved by changes to the way student elections are run, and changing the governance structure of student associations to allow student boards scope for leadership.
“The reason students don’t participate is they don’t see the student association as relevant and meaningful in their lives on campus, and unless student association can demonstrate why they have significant importance to the lives of students you’re not going to see a very high turnout.”
Matt Riser, Chair of the report’s Advisory Committee and former VP External of SMU’s student association, says that while the challenges identified in the report are consistent with his own experience as a student leader, the fact that it’s been commissioned by StudentsNS at all is a good sign.
The governance problems are not unique to the five participating associations – associations from SMU, StFX, Acadia, CBU and the Dalhousie Agricultural College – but are experienced by associations across Canada, says Riser.
“In fact, the [participating] student associations are at the forefront because I think they’re the ones who are actually looking at it and saying let’s get some independent analysis and see what we should be doing.”