On Feb. 1, dozens of rallies took place at Canadian universities as part of a National Day of Action to reduce the costs of post-secondary education. The event was sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Students, a national student lobbying group, and organized by individual student unions affiliated with CFS.
The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, however, did not take part.
“We are being left out, but we’re OK with being left out of this particular day of action because of who the organizers of it are,” said USSU president Scott Hitchings.
The USSU has a long and tangled history with CFS. Once a prospective member, the students’ union severed its relationship with the lobbying group — a move that was not viewed favourably by CFS given that students had voted in a referendum to join as full members. But the results of that referendum were disputed by the then-USSU executive. A legal battle ensued that eventually made its way to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, which decided in favour of the USSU.
On the CFS website, the USSU is still listed as a member.
“We’ve asked them numerous times to take us off their website and stop telling people that we’re part of them,” said Hitchings.
But given that CFS is one of two main student lobby groups in Canada — the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations is the other — the USSU is effectively cut off from any national efforts to affect the debate on post-secondary education.
Hitchings points out that education is a provincial responsibility and says that lobbying the federal government on the issue of education costs makes little sense, but others disagree.
“It is a common misconception that the federal government has nothing to do with post-secondary education,” said Kent Peterson, president of the University of Regina Students’ Union and Saskatchewan representative on the CFS national executive.
He points to federal student loans as well as programs like the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which supports First Nations and Inuit students’ educations, as being directly under the federal government’s purview.
The Feb. 1 day of action, Peterson added, also had regional goals and lobbying aimed at provincial governments. In Saskatchewan, the CFS favours a tuition freeze and increased government funding to universities. (At the U of S, 22 per cent of the school’s budget comes from tuition fees while 70 per cent comes through provincial funding.)
Peterson, whose Regina students’ union is an active CFS member, said that U of S students could gain from active participation in national efforts and that despite the USSU’s reluctance, “there is an appetite for these things at the undergraduate level at the University of Saskatchewan.”
He added, “I hope there will be a willingness on the part of the executive there to actually participate and do something to benefit their members.”
The question U of S students face is whether the USSU’s lack of involvement in national student groups hurts them in lowering education costs and achieving other goals, or if the poisoned relationship with CFS keeps their voices out of the national debate on education.
“From what we can tell, the CFS doesn’t have much sway anyway with the government,” Hitchings explained, but if national lobbying efforts do succeed, “the government is going to give those benefits to all universities across Canada.”
Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf