Looking at the good and the bad

Rather than swing from opinion to opinion, let’s examine motives and patterns


I’ve been thinking about the fact that there are some groups that work to improve students’ outlooks at university, some that are indifferent, and some that prey on students, primarily for money. Most groups are a mix. And all three types affect us at UTM.

Here’s one example of a group that’s probably more or less indifferent: the government. In politics, the various public interests are rarely close to a party’s heart, except insofar as they affect electability and provide necessary resources. The natural consequence is that the decisions a party makes are generally those that are likely to be perceived as most helpful, rather than those that in fact are most helpful.

Take the 30% Off grant introduced by McGuinty’s government in 2012. This year, the grant amounts to $1,780 for a year of school (which, by the way, is less than 30% of what I usually paid when I was full-time). It’s definitely nice to get that in grants instead of loans when you can—it just sounds like free money.

But two negative things can be said about it. One is what the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says: that it’s not available to enough students. This is just a complaint about scope, i.e. it’s fundamentally on board with the grant but would like to see it expanded. I also have a complaint about the nature of the grant. It came about after the dissolution of the provincial Work-Study funding, which allowed students to have on-campus jobs and earn money. This is a much more productive means of granting, since it allows us to get experience in a safe, educational environment—the old give a man a fish vs. teach a man to fish. This program could have been expanded. Instead, it was cut, and some universities, including U of T, recognized the value of Work-Study and began running programs internally—which ultimately costs money that has to come from somewhere.

But the knowledge that politicians respond to pressures like that to “be easy on our wallets” is common. Here’s a somewhat different example, to return to CFS-Ontario, of which each of us is a member.

They’re more of a mix. They do indeed so some good work for students. A glance at their homepage will now and then show campaigns on sustainability,  aboriginal access to education, and tenants’ rights. And as I was just saying, they try to hold the government to their promises. Right now, as you can read in our news section this week, they’re responding to Harper to tell him we need more grants, not more loans.

But—in the practically inevitable manner of student organizations—they also carry on a host of self-perpetuating practices that are ultimately harmful to students. The basic one is, of course, the ticket price. Membership is not free, and the cashflow adds up when you have tens of thousands of students across three campuses (and hundreds of thousands across Canada). If they use those funds ineffectively, it’s a hit against students.

And they do. For years, for example, when unions have tried to leave the CFS—among them is U of T’s Graduate Students’ Union—they find their defederation referenda fought against in costly court cases and rejected on ludicrous grounds (including ones outside of CFS’s authority, as ruled by a Québec judge just this month in connection to McGill’s graduate union). Suffice it to say that taking student money and using it to stop the students from leaving is not good.

Similarly, having a hand in many student unions’ elections and having revolving doors that keep the same faces around for years undermine the democratic principles they campaign for. As with any representation, concern for your constituency’s good can easily be subtly sidetracked into concern for self-perpetuation.

As far as student unions’ track records go, this modus operandi is nothing new. The lesson is, again, that we should not take any propaganda uncritically, even if some of the things a group does are to our benefit—which they certainly are. Of course the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with bathwater, but that doesn’t mean you should keep the bathwater forever.

How about U of T? I think the mix might be part helpful and part indifferent. Helpful in that the bottom line is to educate, which, on the whole, the university does manage to do year after year. But indifferent insofar as they have to be concerned with (you guessed it) self-perpetuation. When fees are frozen or per-student funding is cut by a government, a typical university naturally responds by shifting priorities—for example, pressuring departments to enlarge class sizes—and becoming distracted from broader self-improvement, which sadly requires freedom of resources.

It’s hard to imagine, but we do often buy into simplified stories that lionize or villainize. Critical thought requires teasing apart the stream of words and actions from a person or group to identify what we should oppose and what we should support.