Ryerson University recently terminated its agreement with its students’ union, RSU, over the credit card scandal that occurred during the 2018-2019 year that allegedly saw $275,000 worth of questionable spending. After 34 years, the university cut ties because they “lost confidence” in the union due to financial mismanagement, in-fighting, workplace issues, and disorganization.
The university has also suspended all funding to the RSU on the basis that the RSU cannot lead the student body with good governance nor provide the services students have paid for. In response, the RSU has filed a legal suit against the university to restore its funding and its status as the official elected student representative body, citing a breach of contract with $2.7 million in damages.
In the same boat is the University of Ottawa, where the students’ union there was accused of financial mismanagement and improper governance. An investigation into the federation led to the university withholding the federation’s access to student fees. After the university called for a referendum, students elected a new student body, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union, to represent them.
All in all, this system is a mess. The fact that corruption is so entrenched in students’ union politics is disheartening. The lack of transparency of an elected student body is disappointing. And the inevitable, immediate negative impact on students is unfair and shameful. Yet, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Students’ unions are student-led bodies that are given large amounts of money to use for a variety of causes, and they are entities that go virtually unchecked. They are not scrutinized by the student electorate nor are they investigated and questioned enough by independent sources such as student-run newspapers or university officials. The most any of us can muster is disdain and the occasional rant to our friends.
In a worst-case scenario, this allows student unions to abuse the power given to them and misappropriate funds, or operate in a disorganized, frustrating manner most of the time.
One need only look to our own students’ union, the UTMSU, for examples of this incompetence.
Club leaders have complained that crucial paperwork submitted to the UTMSU has been lost on numerous occasions, either as a result of a person leaving the position or due to internal disorganization. They have also complained of confusing, frustrating bureaucratic turnarounds that leave them stuck and with no clue on how to move an issue forward. Beyond clubs, there is confusion around some of the services that the union facilitates, most notably the insurance policy provided to students.
One crucial aspect of the UTMSU’s mandate is to further student issues, yet the union seems to be acting as fast as a sloth when it comes to fighting for issues that students are genuinely affected by, the most basic issue being the horrid Wi-Fi that plagues this campus. Oh, and let’s not forget the nepotism that has infected the UTMSU.
So, if the students’ union—in particular the UTMSU—is so disorganized and ineffectual, should we even keep it around? Unfortunately, yes. Students’ unions, when functioning properly, provide students with many important services, chief among them being a voice at the university level. However, it is the hidden mechanisms that work behind the scenes that need to be discarded or reformed.
So, why does all this keep happening? The easy answer is student apathy, but apathy is only part of the problem. The more complicated answer is student alienation, which in turn serves to increase student apathy. The confusing bureaucracy that exists at the heart of student union organizations is a key factor in why many students are not engaged enough to be able to check their student bodies effectively.
Services and policies need to be more accessible for students to allow them to get a clear sense of the things their elected representatives are doing and working towards. Elections and channels of involvement need to be clear and open to give students the opportunity to become easily involved with their student community.
Yet, students’ unions are also plagued by the very nature of their institutions to reproduce the same ideas and leadership as previous iterations. This has led to the union becoming static and stale, and also allows for corruption to grow. The monopolization of the union elite can only be remedied by factionalism. Essentially, other student groups will need to enter the student political arena and fight for change to advance our micro-democracy.
If all of this sounds pointless or overly idealistic to you, I am inclined to agree. The massive reforms needed to make the student union model functional need a committed student population that will oversee such change and will work to continue it for future generations.
That is a lot of work for a bunch of sleep-deprived, work-swamped, mentally fragile undergraduate students. So, I guess we’ll have to wait until the scandal train rolls into the Student Centre to care enough to even start talking about having the UTMSU fulfill its most basic mission: operating competently.