Concordians see the letters all over campus – ‘CSU’. But why should they care? What does Concordia’s Student Union actually do? The Concordian sat down with CSU President, Angelica Novoa and VP Communications, Noah Stewart last Friday to talk about the year that was and the one to come.
The two were upbeat about where the executive and the student body are headed, agreeing their main priority for the new year is to continue to work toward greater accessibility for education.
Novoa calls the CSU’s fall campaign to raise awareness of the tuition increases a success. “Students definitely care more than they did when they first came to Concordia in September.” She credited the campaign for not only teaching students why increasing tuition is unjust, but for providing a medium for students to take action in lobbying the government. Phone calls to members of the National Assembly and letter writing campaigns were some of the tactics employed leading up to the day of action on Nov. 22. They plan to expand the campaign over the winter.
A short history on tuition
Since the departure of the university’s previous president, Claude Lajeunesse, a month into the 2007 semester, the University has taken a neutral stance on the deregulation of tuition fees in Quebec. Lajeunesse, had called on the governement to end the tuition freeze and raise Quebec university fees to match that of other provinces.
“Since Lajeunesse has left, we’ve sat down with [acting President] Michael Di Grappa, we’ve talked to members of the Board [of Governors] about it, there hasn’t been an attempt from the university to push for the government to further raise tuition, to further deregulate tuition,” said Stewart. He criticized Lajeunesse who, he said, considered the end of the 13-year post-secondary tuition freeze “a good start.”
Stewart sees parallels between the current situation and the student strike in 2004 in response to provincial government cuts of loans and grants. He acknowledges this year’s protest was not as large, student turnout was only in the hundreds, as opposed to the thousands of 2004-2005, but says the movement is gaining momentum. “We definitely see the same kind of mobilizations happening [now] that happened in 2004. Hopefully . . . it’s going to culminate in the same kind of large demonstrations . . . that will lead the government to reverse their policy.”
Whether there will be another student strike is still an open question. “It doesn’t really matter what I would like to see,” said Novoa, “it’s what the students would like to see.” Stewart and Novoa said that a decision to strike would have to be voted on by students at a general assembly and that there would also have to be support for such a move at other universities in the province.
In contrast to the administration under Lajeunesse, the current administration received full marks for working with the CSU. “They are very responsive to our needs, they have been this year at least,” said Novoa. “We hope that will be the case when the new Dean of Students comes in and the new President. As it stands, they are very open.”
She said the CSU lobbied for the library to be open 24 hours a day for the week before exams, which was granted, and they are working on getting the school to improve shuttle bus schedule and install gender-neutral washrooms on campus.
CSU executives represent the student body on most committees at the school, including the Board of Governors, the Senate and the Concordia Council for Student Life. Novoa said the CSU wants to be represented as well on the Board of Governor’s standing committees and on the purported “Risk assessment committee.”
“Right now, the university is denying that there is such a committee,” said Novoa. “They say there is a procedure by which the university assesses risk of different activities, but there is no structure, and that we should not worry about representation there.”
Di Grappa testified before an access to information committee last week, saying Concordia doesn’t have a secret committee to decide which events pose enough of a security risk to be prohibited from campus. Novoa said the CSU has made it clear that they are “unhappy” about the university handling risk assessment without student consultation and the CSU has taken a position that if such a committee does exist, students should be represented on it.
Money in trust, the rate of change
As a result of a decision in the recent by-election, the CSU will soon have access to money that’s been held in trust by the administration for the past three years to start work on a student centre. The next step is to reach an agreement with the university on spending the money. Novoa said they will involve both the university and the CSU council in the decision-making process and she hopes to create a permanent framework so that the project will continue to move forward once she’s gone.
“My goal when I started the year was to see a site at least.” She laughs. “I still have my hopes up, we’ll see, we still have six months . but what’s realistic is to have an agreement for the money that’s being held in trust by the university for the centre, guiding principles of how this money’s going to be spent in the future and a structure . within the CSU and within the University that is going to be responsible for how this project is going to be handled in the future.”
She said that the lack of continuity from year to year is the biggest problem facing the CSU. “The reason why it moves ahead so slowly, there’s no continuity in the project. It’s always up to the President.to move the project along.” While the CSU had attempted to address some of these problems in the past by hiring a long-term financial manager, Novoa and Stewart fear that any further steps to professionalize the CSU’s management would take power away from the students.
Loyola: not forgotten
One of the main goals when they took office last May was to increase a CSU’s presence at the Loyola campus. For Stewart, the re-opening of the long-defunct student space ‘the Hive’ represents the biggest step forward at the campus. “The biggest problem that students have is this lack of space to congregate and the lack of options to have a drink, to have something to eat,” he said.
While the CSU is still accepting proposals for food service at the Hive, Stewart said it would not be run by Chartwells. The CSU has also expanded the free lunch at Loyola from one day a week to two, and hope to eventually make the free lunch a daily thing. The CSU is also renovating their Loyola office to offer more CSU services at the suburban campus.
In an attempt to meet the need filled by People’s Potato, a free daily lunch at the SGW campus downtown, students were fed once a week starting this year at Loyola. They plan to expand it to two days per week this month and eventually have it set up daily.
Projects and plans
Services provided and administered by the CSU include the Housing and Job bank, the free legal clinic, the Advocacy Centre, the annual agenda, two yearly orientations and the Health Plan. Last year they re-negotiated the student Health plan to include psychological treatment and additional dental benefits.
Stewart said the CSU is developing an ethical and sustainable purchasing policy, looking at policies at other universities to find a model for Concordia. “We have a great list now of what the standard should be.” He said the next step is to make it enforceable and binding and have it passed by council in February.
A reform of the current fee levy system to ensure consistency and transparency was supposed to have been mapped out by now, but Stewart says it’s still in the idea stage. He hopes to establish a process by which groups on campus can get fee levies. “There’s no form you fill out, there’s no contact person that takes it to council.” While he admitted no actual steps have yet been taken he hopes to make changes before the end of the year, and promises that any changes will involve consultation with stakeholder groups.
The executive has also fulfilled their commitment to a create a functioning Judicial Board, the body in charge of overseeing the CSU executive and council. After hiring five new people, the Board now has seven members and is able to rule on disputes. While it took until November for the positions to be filled, they blame a lack of student interest when the position was first advertised in September.
But it’s not all sunshine. The CSU recently fought a legal challenge brought by Chadi Marouf, who claimed the Union broke its own bylaws by not allowing him to add a question to the November referendum after he had collected over 800 signatures on a petition. The legal battle cost the CSU over $2,000.
“Instead of trying to talk to the CSU, instead of trying to talk to the people who were elected, all Chadi [Marouf] chose to do was waste student money by taking us to court,” said Stewart. He says tactics like this are creating a “poisonous atmosphere … [T]hey aren’t willing to work with the student representatives who are elected … with most of the students in this university. All they’re trying to do is take aggressive positions and really waste students money.” Novoa and Stewart said that students who have concerns with the Union should bring their concerns to them.
Stewart said they plan to do a survey this month of every undergraduate student to see how they can improve services. They hope to have the results by the end of February. He said the last survey was done in 2003-2004 and showed that students wanted to know more about the services available to them, which is why he said he’s been working hard to keep the website updated and communication current.