Are cheap beers and bagels killing the student movement in B.C.?

By Gordon Katic — The Ubyssey (CUP)
Photos by Kelsey Woodley

When I looked at the new preliminary budget of the AMS, UBC Vancouver’s student union, I was quite impressed by the breadth and scope of the services that they provide. From tutoring and counseling to bars, restaurants, and dental insurance, the AMS is enormous, and it provides invaluable support to every UBC student.

I was prepared to write a column lauding the virtues of these services, and commending the executives for their efficient management of this $14 million organization.

However, a recent article by Brian Platt of the Canadian Press has given me pause.

Since students took to the streets of Montreal, there has been debate over what makes the Quebec student movement more vibrant than its counterparts in the rest of Canada. In Quebec, student unions are, by and large, political groups. They don’t run businesses or services. But in the rest of Canada, student unions are hampered by the burden of managing large businesses and providing an array of student services.

When I first dipped my toes in the waters of student government, I was utterly dumbfounded. I would sit in a council chamber with some of the most passionate and engaged individuals I had ever met, and suddenly they would transform into something indescribably boring. Here was a bunch of twenty-somethings talking until midnight about non-discretionary allocations, capital projects, business revenue, referendums, and — the height of tedium — Robert’s Rules of Order.

It enrages me. Why are they not making an earnest effort to engage the average student? Why are they not aggressively advocating for lower tuition? Why are they not doing more to mobilize students around university issues like governance and land use, or important civic issues? Why are they just sitting here when so much is so wrong?

The answer is simple: they are too busy. They have to manage an unmanageable organization, and the majority of councilors and executives only have a year to do it.

I would not for a moment discount AMS services, particularly the food bank, the Sexual Assault Support Centre, and peer counseling. These services are crucial for students in times of need. However, we need to take an earnest look at the extent of our commitments, and whether it is advisable to ask the university to assume some of them.

I imagine there could be a way to maintain these services while improving our capacity to politically mobilize, but this would require a drastic overhaul. The current operational structure has executives thinking more about hiring procedures and growth strategies than student engagement, let alone mobilization.

Surely there are subtle changes that could alleviate the burden on student representatives. Maybe we can move more responsibilities from student executives to permanent staff. Perhaps we could scale down certain commitments, and re-allocate funds to expand lobbying, engagement, and mobilization efforts.

In charting this new course, we should look to the Montreal protests for inspiration. In response to a crippling tuition hike and a heinous emergency law, students have sparked the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history and created an important dialogue about the price of higher education.

It is high time we re-evaluate just what our priorities are as a student union. Have we traded away our political voice for bad bagels, cheep beer and a few parties?