The following letter was emailed to the Gazette by Jonathan Williams, executive director of student advocacy group Students Nova Scotia, on Feb. 27, 2015. Williams appeared at a meeting of Dalhousie Student Union council that day in hopes of giving this speech to council before they would vote on whether the DSU should remain affiliated with Students Nova Scotia. Council voted against a motion brought up by architecture rep Daniel Smith to add a speech by Williams to the agenda.
I’d like to start my comments by noting that I have not watched the evening’s council meeting to this point. I did not want to come here angry or defensive. At the end of my comments, please feel free however to ask for my thoughts on any concerns that have been raised.
I’d also note that I’m here, the Executive Director of StudentsNS, all by myself, without board members such as those who presented to last year’s council, or other members of our team. Now, I am a student, I have actually been completing coursework and exams on Studley Campus over the past few months, and will be leaving my position with StudentsNS in April to pursue a Master’s degree. But, I’m not a member student. Normally it would be member students from our Board who would present under these circumstances.
I’m here by myself because our volunteers and our staff members did not sign up to be suffer personal attacks or have their work misrepresented. Our volunteers especially, but also our staff, shouldn’t have to experience the kind of discourse that has become commonplace here over the past two years when the DSU’s membership in StudentsNS has been discussed. Frankly a number of them find it personally offensive and distressing. To be honest, knowing what had happened at this council last year, one of our representatives, who happens to be a woman, actually had a panic attack that prevented them from assisting me in our presentation to council in the fall.
If you’re a staff member, volunteer, or simply a supporter of StudentsNS, the DSU has not felt like a safe space in well over a year. That has unfortunately even spilled over to our own Board at times.
I suppose that I have gotten the most used to it.
I hope that tonight, those who are in this space will allow me a safe space and hear me out with as open minds and hearts as you can manage. Please listen as carefully as you can as you are responsible for representing more than 17,000 individuals who have a stake in your choices.
I want to focus away from politics for much of my time and instead on a key question. Why do our board members, staff and volunteers turn up at meetings, show up at the office (or work from home), and pick up the phone to do the work of StudentsNS? What do they care? I want to share with you our passion for the work that we do: the issues that we care about and our commitment to have them be concretely addressed.
Speaking personally from my own family’s history, my grandfather immigrated to Cape Breton from Wales as an infant. He grew up in a dirt floor home and worked in the mines with a pit pony as a child. His father was a coal miner too, but also a Baptist preacher. Luckily for my grandfather, his brother and sisters, their Baptist connection allowed them to access Acadia University. My grandfather became a pharmacist, his sister; a social work professor, his brother; an engineer. They helped make up the 20th century middle class and post-secondary education is the single greatest reason why. Those are the kinds of stakes in post-secondary education.
Working at StudentsNS, we often encounter individuals similar to my grandfather and his siblings, who are looking to be the first in their family to attend university or college, and or struggling with significant barriers to accessing post-secondary education. We work with single mothers who aren’t receiving support from their spouse. We work with students who have had operations, are suffering from mental illness, and or are homeless. We also work with middle-class students who need help getting to school, want to avoid a major debt burden after graduation, and are anxious about finding work in this province.
We exist to help these students to overcome the barriers that they face. Our mission is to promote access, affordability, quality and student voice in post-secondary education, in the full awareness that the structural inequities in our society mean that not all students have similar difficulties in achieving access or these other goals. We focus first of all on supporting the students who need that support the most, but also on making changes that will make the greatest difference..
We do our work not simply to envision a different world. Our 37,000 members don’t provide us with $200,000 each year in base funding to daydream, but to create material changes in the circumstances of students, those who want to study but can’t, and for young people in general.
This takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of reflection, because the barriers facing our 37,000 students are innumerable and complex. It takes research to even identify all the barriers. Barriers we’ve prioritized through our research that at least previously flew below the radar of many student organizations have included:
- The provincial cap on maximum student financial assistance
- Low financial assistance to support students’ childcare costs
- Limited financial assistance to help with the cost of residence and meal plan
- The cost of psycho-educational assessments for students with disabilities
- Health insurance for international students
The solutions to knock these barriers down are also complex to find in many cases, and difficult to have implemented. Limited money has been available. The Province’s economy has been among Canada’s weakest for decades, while provincial governments have been prioritizing cost containment, especially in the last few years.
Because we know that not all students’ circumstances are equal, we focus on supporting students who need help the most. This means that when it comes to access and affordability, for example, our top priority is consistently to improve student financial assistance over tuition reductions.
Last week, in advance of these meetings, we released a vision paper on student finance to better explain this stance, which we have asked to be circulated to council.
We focus on student financial assistance over tuition reduction for four main reasons:
1) Because tuition is only part of the cost of attending university or college. For most students it’s actually less than half, you also have to pay rent, eat, etc. Students with low incomes are challenged to finance any of these costs.
2) Because many middle and low-income undergrad students from Nova Scotia benefit less from tuition reductions than wealthier students or may not benefit at all. Financial assistance is provided based on financial need and is reduced when need decreases, as it would with a tuition reduction. For many of these students, much or all of the reduced need would have been met through grants or forgiven loans anyway. This actually includes students from median-income families, or most Nova Scotia families in other words, and actually reflects a positive situation, as these students are similarly insulated from tuition increases provided they haven’t maxed out their financial assistance.
3) Because even if all students benefitted equally from tuition reduction, students whose families make $20,000 need more support than those whose families make $200,000.
4) Because student organizations have been calling for tuition elimination in Canada for decades and haven’t made substantial progress. In most other provinces, tuition continues to increase at an even faster rate than in Nova Scotia. Straight-up tuition reductions are very rare.
We have called on Provincial and Federal Governments to convert all student financial assistance to grant form, eliminate caps on maximum financial assistance, reduce expected financial contributions from parents and spouses and help students meet their real costs. We’re also well into research on programs to help the chronically unemployed and those on income assistance to participate in PSE.
Similarly, we’ve called for scholarships to completely offset differential fees for 10% of international students based on financial need and merit, not to mention MSI coverage.
We also advocate for stronger regulations on tuition and other fees, including nominal and real tuition freezes for domestic and international students respectively.
We don’t measure our success in meetings or events held, or piñatas or 25-foot-tall clocks. We measure it in investments and new policies that support students.
We have lost plenty of battles. Since 2011, tuition has risen 3% per year, while being deregulated for international and professional students. University operating grants have been cut significantly and seemingly will continue to do so relative to inflation.
Yet at the same time StudentsNS has one of the strongest records of any advocacy group in the Province over the last four years alone when it comes to having funds invested in our more targeted priorities.
In 2011, the Province invested $12.5 million to introduce the debt cap and other improvements to the Nova Scotia Student Assistance Program.
In 2012, the Province invested $5.5 million to improve the student assistance program.
In 2013, the Province implemented recommendations directly from StudentsNS’ pre-budget submission and invested $4.6 million to improve the student assistance program, the second largest new social policy expenditure in a budget focused on eliminating the deficit before an election.
In 2014, the Province introduced the Nova Scotia Graduate Scholarships and eliminated interest on student loans, two policies reworked directly from policies in StudentsNS’ election platform.
As well, in 2008, the Province introduced the Nova Scotia University Student Bursary, reducing tuition eventually by $1,283 for local students and $261 for out-of-province students. It also converted 20% of provincial student loans to grants and froze tuition for three years.
When I spoke to this council in the fall I showed your our preliminary case studies of students’ finances in 2004 and 2014-15, highlighting how these changes have reduced debt levels and expanded access to resources for students with the greatest financial need. We’ve finished these case studies and they are available on our website. We show that a low-income student’s debt over five years of undergraduate study has fallen by more than $10,000 nominally, by even more money if you account for inflation. We also show that other prospective students’ circumstances are impossible, including notably those of low-income single mothers.
So, to get back to my original question, why do we do the work we do?
We do our work because we care whether our friends and relatives, and even total strangers are able to live fulfilling lives in this province, with the knowledge and skills that they aspire to and the kinds of careers that allow them to support themselves and their families, but also help give their lives meaning. We do our work because those are the stakes in post-secondary education.
We do our work because we want to make a difference and believe that we can make a difference, and we make a habit of proving ourselves right.
I’ve had time to provide you a glimpse of only part of the work we have done and do at StudentsNS. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how, with more time, you could have learned more about StudentsNS and had an impartial review of our activities and advocacy positions.
Now I don’t have much choice but to discuss how our relationship with the DSU executives.
In my time with StudentsNS, the relationship has deteriorated certainly. When I was hired, the Vice Chair of our Board was the DSU VP Academic and External, while the DSU President was a very active and invested board member. We had just won a student referendum at Dal to increase member fees and build a bigger, better organization
The following year Jamie Arron worked closely with us to improve our student engagement structure and adopt student assemblies to consult students on issues that matter to you. Assemblies that he led, and we helped to fund, attracted more than 100 students to the McInnes room to talk about how they could get involved in the DSU and the kind of advocacy they would like StudentsNS to pursue. Jamie was not always on the same page as the rest of the board, but he consistently attended meetings and I think that everyone challenged each other to do better. Jamie supported the DSU remaining a member of StudentsNS during last year’s controversy.
Since Jamie left, DSU board members have largely disengaged from the Board. Only one DSU representative has attended the entirety of a single StudentsNS in-person Board Meeting in the last two years. The DSU’s VPs Academic and External, who I understand are most responsible for providing representation to StudentsNS, missed 62% of StudentsNS Board Meetings in 2012-13 and 38% of board meetings in 2014-15.
In terms of participation in votes, DSU representatives failed to exercise a vote in 30% of motions at the board in 2013-14 due to absences or abstentions. This year, our record-keeping has changed to focus on consensus in most cases. However, the Board passed an amendment requiring that those abstaining from votes provide an explanation as to why
In abstaining to vote on a position paper calling for government investments to support youth unemployment, the DSU representatives indicated, to quote the minutes, that they had “fundamental disagreements with a number of the recommendations and the spirit of the report itself, as well as the rational behind the report”. They chose not to suggest how these might be addressed in advance or even substantiate what they might be. How is StudentsNS supposed to address these disagreements if we are only informed of them once a decision has already been reached? What is the point in being at StudentsNS’ board if you’re not planning to voice your concerns on behalf of Dal students to try to shape our recommendations and activities?
On the other hand, the DSU has not issued a single opposing vote to a single StudentsNS motion this year. Not one.
We’ve suffered more from obstruction. Here’s a list of StudentsNS coordinated or supported projects that the DSU has opted not to participate in over the past two years:
- Student assemblies – open space events intended to consult with students on the challenges they face, their priorities and how they might want to get involved – had external funding
- Mend the Gap campaign, supporting women’s involvement in student politics and recently being re-angled towards leadership more generally – externally funded
- Independent review of student union policies and practices to prevent sexual violence – had external funding
- Independent review of student union policies and practices to reduce unsafe alcohol consumption – had external funding
- Independent review of student union democratic governance – had external funding
- Internationally recognized More than Yes enthusiastic consent campaign – had external funding
- Summit on Youth in the Nova Scotia Economy, hosted here at Dalhousie University but not promoted by the DSU – had external funding
- Farewell to Nova Scotia Campaign – no appointment to the steering committee, no events, no promotion of or attendance at action on February 12 at Victoria Park
- 2015 Advocacy Week with MLAs
I’m not sure whether a single one of these decisions against participation was made by council.
Similarly, in my recollection, aside from a council meeting in the fall, StudentsNS has not been invited by the DSU to a single event on campus. We similarly were not invited to participate in the February 4 Day of Action, although to be fair our participation would have been difficult given we have received indications in the past that it could have legal implications for a member being sued by the CFS.
At StudentsNS, the board delegates for each association are basically the gatekeepers. For the most part, our board members view the level of engagement with StudentsNS on their campus as reflecting their own efforts and those of their student union just as much as StudentsNS.
Yet, despite the challenges, we have been working with Dal students. We’ve met with science students and together took concerns to the Med school that the way entrance requirements are communicated on their website could be prejudicial to students who had to take smaller course loads as a result of a disability, low income, illness or even coop. Last year the Provincial government introduced the $3.7 million Graduate Scholarships program that we had pitched in our election platform and pre-budget submission, and we worked with DAGS to provide feedback on the program design to ensure international students would be eligible, as would students not in fields relating directly to certain growth sectors in the economy. We also hosted a presentation on the very cool American organization Generation Progress with the Political Science Department, Status of Women, Equal Voice and the US Consulate.
In terms of criticisms of StudentsNS, we also represents six other student associations across the province, with at least two additional ones in the process of joining. Our other student unions represent students with challenges that would be very familiar to you, their leadership is under similar pressures and experiencing similar challenges. If all the negative things said about us over the last 72 hours, or in last year’s advocacy review, were true, we would not have a single member student union.
If someone alleges that StudentsNS is advocating for a position that really makes you shake your head and ask yourself “how could a student organization have this position?”, chances are that what’s being said is inaccurate. Our membership, including the Dal representatives who have been at our Board since 2004, wouldn’t stand for it.
The accusations of sexism are among the most intolerable. I believe a letter from one of the women involved in our work was circulated to council today and I couldn’t respond to this discourse any better. These attacks are viewed by our members as attacks on each of their student unions and frankly on each of them personally. They are demeaning of the work that so many feminists have been doing with StudentsNS to try to make campuses safer and more empowering places for women and everyone, organizations like the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, Equal Voice, The SMU Women’s Centre, the CBU women’s centre and more.
In closing, I want to say that I think the deliberations this week are more about the DSU than they are about StudentsNS. StudentsNS will be weakened in many ways if the DSU chooses to leave, but we will continue to represent our members and follow our values and principles.
I think that you at the DSU need to reflect on what kind of organization you want to be. What values and principles are you following? Do you want to have a council that students are too intimidated to speak to? Do you want to be a student union that reverses decisions made by two separate referenda in the last three years without hosting a single event in advance to inform students about why a decision might or might not be taken in a certain direction, or inform them to make up their own minds? Do you want to be a student union that resolves to conduct a proper process before making a decision affecting the whole student body, then throws that process out without consideration? Do you want to be an organization that turns its back on organizations that have been allies for more than ten years, in an organization that brings together students’ voice to create solutions that are built specifically for Nova Scotia?
It really is your choice and I hope you give it all the thought you can in the very constrained time that you have, on behalf of the people you represent.
I’m happy to answer any and all questions that you have to the best of my ability. I’d be pleased notably to respond to concerns or criticisms that have been expressed in reference to StudentsNS. If I’m no longer in this room and you want information, tweet a question at us or send us a note on Facebook and we’ll respond right away.