By Lucy Scholey, Assistant News Editor
The $30,000 put toward a Canadian Student Survey came from a settlement with McGill, members of the Canadian Alliance of Students Association learned last Friday.
After several bouts of miscommunication, the national director of CASA explained the survey’s details to a group of student union representatives at the alliance’s Annual General Meeting
“We sincerely do apologize because we do feel that this was in our jurisdiction to decide,” said national director Arati Sharma at Dalhousie University on Nov. 20.
The survey raised questions among some student union members who were unclear of its details, including who made the decision to conduct the survey and where the money came from.
The Canadian Student Survey is a project co-initiated by CASA and the Canadian Education Project, a Toronto-based research group. It’s the first time Canadian student unions and lobby groups have designed a survey for data gathering purposes. The idea behind the survey is to prop up advocacy and lobby efforts. In previous years, these groups relied on data from outside research groups.
As of the AGM plenary – the meeting when a representative from each student union votes on the specific decisions up for debate – 20,000 students had completed the survey.
Due to confidentiality reasons, Sharma couldn’t disclose details of the McGill case, but said the issue was missed member payments. Through an out-of-court settlement, CASA gained $37,500 in total, but kept $28,575 after the $8925 in legal fees were factored in.
Sharma and CASA’s governance officers decided to put the money towards the Canadian Student Survey. Student unions that have membership with CASA and their provincial lobby groups can receive funding from both organizations to participate. Non-CASA members can also participate, at a fee of $1,000.
The Canadian Education Project is a division of the Educational Policy Institute (EPI), an American research group. Alex Usher is the Canadian director of EPI. He was also a former national director of CASA.
In an interview two weeks ago, Sharma said this doesn’t pose a conflict of interest.
“The data is ours,” she said. “(EPI is) just processing it for us.”
“I didn’t know there was a settlement before I came here,” said Jack Brown, to the group of representatives from about 23 CASA-affiliated student unions.
“We’ve been having communications issues for the past little while now,” added the president of the University of Fraser Valley Student Union Society during a break.
The university isn’t participating in the project because British Columbia doesn’t have a provincial lobby organization and the University of Fraser Valley doesn’t have room in its budget to pay the fee. There were also issues with the survey’s methodology, he said.
While the president of Saint Mary’s University Student Association admits there has been a lot of miscommunication, he says he has few doubts about the project.
“Our union’s job is to interpret the budget and what is best for students and what we really should be discussing … (are) the merits of the survey itself,” Matt Anderson said. “(SMUSA thinks) the merits of the survey are very good.”
Ella Henry, Vice President of Education at St. Thomas University, said the project has raised questions concerning CASA’s governance structure.
“I think we heard, here, in the plenary, that a lot of schools have questions about whether the national director and governance officers were within their mandate to make that allocation of money,” she said.
St. Thomas University didn’t participate in the survey because its Research Ethics Board raised concerns about the lack of scholarly research. Before the university’s student union could put it to a vote, the project had already been approved, Henry says. She was not consulted on the project, she adds.
Kory Preston, Vice President of University Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier, said Sharma and the governance officers had the right to allocate the money without a vote from the general assembly.
“It’s up to the national director to allocate those funds because it came up outside of the budget,” he said.
After several student union representatives voiced their concerns over the lack of communication, Sharma said CASA would work on improving the head office’s communication with members.
“Our leadership working group is developing a communications strategy for the organization,” she said. “I think we have a great external communications strategy for responding to the media and government, but I think we need something a little more robust so our leadership group is actually communicating with our members better.”
The provincial lobby organizations partnering with CASA in the survey are the Alliance of Nova Scotia Students Association, the Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance and the Council of Alberta University Students.
The Dal Student Union hosted the AGM from Nov. 17 to Nov. 20. Other topics up for debate included a graduate grant for students with high financial need, and a motion to post all documents, recordings and minutes online.