As president of the Dalhousie Student Union, I am used to criticism. Not only am I used to it myself, I am also used to taking it on behalf of my organization and my colleagues. I have no problem with this. Constructively using criticism to improve my effectiveness, and the functions of the DSU, is essential to how I work. What I do have a problem with is public criticism that dismisses contextual realities and ignores communicated facts to support the editorial agenda of the authors.
Recently, in their article “Democracy Day,” opinions contributors Aaron Beale and J.D. Hutton lamented that the student union has failed to represent student interests. Beale and Hutton are entitled to their own opinion, but are not entitled to their own facts.
The Dalhousie Student Union works within the Dalhousie community and with provincial and federal advocacy associations to ensure students get not just accurate, but also effective representation on issues that face them.
The Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations (ANSSA) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) ensure collective input from students across the province and the country is used to create and advocate for diverse policy perspectives. They also make it possible for students to maintain a high level of access to public officials, the people who make decisions about where students’ money goes.
Building advocacy efforts over the long term is what really leads to successes. Through these efforts ANSSA and CASA have gained respect in the public policy sector at both levels of government. This high level of respect is what has made it possible for student representatives from Dalhousie to directly and personally push our agenda to numerous public officials including staff in the Department of Finance and the Prime Minister’s Office, the Director General of the Canada Student Loans Program, the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Student Loans Program, Premier Darrell Dexter and the Nova Scotia Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, among dozens of others.
These activities have resulted in measureable results for students. Most recently, the Government instituted a student debt cap after ANSSA had been the only group asking for one for the last three years. The debt cap reduces the maximum debt a student borrower can incur during a degree from $45,000 to just over $28,000. Last year CASA advocated for an increase to the income exemption in the CSLP which would allow students to keep more of the money they earn working while in school; this increase was implemented.
There are also successes much closer to home. The DSU worked closely with students last year as the Administration sought to implement new fees and raise old ones. We worked with students in the Faculty of Health Promotions to successfully defeat a proposed fee of $422 before it was able to reach the University Board. We worked with international students to have the government reject Dalhousie’s proposed increase of 10 per cent to international differential tuition. The government limited the increase to 6.5 per cent and additionally required Dalhousie to generate a report demonstrating that the money was used for appropriate services specifically for international students.
I agree that activism is an important tool in any lobbyists’ toolbox. Political protest is a legitimate form of expression, and sometimes a very effective one. Protest is in fact a tool the DSU has used multiple times in the past. The DSU played a role in organizing the 2011 Day of Action. We secured amnesty for missed classes, printed signs and stapled them to stakes, publicized the event widely and obtained media attention. I personally had the privilege of speaking during the Dalhousie rally last year.
The DSU helped to take hundreds of students to the streets last year for the Day of Action. We were pressuring the Government to release decisions they had made regarding post-secondary education funding, information that had not yet been made public. Protest was an effective tactic. The day before the Day of Action, the Government put out a press release announcing tuition would be capped at a 3 per cent increase.
This year the provincial government has already signed a three year Memorandum of Understanding with Universities. The DSU has been directing its resources towards working with Administration and the Board to ensure that budget cuts are made in a responsible way and students are consulted on any proposed fee increases. This work has already resulted in another success. Administration has agreed to follow a policy written by the DSU outlining how students should be consulted, how their feedback should be incorporated into proposals, and how that feedback should be communicated to decision makers. The policy will also be approved by the University Board and used each year moving forward.
The opinion piece in the Jan. 27 issue of the Gazette raises some important and valid criticisms of the Dalhousie Student Union. However, it fails to provide a balanced picture of the work that the student union does. Rather than leaving students out in the cold, as Beale and Hutton suggest the DSU is doing, we’re making sure students will be able to stay in the classroom, today and for years to come.