Catching Up With the CSA
Monday, January 18, 20160 Comments
Photo courtesy of csaonline.ca
It’s been rather awhile since I sat down with the University of Guelph’s Central Students’ Association. In fact, the last time I spoke to them, in winter 2015, there wasn’t much sitting at all; they were leading the protest at the university’s Board of Governors meeting. That particular protest memorably led to the shutting down of the meeting, and lots of positive (and some negative) press for the movement. In preparation for the CSA’s upcoming Annual General Meeting (herein referred to as AGM), we caught up with Sonia Chwalek, Peter Miller and Scarlett Raczycki. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
CAN: Thank you very much for joining me today, and of course, we’re doing this in conjunction with next week’s AGM. Why don’t we start by talking about what the past year for the CSA executive has been like? How have you learned, changed or grown on the job? Have there been any unexpected developments?
SCARLETT R: Yeah.
SR: I think that something that you don’t know going into the job is just the variety of skills that you learn. For example, when I was in third year, did I ever think I would have the skill now to fit over a hundred grocery carts into one Cubeit? No, but then Trick-or-Eat happened, and I had to do that. And now I can operate a pop-corn machine, and a cotton candy machine. [Chuckles] And also really valuable skills, like problem solving, and compromise, and crisis intervention, and all sorts of wild and wacky things. It’s been a ride.
SONIA C: That was definitely an excellent point. I’m doing this for my second term now, and that was my biggest thing in my first term, how diverse the job is. That’s why it’s so difficult to communicate what you do to someone, because it changes so much.
SR: You have to just answer, because you’re really being three full-time adults.
PETER M: Well for my position, I’m split between three things: supporting service staff at the CSA; doing campaigns and supporting activism, and also representing students on university bodies. So you learn how to prioritize, to do all those things, and what will affect students the most. And I hope I’ve done an okay job with that, after my second year in the position.
CAN: In preparation for this, I asked about some of your initiatives throughout the past semester, and I understand that the Foodbank has received funding for an indoor garden. Tell us a little bit about that.
SR: That’s really the brainchild of Ana Paula and Nimrata (Volunteer Coordinator and FoodBank Coordinator, respectively), and from what I understand, it’s going to be very similar to the community garden they already have outdoors. Students will be able to get fresh produce all year around, and they can also get visitors and volunteers to help out with the indoor garden during the winter, and understand where food comes from and how much work actually goes into producing food. I think it really helps to expand the conversation about food security when you understand where food comes from, and it can also show students how easy it is to grow your own food. A lot of students live in shared homes and don’t have a lot of space, and it is pretty amazing to learn what you can grow inside.
CAN: Do you have comments in general about food bank use among students? Have you noticed any trends in food bank use over the past semester or past year?
SR: Yeah, it’s going up! A lot of students have to turn to the food bank, which is concerning. Obviously we know tuition fees are a part of that. A lot of graduate and international students use the food bank. International student fees are deregulated, so there’s nothing in place protecting them from fee increases, and while they may be able to afford food the first year they come to Guelph, the next year they may have to choose between buying a textbook and feeding themselves. We’re happy to be able to provide the service, but we don’t want to have to provide it, especially when it’s so obviously preventable to us. Knowing that tuition fees are a big part of the problem should prompt administrators to take a second look at the budget to make sure that students are being taken care of from all sides.
CAN: Let’s focus on some of the issues in the agenda for the AGM, starting with the motion on mental health resources on campus. At present, what’s the state of mental health support like on campus? What are some specific things the university could be doing already, and what are some longer term things to take a look at?
PM: So one thing the university does is really plug itself as providing great mental health resources on campus, and being one of the better universities in Canada. But really they should be doing a lot more. We’re seeing the crisis of postsecondary education being no longer public and accessible, and the economic crisis of what students will be doing after university, which create a lot of stress. According to the National College Health Survey conducted at the U of G in 2013, the number of students who access counselling has increased 10-15% a year for the past five years. Students registering with Student Accessibility Services with psychiatric and psychological disabilities has doubled over the last five years, and Student Health Services records a similar increase in the number of students with symptoms of mental illness. But we aren’t seeing enough resources being put into student counselling or Student Accessibility Services. Right now, there are only 9 advisors in Student Accessibility Services; many of them have to advise over 100 students. That’s unfair, and means they’re not able to help students as much as they should be able to. As well, at counselling services, wait times can be really huge, especially during peak times of the semester, like exam season. At the same time, if you’re only in one course, then you can only see a counsellor once, and if you’re in one course only, maybe that’s because of mental health issues and you need to see a counsellor regularly. The university has funding, and the ability in its budget, to allocate more resources to counselling services and SAS. The counsellors and advisors do great work, but senior administrators need to prioritize more funding for these services; from 2011-2014, there was a $76 million dollar combined surplus at the university. The motion not only calls for more funding and the hiring of more advisors, it also calls upon the UoG to advocate from the provincial government for a more consistent funding envelope for mental health resources. Right now, universities too often, unfairly, rely on ancillary fees from students, when there should be funding made available from the government.
SC: You mentioned that if you’re a part-time student, you can only access counseling services once a semester. And again, often, this means that students are working on the side, and they now have the additional burden of mental health issues and end up paying more per course than someone taking full-time classes. Before we move on, it’s also important to touch on what types of services are offered. We’ve been looking to support the Black Liberation Collective on campus, as they’ve done some amazing organizing. One of the things they brought forward was representation in counselling, and the unique needs of marginalized groups when accessing services, be that mental health or otherwise. I think particularly for black students, their experiences are unique, and so making sure there’s representation and that people can properly access those resources in a way that’s beneficial to them is important as well.
CAN: Actually, talking about the Black Liberation Collective brings us to the other motion I wanted to ask you about: the motion that commits the CSA to supporting the Collective in its demands. What are those demands, and what exactly is the CSA planning to do in support of them?
SC: Well, I don’t want to speak for them, and I’d like to center their voices, so you can find it online: http://www.thedemands.org/.
[Note: here are the specific demands made by the Guelph chapter]
PM: One point I wanted to make about the demands is that they really connect with the interests of other students and align with the CSA’s campaign against program cuts and tuition increases. The Collective is advocating for a standalone department of Black, African and Caribbean Studies, and that’s a diverse program that should be initiated at the UofG, and here we have cuts that particularly affect marginalized groups. Right now, there are really only a couple courses where you can learn about African history. That’s definitely an initiative that we should support.
CAN: In the wake of your shutdown of the Board of Governors meeting last winter, I spoke to university spokesman Chuck Cunningham. He told me about a letter that the university was co-authoring with the CSA, calling on the provincial government to allocate more spending to higher education. I was later given also to understand that the process has stalled. What can you tell me about that?
PM: I can go into that, because I was part of the Board of Governors last year as well. We tried to co-author that letter, but we ended up not (doing it), because the university wouldn’t agree to our demands for the letter. We wanted the university to call for more public funding from the province, and also to call for the province to freeze tuition fees for all institutions. The university wouldn’t call for a freeze, and instead tried to get us to agree to demand for scraps of financial aid for students. This isn’t fair, because financial aid can increase debt when given as loans instead of grants. That leads to some students paying more than others, because interest accumulates on the debt, and that makes university inaccessible for many students. So we wouldn’t sign on to the letter because the university wouldn’t talk about the real issue, which is the skyrocketing of tuition fees. I’d say we fulfilled our role as a student union because we didn’t want to make compromises that were against our principles. This year we have those same demands, and hopefully we can exert enough pressure to change their minds to call for a freeze across Ontario.
SR: I think what peter said about increasing financial aid is not always the answer. Not everyone can access it, for a variety of reasons, whether it’s who it’s offered to, or how you access them. Sometimes scholarships and bursaries can be helpful, but that’s not really the point, because a fear of rejection can stop students from even applying to those. Our role as a student union was represented in the decision not to sign on to that letter, because it’s important that we fight for free and accessible public education to make sure that all students can access it through the same sources.
SC: We’re not looking for Band-Aid solutions, we’re looking for long term sustainable changes, which is why we lobby through the Canadian Federation of Students, which all students at Guelph are a part of. If you reallocate a lot of the saving schemes and financial aid that is in place, you’d actually be able to reduce tuition fees across the board by a significant amount. That’s what we’re pushing for, to make sure that students can enter and stay in post-secondary education.
The Central Students’ Association Annual General Meeting is taking place on the 20th of January 2016, at the Peter Clark Hall, in the basement of the University Centre. Doors open at 5 pm and the meeting begins at 5:30 pm. Free pizza will be served.