Our funds, our services

Do UWSA goals answer student needs?

If asked, few of us could decide right away how 9,000 students should spend over $1.5 million. And yet that’s roughly what University of Winnipeg students pay their students’ association yearly.

So for $1.5 million, what should your students’ association do for you?

An elected body representing U of W students, the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) is largely dependent on annual student fees. Of their estimated budget figure of $3.5 million, the UWSA has received over $1.7 million in student fees this fiscal year.

“People don’t realize that they’re paying that kind of money,” said David EisBrenner, a former UWSA elections commissioner and chair of the Board of Directors.

The UWSA provides many services to students, including the UWSA health plan, Soma Café, Info booth, UWSA daycare, Petrified Sole Bookstore and student service groups. But their relative invisibility may be damaging their reputation.

“There needs to be a public face to the UWSA… There are definitely things that they do that we don’t see that are good,” EisBrenner said.

Tucked away in the Bulman Centre, in the glass-encased offices referred to as ‘the fishbowl,’ former UWSA vice president internal Scott Nosaty felt removed from students, literally and figuratively.

During his term in office last year, Nosaty felt the UWSA did not make enough effort to reach the general student body.

Current president Vinay Iyer acknowledges this disconnect, made worse by their remote physical location.

“We are trying our best,” he said. “It is very, very hard to get students politically involved… They have school, they have their own stuff to worry about.”

And while Iyer cites advocacy as one of the UWSA’s biggest responsibilities, it is no simple matter, according to one former executive.

When Nosaty expressed dissenting views on the tuition freeze campaign, among other issues dear to the UWSA’s heart, he said things got ugly in the fishbowl.

“In an ideologically-based organization like the UWSA, it tends to be that if you disagree with what they believe in, they take it personally and you are seen as an enemy,” he said.

A part of the larger Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the U of W student union may be representative of other associations.

Andrew Monkhouse, president of the Carleton Academic Student Government at Carleton University in Ottawa, noticed a similar trend during a recent controversy.

Last fall, Carleton University Students’ Union (CUSA) passed a hasty motion to end support of Shinerama, a popular national fundraiser for Cystic Fibrosis.

CUSA felt the disease was not inclusive enough, affecting predominantly white males.

The motion inspired public outrage and was retracted.

Monkhouse said it’s not uncommon for student associations to make decisions without hearing out other students. When backlash ensues, there is little consequence for executives due to their short-term positions.

“You need to have systems set up where there is a measure of accountability in place,” he said.

But Iyer says the UWSA executive answers to directors, who directly represent students. No single executive ever calls the shots, he said.

EisBrenner is concerned that while their causes may be noble, UWSA arguments lack substance and try to enrage students instead of persuading them.

Sensationalism is not the way to effectively lobby the government, he said.

“It depends on your priorities—do you want to be in the papers or do you want to get things done?”

So if UWSA executives like Nosaty disagreed with major UWSA campaigns, how many other students may feel the same?

“It is definitely very important what students feel,” said Iyer.

Iyer explained that the UWSA position on the tuition freeze is based on extensive research done by the CFS. And while little of this research relates to student opinion, he feels confident that it represents students’ best interests.

While every student can’t be directly involved with their union, it’s the association’s job to represent every student, said James Pepler, former president of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU).

“You have to listen to the criticism and figure out what your body, your students are saying—and not just the loudest people.”

So is a student association worth our money? Despite his criticism, Nosaty says it is.

“I know I’d be willing to still pay UWSA fees,” he said. “It has good intentions and it does its best to help out students.”

Iyer encourages any students interested in voicing their opinions to attend the bi-weekly Board of Directors meetings, for which notices are posted around school. As members, all U of W students can vote on UWSA decisions.

Read one student’s opinion on the UWSA on page 9. Check out Sandy’s blog at www.uniter.ca to share your thoughts on SNO Week, the UWSA’s latest initiative.

Published in Volume 63, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 5, 2009)

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