CUSA is unrepresentative. Oh well!

Another week, another student union controversy


Of all the complaints being levelled at the Carleton University Students’ Association, I take the most issue with the argument that CUSA is not representative of the student body.

Kevin Eller, a Carleton English student articulated this point in Carleton’s student newspaper The Charlatan:

Could someone please inform me on how CUSA year after year is able to determine what Carleton students want? Is giving former CUSA executive Isaac Cockburn (vice-president student issues) two years’ worth of salary when it seems like all he did was to plan an “All-Out Tuition Freeze Day” one of those ideas?

All I can say is: so what? Of course CUSA is not representative of the student body. It is true but it is also meaningless. In elections earlier this year, president Brittany Smyth was elected with the participation of around 15 per cent of Carleton undergrads (if someone has a more accurate number please let me know).

No organization with such low participation can claim to be democratic. Democracy refers to not just procedures and the holding of routine elections, but also to an electorate that actually participates. If you think CUSA could ever be representative, I have some pyrite to sell you.

But this isn’t just the situation at Carleton, nor is it necessarily reflective of the current executive. Student governments in nearly every Canadian school, since time immemorial, are elected routinely with 10 per cent of students voting, and rarely does participation rise above 20 per cent.

This is not indicative of an apathetic student electorate. Students are just passing through which means both that they don’t have the time to become truly knowledgeable of the union, and that their long term interests lie elsewhere.

The result is that student government tends to only be truly accountable to those who actually vote, which is often students who are highly interested in all forms of politics and who are often supportive of political activism. It is no wonder than that student executives tend to act as little more than full-time paid political activists.

Nearly every week a student government does or says something that causes onlookers to wonder how these people got into university in the first place, be it with comparing pro-life activists to the KKK, or telling students they are incapable of making their own choices regarding joining the military, or claiming that free tuition will cure cancer.

It is true, as it is with the current controversy regarding CUSA`s support for Shinearama, that students will sometimes organize to challenge the union leadership. Even in such cases, I would surprised if participation rises above 20 per cent.

That’s just the way it is.


CUSA is unrepresentative. Oh well!

  1. “No organization with such low participation can claim to be democratic.”

    Let’s see…

    How many people voted in the 2005 election for mayor of New York (won by Michael Bloomberg)?

    Answer: 1.3 million (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_mayoral_election,_2005)

    That’s 30% of the number of registered voters (4.3 million), but voter registration is voluntary in the USA so a lot of people who don’t vote also don’t register. New York had a population of 8.1 million at the time and 24% of the city population is under the age of 18 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_New_York_City).

    So that means the actual turnout (compared to the population who had the legal age to vote – 6.2 million) was around 21%.

    Would you say that New York is not democratic? What is the “threshold” you consider to be democratic? 15%? 20%?

    Maybe it would be better to speak of different levels of representativity, rather than “this is representastive” or “this is not”.

    Moreover, democracy is not only electing your representatives. Popular initiatives (like the ability to recall a representative or propose a measure through a petition) also increase the level of democracy.

  2. Your article raises a fairly obvious question. If the students don’t support “student government”, then why do they have to pay for it? Why does it even exist?

    The school administration takes care of the nuts and bolts type issues that a real world government deals with, like security, roads and so forth. So why is a student government even necessary? Why should the student body subsidize a club for political junkies? If you included a referendum question to scrap the student government and let students keep their money, I’m pretty confident turnout would skyrocket.

  3. Chris: Are you suggesting to elect the school administration like a “real” government? Well, maybe in that case we wouldn’t need mandatory student associations…

  4. Philippe,

    At some point it just doesn`t make sense to claim an organization is democratic, especially when turnout is around 10 per cent for years on end. It is an embedded and consistent problem.

    And there is no way that organizations that continually receive that level of support can claim they are representative.

    We don`t need 80 or 90 per cent voter turnout for there to be a democracy, but it is about having a democratic culture, and that just isn`t the case with student government.

    I know as a former student representative you might find this offensive, but like I noted this is just the way it is.


    you raise a good point, are student unions necessary? It is a question I have wrestled with and may post about it sometime in the future.

    Part of the question I think lies in whether or not the university can provide the services the student union does and I think that it could. But I would disagree that abolishing student unions would save students money because that money would just get transferred to the university administration. Whether this would be beneficial is an interesting question.

    Another point is the question of student representation on the university`s governing bodies. If we abolished student unions, presumably, student representations on these bodies would no longer exist or would be severely dimished and the possible effects of that are also interesting to contemplate, but I will leave it at that.

  5. Apparently the Shinerama was initiated in 1964 the year I got to Carleton. I suspect that way back then the proportion of students voting was a lot higher. I can’t say for sure since I don’t have any statistics at hand. Perhaps we should contact Booker Prize winner, Olive Senior who was writing for the Charleton student newspaper at the time.

    Even then I had questions about the decision about fund raising for cystic fibrosis when there were lots of other worthy causes to support. It seems that the CF Foundation has had a fairly good run for the last 44 years. Perhaps it is time for another cause to receive the benefit, which is what the CUSA leaders were really asking I think.

    As far as student politicians saying dumb things goes, maybe they are just practising before saying dumb things in the wider world of municipal, provincial and national politics.

  6. Carson:

    I’m sorry that you have to resort to attacking my credibility on this one. Especially since all I’m bringing is some perspective and comparisons to nuance your claims.

    Instead of discussing of nuances you’re proposing to draw the line at some arbitrary level between “democratic” and “not democratic”. Also, you now bring the question of “democratic culture”, which is an important point, but your fail to make any suggestion on how to “measure” it.

    If you want to make such generalized claims about democracy you should be prepared to back them, rather than personally attacking people who question the validity of your claims. “This is just the way it is” is not a rational argument.


    Here’s another angle at the question.

    There is some evidence that voter turnout is correlated with how high the stakes are. The voter turnout was over 90% in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Voter turnout for more powerful governments (e.g. federal) is typically higher than for less powerful governements (e.g. municipal). When voters are particularly excited about something (e.g. Obama’s nomination in the US, or referendum about Quebec independence), voter turnout rises.

    By your reasoning of correlating voter turnout with “how democratic” a system is, you’re implying, for example, that the Canadian federal government is more democratic than most municipal government, or that Quebec somehow becomes a more democratic society when the question of independence comes around.

    In student politics we see the same thing at a lower scale. Turnout depends on how important the election is, which depends on the issue, the variety and the quality of the candidates, the relative power and importance of different student associations, etc.


    If your argument was simply: “The stakes stay relatively low in student politics, so the turnout stays relatively low, and it’s just the way it is.” I think I might probably agree.

    But by bringing the question of “how democratic” it is, you’re introducing a new judgement of value that I don’t think it obvious at all.

    One could even argue your point of view that “student associations are undemocratic and unrepresentative and that’s just the way it is” actually encourages misbehavior from student representatives. (“Why even bother to think of the student interest if all that we do is undemocratic and unrepresentative?”)

  7. A couple points.

    1) I am not trying to encourage misbehaviour, but you`re right that that could be what some take from my argument, but the fact that student unions are only minimally accountable to the student electorate helps to explain misbehaviour.

    2) Voting is a fairly decent measurement of how robust a democratic culture is, and it is not just about stakes. In national politics people are more likely to vote the more they know about politics. Personal connection with political candidates as well as with others who vote is a good indicator of whether one will cast a ballot.

    It is in many ways socially determined. Consider the fact that PEI where they have four small ridings had voter turnout of around 75 per cent in the last election. I would bet that after the election has recieved more intense scrutiny, we will see that that is partly a function of the fact that voters are more likely to meet their candidates and given the smaller population are more likely to meet others who vote.

    This simply doesn`t happen at the student level.

    As people age they are also more likely to vote, as political issues become more relevant to them. There is simply no time for this happen at the student level.

    It is not just about low stakes, it is about the fact that the student electorate is not interested in holding their representatives to account.

    3) You ask the question: “Why even bother to think of the student interest if all that we do is undemocratic and unrepresentative?“

    I know you meant this as rhetorical, but it is a good question and ties to Chris`s point about whether or not student unions are even necessary. A point I am not prepared to fully address at this point.

    4) Democratic culture is more robust at the national level than at the municipal level, and your point about the Quebec referendum I think could be set aside, because I am not simply referring to one off elections but to the fact that near-non-existent voter turnout at the student level is an ongoing and persistent occurrence.

  8. And here I thought you were a political science student.

    Democracy is not defined by voter turnout.

    It is defined by peoples’ ability to play a role in governance in a meaningful way.

    As we have seen at Carleton, there was a big reaction to the student association’s actions.

    In turn, the student association changed course.

    That is democracy.

  9. Carson: I think you make a good point that small scale has its advantages to (proximity to candidates).

    But on the main question of voter turnout as a measure of “how democratic” (or even “how accountable”) a structure (or culture) is, I’m still not completely convinced, if only for one reason. Even if low turnout is a relatively constant in Canadian student association elections (in the 10-15% range), I would argue that two associations with the same turnout can have different levels of democracy and accountability in other respects. Open committees, general meetings, consultations and general transparency measures, how much councilors are listening to their respective constituencies, etc.

    I guess what I’m saying is that it might not be so productive to compare things so different as student associations and federal politics. It might be better (and less cynical) to acknowledge the limits of student associations yet strive to do the best within those limits. When I was working in a student association I liked to see how other associations were operating and try to find best practices to improve ours.

  10. Brian Fisher…

    Shinerama started in 1964; however Carlton has only been participating for 25 years.

    As a former student leader, it is discouraging when students don’t get out and vote. Most student’s unions do everything they can to encourage the general student population to vote, but the reality is that many just don’t see it as a priority. It them become the duty of the elected folks to consult with their constituents when important matters arise.

    Student government can certainly brew some insane ideas, and incubate a strange breed of political junkie, but all in all they (usually) are a useful and important resource on campus, even if many students don’t seem to notice. If all of the services and lobbying by a student union were to disappear however, students would REALLY notice.

    Granted, sometimes those wrapped up in student politics can’t see past the end of their own noses, as has been perfectly articulated here.

  11. Carson,

    How did I get dragged into this? All I did in the two years that I served on the CUSA exec was work as hard as I could. Have we ever met? Do you have information about what a bad job I did? Are you smearing my name because somebody named Kevin Eller took a cheap shot at me for no apparent reason? I got elected twice and did the best I could, it seems very unfair to get called out 7 months out of office on unfounded claims.

    (I sent you a personal email as well, but have received no reply)

    Isaac Cockburn

  12. I’m not sure from reading the Charlatan opinion piece if the author is writing about the two years salary he was paid while in office or if this money was in addition to the salary.

    My question is why do local student union have to organize these rallies? Does the nearly $325,000 a year students at Carleton send collectively to the CFS and all its affiliated non-affiliated groups pay for somebody to actually organize these rallies? (Nevermind that student unions have to buy rally materials from the CFS on top of the millions already provided from student fees.)

  13. Buy campaign materials from the CFS? This is news to me, and I was on the Ontario executive for two years. I know for sure our local student association gots boxes of campaign materials (flyers, buttons, petitions, etc.) from the CFS over 2 years without paying for it (outside the membership fees of course).

  14. Given the opportunity, there are always some people who will act in an abusive, despicable, disgusting manner – because they can.

  15. The Ryerson newspaper reported last year the RSU had to pay for the “Reduce Tuition Fees” toques and other materials.

    Could have been in error. That said, I still wonder where the millions of dollars go.

  16. Isaac,

    That’s easy. You’re on the Joey-Carson hit list.

    For the complete list, visit the CFS national website, click on ‘About’, and then ‘Member Students’ Unins’.

  17. Joey: You’re right about the tuques. But that’s similar to other items bulk-purchased through the CFS (t-shirts, water bottles, etc., which also sometime promote campaigns). These are things that each student association chooses to order or not. But the other campaign materials I mentioned above (posters, flyers, buttons, factsheets, etc. and placards when there’s a rally, if I’m not mistaken) are distributed to all student associations at no cost beyond membership.

    Again a lot of things I’m saying (especially concerning budget) are just by memory and people who are currently involved in the CFS could probably be more precise.

  18. Rick, you will note that I am not making an argument directed only at CFS schools, as I write: “Student governments in nearly every Canadian school,”

  19. @Philipe

    Thanks, I now know where you are coming from on that subject. That makes sense. I may not agree with it, but I understand it.

    How warm is California? I may transfer there to escape Winter.

    – Joey

  20. Hmmm. My submit button must have been broken. Feel free to delete duplicates.

  21. I think the answer is not necessarily to get rid of student unions, but simply to make them non-compulsary. If 90% of the students don’t care what the union does, why should they be required to pay into it? Let the people who have an interest in student politics/activism put money towards the student society, and have everyone else do what they see fit with the extra cash.

  22. @Abarlow,

    Compulsory student unionism, if we are going to have student unions, makes perfect sense. They offer services that all students benefit from. There are student fees for all sorts of services provided by the administration as well as the student union.

    And the cost of our fees also goes towards the cost of governing the university, and not just the administration of policy, something that student unions contribute to.

    These are costs associated with running a university, and they come from, in part, our tuition.

  23. Carson, I’m not talking about making student fees voluntary, I’m talking about making student society fees voluntary. Fees related to university administration, services, and governance are not typically handled by the student society, and these fees would probably be levied whether or not the student union existed or not.

    Looking at the specific breakdown of student society fees from my undergrad university, I don’t see any major things that would be lost or could not be covered through, eg. user fees. The majority of the funds students give to that student society go towards: maintenance and operations of the student union building, general revenues for the society, and CFS fees. The remainder of the funds go to a variety of uses, such as the student paper/radio station, clubs and course unions and some charity projects.

  24. Right, and, with a few exceptions, many of those fees are directly related to running the university (the student centre building, for example, which needs to be run by someone) or providing services for students that, while they may not be necessary for earning an education, exist to improve life on campus (ie: student run restaurants, or space for student clubs, or whatever).

    How do you determine who uses and who doesn’t use these services?

  25. The question is do they require a mandatory student union to run? I would argue not. Many of the functions of a student union building (restaurant, club spaces) work just fine either way: joining clubs, etc. could require a nominal fee from members (or non student society members) to offset the cost of renting space in the student union building (incidentally, my experience has been that the average SUB doesn’t have enough space for most clubs anyway, so they just hijack a classroom somewhere). Restaurants, travel cuts, etc. are a business and pay their expenses through selling product. I don’t see any of the infrastructure that requires a student union per se, nevermind one with mandatory membership. It might not look the same as it does now, but that doesn’t mean that wouldn’t work at all.

    Mandatory participation in student unions is not practiced (or illegal) in (among others) Australia, Denmark, France, Greece, the UK… and seems to work fine for them.

  26. It is my understanding that in the United Kingdom, students’ unions receive a block grant from the institution; they do not charge membership fees. A student can opt out of membership in their students’ union, but this has little practical effect, since such a decision does not have any financial effect on the student or the students’ union.

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