Future engineers unhappy with student unions - Macleans.ca

Future engineers unhappy with student unions

Lobby groups tend to oppose major engineering employers


Engineering students at the University of Alberta (Chris Bolin for Maclean's)

Engineering students are different from other undergraduates. They have more hours of classes, more assignments and clearer career paths. While many undergrads face the prospect of unemployment or underemployment, engineers’ skills are in demand across many industries, from the resource extraction sector to the military.

But that career path is the source of conflict between engineering students and university student unions that they must pay fees to each year, which tend to align themselves against things like resource extraction and the military.

“A lot of engineering societies don’t have that close a relationship with their central student union,” says Lisa Belbeck, president of the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students (CFES), which claims to represent 60,000 engineering students and does not lobby governments.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), on the other hand, which claims to represent 600,000 students in dozens of student unions across the country, does take strong political stands.

Mauricio Curbelo, president of the University of Toronto’s Engineering Society, sees it as a problem that his school’s central union is part of the CFS. “The CFS is a radical national lobby group that advocates a number of anti-engineering stances such as being against tar sands development and defence spending,” he says. “Both of these are job creators for the engineering profession.”

At the University of Toronto, dissatisfaction between the Engineering Society and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) was very strong this year with 95 per cent of future engineers voting in a special referendum to divert their mandatory fees away from the UTSU. While the conflict remains unresolved (U of T Provost Cheryl Misak is setting up mediation in late summer following failed negotiations) the concerns expressed by Curbelo are being echoed across the country.

Kristina Kuffel, president of the University of Guelph’s Engineering Society, has similar issues with her student union. Recently, Guelph’s Central Student Association (CSA), which is still sympathetic to the CFS despite student votes to leave, sent a mass email encouraging students to phone political leaders to protest development of the tar sands. “I disagree with the CSA’s choice to endorse an event that could misrepresent the beliefs of their student membership on such a divided topic,” she says.

Ben Marriott, who runs the University of Manitoba Engineering Society, questions the utility of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, also a member of CFS. He says it has been providing fewer and fewer services over the years. “There isn’t really much, besides health and dental plans, that the student union can offer us that we don’t already, or could, provide to ourselves,” he says.

Jessica McCormick, chairperson of the CFS, stresses that all CFS campaigns are democratically decided upon by members. McCormick urged engineering students to get involved with their local students’ unions to try and change policies that they feel unfairly target their potential employers.

“Every local [union] is different, but there are always opportunities to bring motions forward or meet with executives if a student wants to change existing policy,” she says. At the national level, the CFS takes policy direction from student unions nationwide who come together for annual general meetings. “We don’t just make up policy,” she adds.

Not all engineering societies have a problem with their student union. Rose Ghamari, who holds a seat on the board of directors of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) and is also president of the Ryerson Engineering Student Society, says the two groups have a positive relationship and are planning several joint events this year. Ghamari says she’s not aware of any RSU or CFS campaigns that engineers would have a problem with and praises the RSU’s Consent is Sexy campaign, designed to reduce sexual assault, and their anti-tuition Drop Fees campaign.

However, the RSU is anti-military, having rejoined the Canadian Peace Alliance in January.

It’s not just CFS-affiliated unions that are under scrutiny. Elizabeth Croteau, chair of the board of operations and past president of the Dalhousie Undergraduate Engineering Society, has criticized the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU), which isn’t a member of the CFS, for its “radical ideas and platforms.” She says student unions don’t represent engineering students when they criticize the Canadian Forces and companies like Shell, which some students rely on for scholarships, summer jobs and future employment.

In general, says national engineering leader Lisa Belbeck, student unions across the country aren’t representing engineering students very well. “We kind of do our own thing.”

Zane Schwartz studies international relations at the University of Toronto where he’s news editor of The Varsity.


Future engineers unhappy with student unions

  1. It’s almost as if democratic organizations take different positions from each other. It’s a wacky concept, I know. Clearly this requires hand-wringing based on the false and belittling assumption that all engineering students are essentially identical pro-military, pro-tar sands drones whose only concern is employment. I’d like to think the engineering students I know are a wee bit more nuanced than that.

    Although I do enjoy the idea that CFS and various students’ unions are so powerful that they can bring Shell to its knees and jeopardize the future jobs of engineering students.

    • CFS isn’t powerful enough to do anything besides spend student fees on forlorn protest activities. Engineering students are not unique in their dislike of CFS, an organization which can hardly claim to represent more than 10% of its fee-paying members.

      • I think you’ve got the wrong Federation there, Andrew. The CFS doesn’t protest at all and the few direct action-style of events they embrace are pretty weak.

        That being said, to move to Zane’s article, his focus on the CFS here is misguided. I mean, it obviously comes from the fact that Zane himself is embedded in the UofT context (as I am), but this is a much more universal division overall.

        Also, the state of relations between UMSU and the Federation is one of discontent — unlike what is implied here (that they are akin to UTSU/CSA). They walked out, along with other unions, of the last AGM… so yeah, my thoughts. All the rest were said above by Chris.

  2. These student organizations on campus commonly lobby for amenities such as physical education centers, etc., which are of very little use to engineering students as they simply don’t have the time to utilize them.

  3. It is disgusting that the universities abuse their power to allow these student organizations/”student unions” to be anything but voluntary.

    Signing up for a university and paying tuition ought to be a contract solely between a student and the university. Its so bad on the campuses now that they’ve made health and drug plans, which barely cover anything more than the provincial plans, a mandatory tax on students. Essentially amounting to little more than a scam to pay for the female students’ birth control (another thing that engineers have very little time, nor inclination for!).

    • Mark, in general it is not the universities that give student unions power or have any choice but to recognise them – it’s the law that gives them power(as is true in Quebec with accreditation laws) and/or students themselves. If you don’t like what your student union does, get involved. Be a thorn in their side. Ask questions, get elected and change it. Don’t just whine on a message board (I am making a bit of an assumption here).

      As for your issue with birth control – I don’t understand your point. From what I can tell, the only reasons that “engineers [would] have very little time, nor inclination for” (sic) paying for birth control is:

      (a) because there are no female engineering students where you come from
      (b) there are female engineering students but they never have sex because they don’t have the time, inclination or opportunity to do so
      (c) none of the male engineering students have the time, inclination or opportunity to have sex and therefore are not concerned about unplanned pregnancy
      (d) no engineering students believe in sexual relations before marriage and/or in birth control.

      In all cases, I think that your comment is misguided.

    • Engineers don’t want birth control? While I agree that we’re busy, having a baby would take up a lot more time. Or are you saying that engineers don’t have time to do what’s needed to make a baby? If so, I’m sorry, you must be extremely busy–engineering must have gotten much harder since I graduated! Or wait, are you saying that only the female students are responsible should they get pregnant? And if so, that female students aren’t engineers? Or…

      The drug plan and birth control coverage benefits a huge portion of the student population. I’ll just assume that you didn’t think before making that statement.

    • You know, most university plans don’t even cover female birth control.

  4. It’s nice to see some more students actively wanting to withdraw from the awful organization that CFS is. Talk about wasting students’ money. I imagine other faculties at these campuses might share similar concerns.

  5. And suddenly societies, which are much less accountable than the average student union(not always the case, U of T for example the Engsoc here is much better than the central union), are the authority on what engineering students want?

    Also Curbelo doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but what else is new. Just because you oppose the environmental damage the Tar Sands does doesn’t cause a job loss for Engineers. Arguably it creates more, as there might be a push to make more environmentally friendly processes for Tar Sands extraction.

    Really by his logic, Obama’s push for the electric hybrid car hurts engineers because hey, the Tar Sands might be stopped!

  6. I love whenever CFS comes up and you see their representatives preach about how you have to get involved if you want to change things… It’s not as if they actively attempt to squash any sign of dissent in their AGM’s, or are known for refusing to listen to referendums from Locals.

  7. Trent University is terrible for these sorts of issues. The student union consistently supports campus action that is against the academic freedom of the students under its “power”. These student unions are like little clubs that only let who they want in to them to prevent people outside of their circle of friends from having s say, and the school is unable or unwilling to interfere.

  8. Great to see that Mauricio is still bitter about not having his friends get elected to the students’ union. It must be all that democracy-crushing that happens when individuals freely cast their ballots, right?

    Also Zane, way to make up stats and cite an article by one of the worst writers on this blog. That totes helps your argument. You’ll make a great addition to the National Post one day – I hear they never bother with fact-checking, either. That 95% of engineers? Yeah, actually only like 20% of people even voted. And lower tuition fees and better government funding? Oooh, so radical…

  9. “The CFS is a radical national lobby group that advocates a number of anti-engineering stances such as being against tar sands development and defence spending”

    The CFS’ view on tar sands development is not at all anti-engineering. The entire point of being an engineering is to better society through solving problems. Being an engineering comes with a certain amount of responsibility which is what the iron ring on each engineers finger represents. The tar sands are an unsustainable and irresponsible resource and engineers should be focused on ways to lessen the exploitation of those resources, not further them. Any engineer that says otherwise is probably blinded by money.

  10. For all of you disillusioned with your student’s unions, please direct yourself to the MSU (McMaster Student’s Union). Not only do we not get involved in political action campaigns like the god-awful CFS (CASA FTW), but we focus mostly on improving services that we offer, and improving relationships with our Uni rather than antagonizing them

  11. One problem that I had as a student, was that the student association at my University, at that time, was run not by and for the students, but by and for the employees of the student union, who were long-haired radicals, left over from the ’70’s, and whose political views were not at all representative of the student body. Everybody has a right to their own political views obviously, but clearly the student association should be run by, and represent the students. Here’s a question for you. How many executive members of the CFS are actually students?

  12. Why is the CFS even involved in lobbing AT ALL? They have no business taking part in any political activities that do not directly affect students – like fees hikes, funding for schools etc. And even that is debatable. They should be focused on student-related activities within their schools, and that’s pretty much it. Anything beyond that should be funded by voluntary contributions by individuals that are interested in their particular causes.

  13. Has it occurred to anybody that transitioning away from fossil fuels towards a green economy would create thousands and thousands of jobs for engineers in new infrastructure and R&D?