Thursday, August 25, 2016
Last updated: 11 months ago

Student lobby movement prepares for provincial election

A protest in Victoria. Photo Emily Laing/The Nexus

A protest in Victoria. Photo Emily Laing/The Nexus

There are 54 days left until the provincial election. Do you know where your student lobby movement is?

Polls and pundits expect power in Victoria to change hands for the first time in over a decade. This is when major policy changes can happen: old priorities get thrown out and new ones replace them. Lobbyists on many fronts — industry, environment, K-12 education — are making their voices heard as parties prepare their platforms. But organizations representing post-secondary students haven’t made a major dent in the provincial conversation yet. So what does the post-secondary student movement want, and how do they hope to get it?

There are two B.C. organizations claiming to represent the interests of post-secondary students: the longstanding Canadian Federation of Students–BC (CFS-BC) and the nascent, decentralized Alliance of B.C. Students (ABCS). Both have markedly different goals and different approaches in talking to provincial decision-makers.

CFS-BC represents 16 schools across the province, fashioning their student association as numbered union locals. Their lobbying bent has long been left-wing and protest-driven, with rallies on the lawn of the Legislature and a constant push to grant students lower tuition. They count the B.C. Liberals’ decision to adopt a tuition cap in 2005 as a victory, but they’ve had little success in their lobbying efforts since then.

For the May election, they’ve adopted a slew of policy positions, from the classic hope of lower tuition to pushes about pipelines, oil tankers and the Idle No More movement.

The organization traditionally ran a brief, concerted lobby effort each March, where student union reps from across the province would travel to Victoria, hold a barrage of meetings with the government and stage a demonstration advocating against high tuition fees and student debt. But this year, they took a softer approach: rather than one big lobby blitz, they had student union representatives across the province meet directly with their MLAs and kept in regular contact with the Ministry of Advanced Education.

“It’s good to not be predicable. It’s important as student activists and lobbyists that you’re not becoming predictable to the very people that you’re lobbying,” said Kate Marriocchi, chair of CFS-BC.

But for some student societies, this change in direction from CFS-BC was too little, too late. The organization has courted a string of controversies in past years. In 2008, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s student association held a referendum to leave the CFS (both its B.C. arm and the national CFS organization, which does federal lobbying).

The CFS went to the B.C. Supreme Court to delay the vote, which was ultimately unsuccessful. The student societies at SFU and UVic were involved in years-long membership disputes, which both ended recently with the societies leaving the CFS.

Some student societies, like the UBC Students’ Union Okanagan, are beginning to distance themselves from the CFS while growing closer to the ABCS. Unlike the CFS, ABCS has no central staff or binding membership agreements, and they’ve pledged to stay out of student government elections.

“We’ve distanced ourselves away from the message the [CFS] uses. We do our own lobbying efforts here and we don’t really participate in any of the federation’s lobbying efforts,” said Curtis Tse, financial coordinator for the UBC Students Union Okanagan.

“[MLAs] are more than happy to meet with students, as long as they’re not on the front lawn with signs and chanting.”

Tse continued, “Because we’re still part of CFS, we haven’t fully jumped on board [with ABCS]. However, I know we are involved in the discussions.”

ABCS began over a year ago at UBC Vancouver (a non-CFS school) as the “Where’s The Funding” effort, a loose single-issue push many non-CFS schools across B.C. agreed on. They held a number of small campaigns, including sending “Valentine” cards to Victoria advocating for more post-secondary funding.

With a recent name change, the group now hopes to become a major voice in the provincial conversation. ABCS has fewer schools on board than the CFS, but there’s buy-in among the biggest in the province: UBC Vancouver, UVic, SFU, Langara College, UNBC, Kwantlen and University of the Fraser Valley, along with tentative agreements with BCIT and UBC-O. The group has adopted some less strident positions on the issues: rather than pushing to lower tuition by any means necessary, their hope is to first push the government to make a modest increase to post-secondary funding.

“CFS has some ideas that, I’d say, politically, we don’t agree with,” said Tanner Bokor, VP External of UBC’s AMS. “We have plans in the works to make [ABCS] much more active, much more visible, and really make it seen as the actual voice of students when it comes to [post-secondary] issues in this province.”

But despite their differences, both CFS-BC and ABCS are putting their effort in similar places as the election nears. Both say getting more students to vote is the top priority. CFS calls their get-out-the-vote campaign “Rock the Vote” and ABCS calls theirs “VOTE education,” but both have the same rationale: If more students vote, then the government is more likely to pay attention to their wishes.