Advocacy in a pandemic: your SAMRU REC is still hard at work!

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This message is an update regarding the work your Representation Executive Council (REC) has done regarding COVID-19, as well as a few other honourable mentions like tuition increase advocacy, as well as changes to the General Faculties Council (GFC) and to the post secondary education system.

In case you aren’t aware, your Representation Executive Council (REC) represents you (credit students of Mount Royal University) to Mount Royal University (academic and otherwise), to our student lobbying organizations (CAUS and CASA), to municipal, provincial, and federal governments, to the media, and to the public. In these areas, we have been hard at work representing and advocating for you regarding COVID-19.

From left to right: Camille Rhose Tabacla (VP Student Affairs), Carly Bullough (VP Academic), Rachel Timmermans (VP External), and Spirit River Striped Wolf (REC President)

Advocacy Items discussed in this Update: 

  1. Cross Portfolio Advocacy: Tuition Increases
  2. Academic Advocacy: Online Proctoring & Mandatory Webcam Use
  3. Academic Advocacy: Increased Student Voice in General Faculties Council
  4. External Advocacy: UPass and Discounted Bus Tickets
  5. External Advocacy: Federal COVID-19 Support for Students
  6. External Advocacy: Gov’t Changes to Post Secondary Education (Alberta 2030)
  7. Student Affairs Advocacy: Recreation and Athletics Fee

1) Cross Portfolio Advocacy: Tuition Increases

Before we get into everything, we need to address the tuition increases. In a nutshell, the provincial government removed the tuition freezes that were in place for 4 years, allowing post-secondary institutions to increase their tuition by 7% annually until 2023, at which point tuition would then be capped at the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The first increase was approved last year by the Mount Royal University Board of Governors, and your student representatives at the time advocated that the Board of Governors vote against those tuition increases. Unfortunately, the MRU Board approved the increases. Faced with that new reality, your student representatives advocated for a quarter of the revenue from the increased tuition to be allocated to bursaries for students (approx. $1 million), which was successful; the university has also committed to continue this initiative into the next round of tuition increases.

Learning from the experiences of last year, we are changing our approach and will not be advocating to the MRU Board of Governors to vote against the inevitable tuition increases because we know what the end result will be: increased tuition. A principal reason for why the MRU Board of Governors has been increasing tuition is because the government is significantly cutting funding to Mount Royal, as well as other post secondary institutions (PSIs). This reduction in government funding to the institution is resulting in a yearly shock to revenue. There are only two tangible means of addressing these yearly shocks: tuition increases and reductions of faculty and staff (however, faculty are protected under their collective bargaining agreements). Other avenues of addressing these shocks are negligible at best (e.g. donors are selective with their donations, student services only make up 13% of revenue, etc.). Therefore, tuition increases are the only realistic option left to MRU to cover this gap. We will continue to vote no to tuition increases at the MRU Board of Governors level that do not take into account the negative impacts on students.

Indeed, our frustration should not be directed to the MRU Board of Governors or to the university — our frustration should be directed to the Alberta Government because now students and faculty are facing the consequences of faulty post secondary education policies that were implemented over the previous decade and magnified by the current government’s funding cuts. You can expect to hear more updates on initiatives regarding our advocacy to the government on this matter very soon.

In terms of our advocacy to the university, we will continue to look for ways that students can be supported financially, whether that’s through bursaries and scholarships, or other solutions.

If you have any questions regarding the tuition increases, please contact your SAMRU REC President at president@samru.ca.

2) Academic Advocacy: Online Proctoring & Mandatory Webcam Use

Carly Bullough, REC VP Academic

The REC Vice-President Academic, Carly Bullough, sat on the Academic Working Group: a group responsible for implementing academic changes in response to the ramifications of COVID-19, such as the online delivery of courses. Your VP, Carly Bullough, prioritized student privacy and the need for compassion to students from the university during COVID-19. After numerous discussions and advocacy from REC, online proctoring and mandatory webcam use was majorly restricted. Online proctoring will only be used in courses that already used online proctoring before the pandemic. Mandatory webcam use was not enforced during fall, and faculty had to request permission to enforce mandatory webcam use during winter — of which no faculty did.

3) Academic Advocacy: Increased Student Voice in General Faculties Council (GFC)

In the summer of 2020, REC represented and advocated for students during the reform of the GFC, the highest academic decision-making body at MRU. Changes to the Alberta Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA) in February 2019 resulted in major updates to the GFC bylaws. Shortly after we started in our roles as your representatives, we got to work advocating to ensure student needs were considered in the updated bylaws. We wanted to ensure that students’ proportional representation on the council remained or increased. 

Prior to July 2020, there were 8 voting student members of GFC (with an additional 2 non-voting students) in a council of around 100 members. The new PSLA mandates that our GFC only needs 2 student members; a massive reduction in student representation at the highest academic level. This coupled with the fact that students are paying more in tuition, posed a big challenge: student representation shouldn’t be decreased, especially when we are paying more for our education. While the new GFC was being constructed, your REC VP Academic and President pushed for additional student members to increase the proportion of student representation. When the council was reduced to about 50 members, the number of voting student members remained at 8. This means that the student voice on the council had risen, even though the number of students remained the same. This was a win!

We also advocated for Indigenous members to be part of GFC. Although these members would not be students, we felt that Indigenous representation would ultimately assist in meeting the needs of Indigenous students on campus.

If you have any questions regarding student representation in academic affairs, feel free to contact your REC VP Academic at vpacademic@samru.ca.

4) External Advocacy: U-Pass and Discounted Bus Tickets

Rachel Timmermans, REC VP External

Your REC President, Spirit River Striped Wolf, was approached by the University regarding their choice to defer the U-Pass program until students returned to campus. Students indicated that tuition was (and is) a concern during this pandemic, and so your REC President endorsed the university to temporarily defer the program and remove the fee for students.

We realized upon doing this that a portion of students would still need to use the Calgary Transit System and another solution was necessary. Spirit River, along with members of the External team, met with city council members, student leaders, and with the university to find a solution. We originally advocated for granting wider access to the Fair Entry program to students who live with their guardians and might not otherwise qualify under the current system. Although this approach didn’t work, we learned of another Calgary Transit program that offered bus tickets at a 40% discount after having consulted with our colleagues at the University of Calgary Students’ Union. We approached MRU administration about this opportunity and they were able to acquire the same deal as U of C; however, it required a bulk purchase of the tickets and administration to distribute the tickets to students.

SAMRU stepped in, purchased the tickets, and made them available to students at the SAMRU Student Services Hub (Z222 in Wyckham House). Tickets can also be mailed to students directly (Click here to learn more about this program). This is just one more way SAMRU serves and represents students to help them succeed. 

5) External Advocacy: Federal COVID-19 Support for Students

Did you know that SAMRU is a member of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA)? This is a federal student advocacy group that represents post secondary students across Canada to the Federal Government. Through CASA, and the collective efforts of our counterparts in students’ associations across Canada, we have been busy advocating to the Federal Government to ensure that you are supported through the unique challenges posed by COVID-19 and into the future.

Some advocacy highlights include the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), a substantial increase in the Canada Student Grant for the 2020-21 academic year, and additional funding and support for Indigenous students. There is so much more we’ve done (and continue to do) for Mount Royal students and students across Canada! Go here to learn more about the efforts of CASA.

Besides COVID-19 advocacy, the major priorities of CASA this year involved:

  • expanding access to trade re-skilling;
  • reducing mental health barriers for Indigenous post-secondary students;
  • streamlining the ability for international students to work in Canada;
  • improving access to affordable childcare; and
  • increasing the Canadian Research Granting Agencies student scholarship funding.

Together with other student leaders across Canada, we advocated directly to federal ministers, MPs and senators on these issues and will continue to do so. 

Of note, your SAMRU REC President, Spirit River Striped Wolf, was elected to sit on the CASA Board of Directors as the Director-at-large for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) which requires him to chair the EDI Committee. He also assisted in developing the “reducing mental health barriers for Indigenous post-secondary students” advocacy ask! Also of note, your SAMRU REC VP External, Rachel Timmermans, was elected to sit on the Governance and Internal Review Committee and the Federal Policy Committee. Learn more about CASA Committees here!

6) External Advocacy: Gov’t Changes to Post Secondary Education (Alberta 2030)

Provincially, SAMRU is a member of the external advocacy group, the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) and another focus for the SAMRU REC this summer included reviewing and responding to the Alberta 2030 review of Post Secondary Education. Through CAUS, we collaborated with other student leaders from universities across Alberta on a series of submissions that demonstrate to the Alberta government the most important components of our post-secondary education system and the experiences that bring students the most value. This advocacy is ongoing and we will continue to update students as we hear more about the direction the government is taking us in. Please go here to learn about our submission regarding Alberta 2030!

If you have any questions regarding external representation, feel free to contact your REC VP External at vpexternal@samru.ca.

7) Student Affairs Advocacy: Recreation and Athletics Fee

Camille Rhose Tabacla, REC VP Student Affairs

The Recreation and Athletics Fee is a mandatory fee that pays for the specific services related to recreation and athletics at MRU. Due to COVID-19 restrictions for in-person classes, we considered advocating for a reduction in the cost of the Recreation and Athletics fee, particularly after hearing from students with concerns about their finances during this time, the limited access to Recreation, and the fact that Athletics teams would not be operating this year. In light of this, we met with MRU President, Tim Rahilly, and Vice-Provost and Associate VP Students, Phil Warsaba, to discuss student concerns about the Recreation and Athletics fee.

As student leaders, our job is to represent students and advocate for their best interests. Part of this work occurs after a decision is made and involves digging deeper to get more details and asking decision makers to explain their reasoning behind decisions that affect us as students.  During this process, we may glean additional information that influences or changes our advocacy approach. This was one of those situations.

After some consideration and deliberation, we understood the necessity of the continued collection of the fee; these facilities need to be maintained to allow for both recreational and academic use for the MRU community into the future. In other words, it is not just a gym pass. Courses, like Health and Physical Education, Nursing and Athletic Therapy would have been affected. And without regular maintenance, some parts of the facilities would not be usable long after the pandemic ended, such as the pool.

Other considerations that influenced our view of the Recreation and Athletics Fee were things like job losses, the elimination of sports teams, and reduction of scholarships. One request we had was for the university to provide this information to students.

Currently, we are monitoring the current lock down (as of January 2021) and its impact on the current use of the recreational facilities. If students are unable to use the facilities for an extended period during this Winter semester, we will continue our conversations with the university regarding possible partial refunds/rebates/compensation for students.

If you have any questions regarding representation in student affairs, feel free to contact your REC VP Student Affairs at vpstudentaffairs@samru.ca

Please stay safe and keep updated on all of our advocacy on our new twitter account @samrurec!

Yours Truly,

The 2020-21 Representation Executive Council:
President Spirit River Striped Wolf, president@samru.ca 
VP Academic Carly Bullough, vpacademic@samru.ca 
VP External Rachel Timmermans, vpexternal@samru.ca 
VP Student Affairs Camille Rhose Tabacla, vpstudentaffairs@samru.ca

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