CASA: Should we stay or should we go?
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On March 22, your Student Representative Assembly will decide whether or not to abandon associate membership status in the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
Although federal politics often seems like an abstract topic of no immediate relevance, in fact, student lobbying at a federal level can impact university funding, student financial aid, access to post-secondary education for aboriginal and international students, and a plethora of issues beyond student life.
The SRA’s vote might not affect you in an obvious way, but it will have a drastic effect on the MSU’s ability to make a national influence.
What is CASA?
CASA may seem like another acronym for an arbitrary organization that receives an insignificant portion of your student fee. But it is actually a huge federal lobbying organization made up of 22 student associations that include over 300,000 post-secondary students.
Since 2011, the McMaster Student Union has been a full member of CASA, meaning we have been able to send delegates to take part in General Assemblies, and we have paid membership fees totaling $2.40 per student. However, last year the MSU switched to associate member.
Jon Champagne, executive director of CASA, says there are many benefits of being a full member for McMaster students.
“CASA provides a venue whereby the MSU has the ability to set national priorities for students across Canada,” said Champagne.
CASA also provides resources to the MSU on policy issues and election campaign promotion materials.
“Another area is… that we are the eyes and ears of students in Ottawa,” said Champagne. He explained that CASA played a role in ensuring McMaster was able to secure on-campus polling booths for the upcoming federal election.
Federal advocacy (along with provincial advocacy) falls under the portfolio of Vice President (Education) of the MSU. The Silhouette caught up with the past four VPs to get their perspective on this decision.
“My year as VP Ed was our first year as full members… in my experience the amount of money students pay for CASA is not worth what we are getting back in terms of dividends,” said Alicia Ali, VP (Education) 2011-2012.
The recommendation of the current Board of Directors to the SRA is to abandon associate membership status, but to stay affiliated as observers.
“When you’re an observer you don’t have a say in any of the directions the organization has, but you are able to participate in some conferences and do some advocacy,” said Rodrigo Narro Perez, the current VP education.
“The concept of observer within CASA is not actually a formal status of membership,” said Champagne. “Based on historical practice within CASA, a member that has left CASA typically has not come back as observer.”
Narro Perez ultimately believes CASA is the best long-term option, but right now we need to leave to send a message.
“I do think that what we’re saying is that we’re on a break, very à la Ross and Rachel. You need to listen to what we’re saying, we have faith, you have done things. We’ve listed some of the changes.” said Narro Perez.
Maintaining some sort of federal presence is important for McMaster University.
Federal government decisions are particularly important for First Nation, Inuit, Metis and international students.
“The MSU always said that students come first and everything else comes after, so SRA members have to mind their rationalization for what they would say to a hypothetical international student or aboriginal student—those are two underrepresented groups on campus that can only be represented at a federal level, so if the MSU does not have any representation or advocacy happening, how are they representing those students?” said Huzaifa Saeed, VP (Education) 2012-2013.
Arguments for both sides
The criticisms of CASA by MSU members focus on two specific areas; the price of membership and the degree of influence the MSU is able to have relative to other schools.
The latter stems from the voting structure. CASA has 22 member schools, each with one vote. So despite McMaster’s student population being significantly larger than many other schools, as students we have a per capita smaller influence.
“The biggest problem with CASA… is that you have schools from coast to coast with very different interests,” said Ali. “The interests of a small school in New Brunswick are very different than a very large school in Ontario. It’s very hard to come to consensus to make sure everyone is getting what they want.”
The second criticism from the current BOD is the price of membership. Ali agrees.
“In terms of the amount of money that students were paying when I was a part of the MSU, I couldn’t see the value,” she said.
“We pay almost 10 percent of the fees compared to everyone but we only have 1 out of 22 schools’ vote,” said Osazuwa.
In total, if the MSU were to pursue full membership, we would pay $51,525, which is a smaller amount than what we historically have paid to OUSA.
The recommendation from the BOD to leave CASA stems from the need to make it clear these reforms are necessary for the MSU to contribute to CASA.
“Throughout the SRA meeting, throughout the report, we’re saying that CASA is an organization that is a good one in terms of federal advocacy, it’s just that right now they are not listening to some of the concerns that the MSU has in terms of the fee that we pay for the services that we get in comparison to other smaller schools that belong to CASA,” said Narro Perez.
However, some past VPs (Education) don’t share this concern.
“It seems that this year’s assembly is focused on a fee for service model, but the reality of external advocacy is a lot different than that. It’s hard to describe the service that you get for paying the fee. It is hard to quantify,” said Spencer Graham, VP (Education) 2013-2014.
Saeed, Graham’s predecessor, agrees. “In my years, the fee structure was never an issue because we just saw that as the price of advocacy.”
The arguments in favour of remaining with CASA emphasize the lack of viable alternatives and the support CASA would provide for promoting the upcoming federal election.
In 2011, when there was both a provincial and federal election, CASA’s support was a major asset.
“We were really helped by out CASA and [the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance] in 2011, the material that they gave us. From an economics perspective the cost savings are immense, because they can work on the website, they can work on the platform, they can work on all the handouts that you need,” said Saeed.
“Not being a member of any federal advocacy group is not something that I would like to see long term,” said Graham. “We have a lot of students… and I don’t think it’d be fair to them that we’re not engaging at the federal level as meaningfully as we could be.”
However, Ali thinks provincial lobbying is far more important than federal lobbying.
“Our resources are best placed, I think, with the province and that would be through OUSA,” said Ali.
But the SRA does not need to choose between provincial or federal lobbying; most schools do both.
The other options
If the MSU leaves CASA, we would have to decide whether it is okay to not be in any federal lobbying group or perhaps consider an alternative organization, like the Canadian Federation of Students.
But there is unanimous consensus among the past VP educations that The Silhouette talked to that CFS is not a desirable option.
“[CFS] is a road I don’t think the MSU needs to be going down. For a number of reasons, they violate student autonomy, they come to campuses uninvited,” said Graham.
CFS would also be a more expensive option compared to CASA.
However, the president-elect of the MSU and current SRA engineering representative Ehima Osazuwa says it is an option that should at least be considered.
“We shouldn’t shy away from having a discussion about CFS,” he said.
Meanwhile, although Narro Perez is recommending the SRA leave associate membership to simply become observers, he still thinks that long-term, CASA is the best option for the MSU.
“That would be the hope, that in one year [we would rejoin CASA], that [CASA] are willing to take us seriously,” said Narro Perez.
Another option is doing federal advocacy without being a part of a larger organization.
“I know in the past I’ve heard about people doing individual lobbying, so essentially as a student union booking a week to go to Ottawa, set up meetings with MPs, with Minister’s offices, with Canada Student Loans and lobby for the special interest of your university,” said Ali.
MSU and advocacy more broadly
This debate also speaks to the bigger issue of how much advocacy the MSU should be doing.
“The MSU, by my understanding, actually has the most number of services than any other student union that I’ve seen, and I think that leaves the advocacy work falling on just a few individuals,” said Graham. “If we want to see meaningful change from the university or the city of Hamilton or the province or the federal government, then we need to be better supporting our advocacy wing.”
Other schools prioritize advocacy to a degree that they have a full time position dedicated to lobbying.
“I’ve seen [other schools] do pretty well at the CASA table because their full-time delegates have been at the CASA table for six or seven years at least, so I think that for me moving in that direction where either you split the portfolio into the position of VP University Affairs and VP External and/or add a full time researcher would still allow us to be an active contributor at all three levels of government,” said Saeed.
Osazuwa is also a proponent of the idea of reshaping CASA through heavier MSU involvement.
“Maybe the MSU can take a leadership role in CASA and run for president… because CASA has more credibility than CFS and maybe we can set the direction for CASA,” said Osazuwa.
However, any such plan is limited by the advocacy resources of the MSU.
“It boils down to the bigger question of, is the [VP Education] something we can split into multiple roles, and that’s something I will definitely, definitely look into as President.”
In order to justify increased resources, the MSU will have to prioritize showing the unquantifiable benefits of advocacy.
“That’s probably the biggest problem, is that people aren’t able to see the value. If there was a more effective way for whoever is going to these conferences to come back and show value, that would be very different, and I think people would have a different perspective,” said Ali.
The SRA’s decision to stay or leave CASA might fly under the radar in the face of a new Board of Directors election. But students should engage with their representatives if they care about continuing to have their voice heard at the federal level.
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