By Russell Glenn, March 22 2019 —
Even compared with the low bar set in recent years, turnout in the recent Students’ Union General Election was disappointing. Only 21.1 per cent of students cast ballots, not even reaching the approximate 25 per cent that has become the norm. This isn’t just something to shake your head at — low student engagement has real consequences for the SU and the student body. This year’s election indicates that the problem is only getting worse.
The SU should start looking for ways to better engage students. Specifically, they should attempt to boost turnout and reduce acclamations in next year’s election. One strategy, albeit unconventional, is to reduce the number of faculty representatives to one per faculty.
Currently, students are represented on the Students’ Legislative Council (SLC) based on the number of students in each faculty, with faculties receiving one representative for every 2,000 students. This means that faculties with large student populations, like arts and science, elect multiple representatives while smaller faculties, like kinesiology or social work, elect only one.
On its face, it seems like a good system. After all, why shouldn’t faculties with more students have more representation and influence on the SU?
But there are several compelling reasons to reduce the number of representatives on SLC to only one per faculty.
First, there is no practical reason to represent students on SLC based on population size. Consider why we have representation based on population in a city like Calgary. A large, diverse population spread over a large area means that the population has correspondingly diverse interests that must be represented. But it’s ridiculous to provide this level of representation in the context of university students. Unlike the population of Calgary, the university student body represents a relatively small, homogeneous demographic with similar interests across faculties. Good SU policy for a science student is not substantially different from good SU policy for a nursing student.
As well, giving faculties equal representation would provide a counterbalance to the outsized influence large faculties wield in electing the SU executive. The entire student body votes for the SU president and vice presidents. This means faculties with more students play a bigger role in electing candidates to those positions by virtue of there being more voters in those faculties. Evening out the number of representatives per faculty would yield fairer representation for smaller faculties, which play a smaller role in electing the executive.
Most importantly, reducing the number of faculty reps would make for better elections in the large faculties. Elections with multiple positions are up for grabs are less competitive. This is because candidates don’t need to work as hard to win a seat. If I’m running for arts rep in a six-candidate field, I don’t need to be the best to win — I just need to be less bad than the bottom two contenders.
By reducing the number of faculty reps to one per faculty, the SU could create more competitive elections. This would have several important effects. Candidates in the large faculties would have to differentiate themselves more. Running for one position in a six-candidate field means you have to show that your policies are different and better than your opponents’, making for more varied and creative platforms. Further, it would give candidates an incentive to campaign harder to win their position, thus increasing student engagement with the election. Finally, the candidate who comes out on top would be better-known by students, making them a more effective representative — students are more likely to approach their faculty rep if they know who they are.
Even if you don’t buy into the idea that reducing the number of faculty reps is a good way to increase student engagement, the SU still needs to start identifying strategies to engage students. A 21.1-per-cent voter turnout in an election where most major positions were contested is a stinging rebuke of the SU’s ability to engage students. The newly elected SU should try to do better.