By Tina Shaygan, February 20 2018 —
The Students’ Union president and vice-president external are tasked with advocating to all levels of government on behalf of students. Stephanie McLean, minister of Service Alberta and minister of status of women, and the Member of Legislative Assembly for the University of Calgary’s provincial riding is one of the key people that the SU advocates to. We sat down with to talk with her about her experiences with the SU, what she thinks the pressing issues are and how students can make change happen.
The Gauntlet: What has your relationship working with the University of Calgary Students’ Union been like?
Stephanie McLean: The strategy or the level of contact the SU members have with the MLA’s office definitely changes year to year. This past year, we developed more of a relationship with Whitney Hunter, the external communications specialist at the SU. This is probably the first time we’ve actually had a relationship with that role and it’s been one of our strongest relationships, which was unexpected. It’s very interesting because it’s helped us get more of an insight into what students’ needs are.
Certainly, the president and the vice-president external are tasked with doing government advocacy, so we hear from them on big-ticket issues that are essentially agreed upon points of advocacy through the Council of Alberta University Students. I found that they’re not necessarily advocating for the U of C specifically, but they’re advocating for students in general. In the past, I’ve had SU students advocate to me that Mount Royal University should have more funding for certain things. Whereas I appreciated having a relationship with Whitney in that it gave me an insight into what U of C students in particular need.
Gauntlet: What happens when SU representatives come to you to talk about certain issues? What is the process on your end?
McLean: They’ll typically request a meeting and we get an idea of what they want to talk about in advance and speak to Advanced Education to see if they have anything we need to be aware of on those issues and make sure we’re not giving misinformation. When they have points of advocacy, I inquire to see if they have already spoken to the minister of advanced education. If they have, I’m cognizant to have it on my radar if it comes to cabinet.
Gauntlet: What do you think have been some of the most important issues that students have been talking about? What do you think is the most important?
McLean: Year after year, the discussion around affordability of education is always a top issue. I think the reason is that there has been such instability and large cuts historically. Because CAUS is an organization that has history, it doesn’t matter who comes into the SU — they become educated about that fluctuating past funding. Market modifiers were a huge issue when I was at the U of C law school. Our government has provided stable funding, backfill funding and two per cent growth in funding year over year in order to freeze tuition so we can ultimately land on a long-term solution that provides long-term predictability and affordability.
Gauntlet: An issue that has come up is a proposed United Conservative Party policy to make students’ union membership non-mandatory. Some people who support this policy say if they’re not happy with their students’ union, they can’t do anything. What do you think of that?
McLean: Students’ unions change every year so you have an opportunity to elect new people. Frankly, that is an argument for more engagement. Like any democratic process, if you’re really displeased, maybe that is a sign that you ought to be stepping up and running. Even if you don’t get elected, you get the opportunity to define the issues for the election.
Ultimately, there is a lot of authority and power in the structures that exist in universities and the students are and ought to be the primary reason for the existence of our institutions. Students’ unions play a vital role in keeping that as a primary consideration for all the powers that be. I think the UCP suggestion that dismantling a students’ union would be a good thing for them to be able to axe tuition and not have a united voice that students could rally behind. It would certainly be a good thing for the UCP to not have student advocacy and this is a way to axe that grassroot voice.
Gauntlet: On a final note, how can students make change happen with the government? What is your advice?
McLean: I would say that skills of diplomacy are essential. But at the same time, I want to have clarity in the intentions behind what is being advocated for. There have certainly been ideological differences in various students’ unions that have been elected. Sometimes it’s not clear if they’re advocating for the students or if they’re advocating for administration or faculty or another university. Particularly as the MLA for the U of C, it’s my number one priority. It’s important to me to have some of that clarity and to know why they’re advocating for a particular position and I find that’s particularly lacking. The answer is often that it was determined by CAUS, but I’d like to know how it ties back to their local institution they’re elected to represent.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity.