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Op-ed: International student government is necessary for meaningful advocacy

History, relevance, and how you can take action
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A unified national voice benefits all students. MIA CARNEVALE/THE VARSITY
A unified national voice benefits all students. MIA CARNEVALE/THE VARSITY

For much of U of T’s history, students could access information about student politics at campus, provincial, and national levels. There also exists an international level of student politics that offers unique opportunities and can have lasting impacts on student life.

Student government at the international level provides incredible potential for student activism. It could make it so student unions can do more than make statements of solidarity for international crises, such as the University of Toronto Students’ Union statement on Sudan in 2019. They would be able to take action and actually create change.

From an advocacy standpoint, an international level of student politics can provide a network of knowledge and experience that could result in more informed policy proposals put forward by student governments at all levels. 

Moreover, international systems of student service provision could greatly improve student life by supporting or supplementing services offered by campus and national student governments, which could be particularly beneficial for students in low-income countries.

In addition, a student government representing a significant proportion of the more than 216 million students enrolled in postsecondary education worldwide — as reported in 2016 — could have better opportunities to influence policy proposals in different branches in the United Nations, since a number of existing international student governments have consultative status with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  

The benefits of such advocacy cannot be understated. However, as of now, it may seem as if international student groups are unprecedented, but there is a strong history of international representation as well as current efforts to form a strong international student union.

A brief history

International student governments can be traced back to the early twentieth century, with organizations like the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants that promoted cross-border dialogue and some small services like aid for student groups. After World War II, the International Union of Students (IUS) was formed to ensure more global student representation as opposed to its more Eurocentric predecessors and to prevent resurgences of fascism.

The IUS soon became embroiled in Cold War politics. After communist countries gained a majority on the IUS executive, the national student government in the United States withdrew. 

By the 1950s, a US-backed organization, the International Student Conference (ISC), had formed and seemed to counter the now Soviet-supported IUS. These two giant student governments clashed until the ISC collapsed in 1969, with Cold War tensions largely preventing either organization from developing significant improvements to student movements.

The IUS persisted through the late twentieth century as a mainly Soviet apparatus until the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, a number of non-communist countries’ national student governments, including the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), rejoined or maintained involvement in the IUS, but systemic issues like an unreliable funding model plagued it. 

The CFS supported the IUS by contributing to its communication operations, including  providing the IUS with an email account. However, these efforts proved to be unsuccessful, and the IUS has gone largely silent, with its website last updated on  November 18, 2002.

Division, isolation, and new hopes

Other student governments rose to fill the representation gap in the midst of the IUS’ decline and collapse. In Africa, Europe, and Latin America, continental student unions had been able to form in the late twentieth century and maintain intracontinental communication. Similarly, the Commonwealth Students’ Association now offers opportunities for some intercontinental student collaboration. 

On top of these, a parallel system of international subject-based student governments has formed that combines student advocacy with academic and professional development services, interacting through the Informal Forum for International Student Organisations

Despite these efforts to foster multilateralism, student governments in other countries and continents have suffered. For instance, in Canada, the national student movement is divided between multiple national and provincial student unions. 

In Australia, voluntary student unionism like the recently repealed Student Choice Initiative in Ontario has taken effect, which has limited, or, in some cases, completely eviscerated student government operations. 

Furthermore, there are no continental student governments for Asia, North America, or Oceania involving all students of all subjects. As of 2016, 51 per cent of countries in the British Commonwealth do not have national student governments.

There are two current initiatives to create organizations like the IUS. There is the recently created Global Student Forum (GSF), which the CFS is involved with. There is also the Global Student Government (GSG) initiative, which largely involves international subject-based student governments whose constituencies overlap with U of T students in certain fields.

While the GSF and GSG are still in their early stages, U of T students could hypothetically be represented by the GSG if they join an international subject-based student government as an individual or through their departmental student association. 

What you can do to influence international student politics

U of T students can advocate for a more international focus within their campus student unions by contacting their local student representatives to ask for updates on international initiatives or by sharing ideas and concerns about what they want to see at the international level that can be voiced at higher levels of student government. Student journalists can report on news and issues pertaining to international student governments to keep students informed. 

Students running in campus student union elections can include visions for international student politics in their platforms to bring the international front into election debates and dialogues. Student representatives can reach out to their counterparts in other countries to explore possibilities for collaboration.

International and exchange students, who may have connections with student unions in multiple countries, may be able to connect student representatives to help facilitate such collaborations.

In the midst of COVID-19, international cooperation is needed more than ever, and students need to be part of the way forward. Students have the power to influence major international decisions. An international student government is a way to make that happen.

Justin Patrick is a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is the president of the International Association for Political Science Students. He served as the internal commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union from January to April 2019. He was also a governance and policy analyst for the University of Toronto Students’ Union from June to September 2019.