In addition to campus student unions, U of T students are represented by and pay fees to student governments at provincial, national, and more recently, international levels. As student governments grow in size and scope, student journalism must also grow to hold these supra-campus organizations accountable.
Supra-campus student governments can have significant impacts on students. Historically, the activism of provincial and national student unions has influenced policies to make postsecondary education more affordable. International student governments have helped influence policy discourse that can have far-reaching implications for education across multiple countries. At all levels, these organizations have provided services to improve the student experience.
However, like campus student unions, supra-campus student governments can also experience scandal. My research also leads me to argue that they tend to be more likely to collapse by being more tumultuous.
Since students pay fees to student governments beyond the campus level, they have a right to know how to amplify their voices and use supra-campus opportunities and movements. This is especially important since many supra-campus student governments do not have direct elections but elect their representatives via conference delegates instead. The average student usually cannot vote directly in supra-campus student government executive committee elections.
In my experience, it seems that the more removed a supra-campus student government is from the average student, the less students know about it. However, the opposite should be the case.
Absence of student journalism, loss of student government
The problem is that student journalism is not very present at these higher levels, and student journalism in Canada is no exception. One reason for this is that it may be difficult for campus student newspapers to mobilize resources for provincial, national, and international reporting.
Though the Canadian University Press (CUP) is a good start, it experienced financial hardships in recent years that resulted in the abolition of its national bureau and the reduction of its staff to one executive director and a board. More collaboration between student newspapers across national borders and resources via student levies may be needed for consistent reporting on supra-campus student governments. Student reporting — especially investigative reporting — is needed now more than ever when the number of student governments in the US, UK, and Canada and their longevity is in decline.
For example, the United States Student Association mostly collapsed in the 2010s after over 70 years of existence, leaving millions of students without united national representation — but this has largely gone unreported. If students are not reporting on these developments, the memory that supra-campus student governments were possible may quickly fade from student consciousness: leaving crucial student activism knowledge to be lost forever.
Collaborative journalism holds student governments accountable
Examples from professional journalism suggest that to report on wider issues, student journalism needs to scale up and develop its own supra-campus networks, to foster collaboration between student newspapers and more investigative reporting on what the larger student governments are doing.
There must be a regular dialogue between Canadian student newspapers about reporting on supra-campus issues. This will allow student newspapers to pool resources so that student journalists are not overwhelmed. Such communication channels already exist at the professional level for reporting on other levels of government: National Public Radio in the US leverages its network of journalists across hundreds of news stations for initiatives to make investigative reporting more feasible.
A step further would be to create independent supra-campus student news outlets or federations of campus student newspapers that can institutionalize provincial, national, and international reporting in daily operations. The latter already occurs in professional journalism, such as in Finland’s Lännen Media, which comprises a network of reporters from 12 newspapers and features a “joint news agency of a rotating slate of journalists producing national and international news.”
I call upon the student newspapers of Canada to work together to report on all levels of student politics that affect their readerships. Students must know what is happening to have an informed and effective voice in what supra-campus student governments do and how their money is being spent.
Student newspapers are vital in passing down the knowledge of what is possible to future generations of students, which is especially important given the high rate of student population and student representative turnover. If any supra-campus student government tries to bar you from its meetings, censors you, or refuses to provide information, let the world know so they can be held accountable.
The world needs to hear more student perspectives, and we student representatives can’t do it without you.
Justin Patrick is a third-year PhD student in educational leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He currently serves as the President of the Global Student Government and the President of the OISE Graduate Students’ Association.