Highlighting students’ concerns
Between essays, mid-terms and the social demands that come along with university, most students don’t have time to look into the government’s effect on their education. That’s where Sean Madden comes in.
Madden, vice president of university affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, recently took up the post as president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), a policy think-tank and lobby group aimed at looking out for the interests of undergrads and advocating for them with the government.
While OUSA isn’t quite a household name with most students, Madden stressed it’s importance when it comes to dealing with government.
“A lot of students might not appreciate that some of the problems in post secondary education come from a flawed or a misapplied policy and that it can be corrected through some channel of government relations,” he said. “Obviously I’m speaking with a bit of a bias, but I think we’re very effective at our policy research…. We’ve been called upon to work with the government and we provide them with research from the student perspective that they might not otherwise have.”
Despite the work OUSA does Madden acknowledged the chief concern of the organization is increasing its presence amongst its membership which totals about 145,000 students from nine schools’ students’ unions and assemblies.
“Our biggest challenge has probably been engaging the everyday student on the ground,” said Madden. “Seeing what we do for them and encouraging them to self-advocate and set our priorities for us, it’s really the largest stumbling block for any organization like this, member relations…. We want to be able to communicate with our members a lot more effectively, build a more member driven process.”
In addition to increasing exposure, Madden also wishes to take OUSA in a slightly different direction than in the past.
“I really want to promote a directional shift to quality of education,” he said. “I think for the last couple of the years the focus has been on access to education, whether that be through financial aid or reaching out to the really under-represented groups and while that fight is definitely not one that we’ve won, we’ve definitely made tremendous progress with it.”
“The number one concern now for students in the post secondary education system is the value of a degree. Students are asking ‘am I getting my money’s worth? ‘Is it delivering on all those guarantees of personal return on investment?”
This fall, OUSA will have a prime opportunity to both increase its exposure and show its worth to students. With the provincial election on the horizon, OUSA intends to be very involved in promoting the student vote and spreading information on election issues.
“We’re going to need to get out on campuses and reinforce that an organization like this is important at a time like this because we are the students’ voice to the politicians,” said Madden. “So we’ll be encouraging the student vote in a non-partisan way but also using [the election] as a chance to highlight what OUSA does.”
In an effort to make education a main issue prior to October’s election, OUSA has commissioned a public opinion poll that will be done in September asking questions such as ‘is education an issue for you?’ And, ‘would you vote based on education?’ They also intend on starting a non-partisan website that will outline each party’s platform on post-secondary education, as well as holding election workshops on member campuses.
When the election hits in October, according to Madden, OUSA has gotten Elections Ontario to commit to a polling station on each of its member campuses.