Future engineers unhappy with student unions

Lobby groups tend to oppose major engineering employers

Engineering students at the University of Alberta (Chris Bolin for Maclean's)

Engineering students are different from other undergraduates. They have more hours of classes, more assignments and clearer career paths. While many undergrads face the prospect of unemployment or underemployment, engineers’ skills are in demand across many industries, from the resource extraction sector to the military.

But that career path is the source of conflict between engineering students and university student unions that they must pay fees to each year, which tend to align themselves against things like resource extraction and the military.

“A lot of engineering societies don’t have that close a relationship with their central student union,” says Lisa Belbeck, president of the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students (CFES), which claims to represent 60,000 engineering students and does not lobby governments.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), on the other hand, which claims to represent 600,000 students in dozens of student unions across the country, does take strong political stands.

Mauricio Curbelo, president of the University of Toronto’s Engineering Society, sees it as a problem that his school’s central union is part of the CFS. “The CFS is a radical national lobby group that advocates a number of anti-engineering stances such as being against tar sands development and defence spending,” he says. “Both of these are job creators for the engineering profession.”

At the University of Toronto, dissatisfaction between the Engineering Society and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) was very strong this year with 95 per cent of future engineers voting in a special referendum to divert their mandatory fees away from the UTSU. While the conflict remains unresolved (U of T Provost Cheryl Misak is setting up mediation in late summer following failed negotiations) the concerns expressed by Curbelo are being echoed across the country.

Kristina Kuffel, president of the University of Guelph’s Engineering Society, has similar issues with her student union. Recently, Guelph’s Central Student Association (CSA), which is still sympathetic to the CFS despite student votes to leave, sent a mass email encouraging students to phone political leaders to protest development of the tar sands. “I disagree with the CSA’s choice to endorse an event that could misrepresent the beliefs of their student membership on such a divided topic,” she says.

Ben Marriott, who runs the University of Manitoba Engineering Society, questions the utility of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, also a member of CFS. He says it has been providing fewer and fewer services over the years. “There isn’t really much, besides health and dental plans, that the student union can offer us that we don’t already, or could, provide to ourselves,” he says.

Jessica McCormick, chairperson of the CFS, stresses that all CFS campaigns are democratically decided upon by members. McCormick urged engineering students to get involved with their local students’ unions to try and change policies that they feel unfairly target their potential employers.

“Every local [union] is different, but there are always opportunities to bring motions forward or meet with executives if a student wants to change existing policy,” she says. At the national level, the CFS takes policy direction from student unions nationwide who come together for annual general meetings. “We don’t just make up policy,” she adds.

Not all engineering societies have a problem with their student union. Rose Ghamari, who holds a seat on the board of directors of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) and is also president of the Ryerson Engineering Student Society, says the two groups have a positive relationship and are planning several joint events this year. Ghamari says she’s not aware of any RSU or CFS campaigns that engineers would have a problem with and praises the RSU’s Consent is Sexy campaign, designed to reduce sexual assault, and their anti-tuition Drop Fees campaign.

However, the RSU is anti-military, having rejoined the Canadian Peace Alliance in January.

It’s not just CFS-affiliated unions that are under scrutiny. Elizabeth Croteau, chair of the board of operations and past president of the Dalhousie Undergraduate Engineering Society, has criticized the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU), which isn’t a member of the CFS, for its “radical ideas and platforms.” She says student unions don’t represent engineering students when they criticize the Canadian Forces and companies like Shell, which some students rely on for scholarships, summer jobs and future employment.

In general, says national engineering leader Lisa Belbeck, student unions across the country aren’t representing engineering students very well. “We kind of do our own thing.”

Zane Schwartz studies international relations at the University of Toronto where he’s news editor of The Varsity.

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