By Kristy Koehler, May 14 2020—
On May 12, the 78th Students Legislative Council held a marathon meeting that clocked in at two hours and 45 minutes.
The newly-elected team of student leaders, led by Students’ Union president Frank Finley, got right to work. Finley noted that students are expecting SLC to work hard to manage the multitude of issues that are on the table as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re coming into office at a pretty unique time,” acknowledged Finley. “We have 25,00 peers relying on us and I don’t think we have any choice but to be exceptional during this time.”
SLC met via Zoom as social distancing measures still prevent face-to-face meetings in the council chambers. There were no technical issues and the group navigated formal meeting etiquette with ease despite their relative inexperience and the less-than-ideal online platform.
The first item on the agenda saw provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall invited to the table to discuss the University of Calgary’s Global Engagement Strategy, alongside vice-provost international Janaka Ruwanpura, deputy provost Florentine Strzelczyk, vice-provost student experience Susan Barker and senior director of academic and international strategies Christine Johns.
The new Global Engagement Plan is going through a final round of consultation before making its way to the General Faculties Council for approval. Marshall discussed the university’s original International Strategy which drove the institution’s plan for internationalization from 2013 until the end of last year.
At a high level, the plan had four goals. The first goal was to increase the diversity of the campus community and to increase the percentage of international undergraduate students from five per cent to 10 per cent.
Marshall noted that Calgary is the third most diverse city in Canada and that building global and cross-cultural competencies, the second goal of the original strategy, is very important. The third goal involved enhancing academic and research partnerships and collaborations and the fourth was to focus on international development. The strategy, according to Marshall, was successful “by almost any metric.”
The university achieved its international enrolment targets with 10.6 per cent international enrolment at the undergraduate level and 29.4 per cent at the graduate level.
“We wanted to increase international targets, not for money, which many schools have done, but this was really about ensuring we had a broader understanding of culture and recognizing that international students that enrich our campus life in a way we would not be able to do without them here,” said Marshall.
The university set a target to have 50 per cent of students participate in outbound international experiences. The actual numbers came in closer to 25 per cent, which is amongst the highest in Canada.
Ruwanpura discussed the new plan, which encompasses 2020–25. The overarching goal, he said, is “to further develop the University of Calgary’s reputation as a global intellectual hub.” He gave some comparisons between the existing strategy and the new plan, noting that increasing diversity on campus remains the number one goal.
An increased focus is being placed on having international experiences domestically and enhancing global partnerships. Ruwanpura noted that students at U of C learn from international students and that the new plan fits in during this time of COVID-19 as it will open the door to “some very creative opportunities regarding internationalization at home.”
Marshall stressed that the plan is about “creating globally engaged citizens.”
Vice-president external Marley Gillies pressed Marshall about increased international student tuition, to which Marshall responded that this year marked the first time it had increased in six years.
“Our international tuition was way below the Canadian average and will remain so even after the tuition increases this year,” said Marshall.
She also re-committed to 15 per cent of international tuition that comes in going directly into scholarships and bursaries for students. Barker noted the new dedicated support staff that are available to international students, including a specific career advisor to assist with CVs, interviews and staying in Canada should the student wish, as well as staff at the Student Success Centre that specialize in working with international students.
Both Marshall and Barker reiterated that the international student experience is critically important, partly because the students make excellent ambassadors for the university when they return home, but also because they assist in helping others graduate with an understanding and appreciation of culture so they can operate in a globally connected world.
When it came time for questions, SLC members had plenty. Faculty of Arts representative Caitlin Hornbeck didn’t so much have a question as a comment and suggestion. She asked the administration to remain cognizant of the barriers that students may run into in pursuing international learning experiences. She wanted to provide “a reminder or a suggestion” that the marker by which the university measures students’ international experiences “needs to include issues such as racism, ableism and the prohibitive nature of expenses when it comes to studying abroad.”
“I would encourage those things to be front of mind when discussing the access that students may have to international learning experiences,” said Hornbeck. “I think particularly accessibility is something that needs to be looked at, especially when planning group study products.”
Marshall agreed and stated that the university remains focused on equity, diversity and inclusion.
Haskayne School of Business representative Shagufta Farheen asked how internationalization could take place at home.
“This was a really important shift for us to make for a variety of reasons,’ said Marshall, noting that sustainability was an important intersection with the goal and that students having an authentic experience at home if they could not get away was part of that intersection.
Strzelczyk offered her perspective on the topic.
“The idea of internationalization at home has been around for quite some time,” she said. “It’s rooted in the idea that not everybody has the opportunity to travel and that there are valuable ways to immerse yourself in a different culture at home. In our current situation and with the rise of sustainability, internationalization at home is becoming more of a focus.”
After a lengthy consultation and question period, Marshall and her colleagues, with the exception of Ruwanpura, stayed for a second round of consultation regarding the Fall 2020 semester’s course delivery.
Marshall wanted to hear the “hopes and expectations for fall term.”
“You can expect some announcements coming out shortly on the overarching plan but I’m really interested to hear from you,” expressed Marshall.
A lengthy speaker list formed and SLC members seemed keen to pass along the perspectives of students in their faculties.
Concerns ranged from how internships and co-op placements would work should class delivery be moved online to financial considerations and the students’ home environments being potentially prohibitive to adequate learning.
Some SLC members brought forward hopes that the delivery of courses could be more uniform across faculties and departments so that all students have the same experience. The conversation then turned to the merits of the credit/fail system put in place and the “perception of the breaks that have been given to students.”
Marshall noted that she “appreciated the frankness” of the student leaders.
Gillies directly asked for student representation on the Academic Crisis Management Team that has been formed and wanted Marshall to address whether she saw any benefits to moving forward “with creating that opportunity for the student voice.”
“We’ll take that under advisement,” was Marshall’s response.
Vice-president student life Assad Ali Bik stated his hope that “students are not only considered but adequately consulted before any plans are set in motion.”
“Some parts of this there will be no consultation on — we are bound by medical officer health guidelines and rules and so there are some things that we would like to do differently and we’re just not going to be able to. It’s really important for me to say that up front,” said Marshall.
It was also asked whether or not tuition would be decreased if the university did intend to move online for the fall semester.
“Tuition will not change if we go online for the fall. The one thing that might change is some of the fees,” responded Marshall.
Marshal noted that she had been hearing “tremendous concern” about the ability to graduate and asserted that the university was committed to helping students as well as ensuring high academic standards.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of really traumatic experiences that people are going through […] whether that be health-related, financially-related or just being in a very toxic environment at home,” said Ali Bik. “So, what I hope to see going back is a reintegration process, and not just throwing everyone back into school pretending like this pandemic never happened. I’m all for business as usual but maybe that business as usual should be left in 2019 and we should move forward a little more compassionate and better than we were.”
Barker acknowledged that all of this has been “extremely stressful” for students.
“We all have a churn in our stomachs because we don’t know what the future is going to look like,” she said.
Marshall and her colleagues agreed to stay for much longer than planned, fielding questions and responding to comments and suggestions.
Ultimately, SLC was assured that safety and security of students and community members is absolutely critical.
After the consultations ended and the invited guests departed from the meeting, SLC resumed its normal business, hearing an update from Finley and the other executives.
Finley noted that there are 500 international students still living in residence, that Varsity Pharmacy has given Market Mall pharmacy permission to access their files through a secure network so that students can have access to their prescription medication and that there is plenty of work to do in the coming weeks.
Finley paused the meeting just before 9:00 p.m., acknowledging the month of Ramadan and those who may need to leave to observe sunset prayers and break their fast.
Questions around the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and how to best answer student questions came from SLC and Finley advised the student leaders to become as familiar as possible with the process of application and the available supports.
Faculty of Arts representative Justin Gotta mentioned that the window for writing exams in the Spring/Summer intersession seems to have been reduced from 48 hours to three. Whereas in the fall exam period students had two full days in which to open an exam and a two hour window to complete it once opened, there now seems to be a three hour time frame to open an exam and a two hour window to complete it once opened. Finley noted that no official announcements had been made about this and he would be following up.
Gillies updated the group that she had been elected vice-chair of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS).
Aly Samji, from the Haskayne School of Business noted that he and counterpart Farheen have created a new Instagram account @suuofc_hasykayne for students to follow.
Agendas, minutes and upcoming meetings for SLC can be found online.