Questions have arisen about the real impact of the political and social advocacy work undertaken by students.
In the midst of a prorogued Parliament and in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, students have taken to Facebook and other media outlets to vent their frustration and affect change. Such movements are symptoms of a larger trend in student activism that charities and political groups have attempted to tap into.
“One of the elements we have within our fundraising and advocacy campaigns are many fundraising clubs found on different campuses,” Cathy Memah, manager of community partnerships and events for UNICEF Canada, said. “Those have always been a really effective way for students to participate.”
According to Memah, every donation helps UNICEF meet its goals regardless of the amount.
Moreover, student advocacy in the political realm has seen success according to Ontario University Students Alliance president Dan Moulton.
“When I say that [the government] is listening, I really mean that they’re listening. Student activism means a lot when it comes to communicating our issues to the government,” Moulton said. “This government does care.”
However, Moulton also mentioned that it was hard to know what exactly becomes tangible policy out of the input given to government officials by OUSA.
“We’ve been pushing the government for technology investment and we saw the textbook and technology grant come into play,” Moulton explained in reference to the past successes of OUSA. “We saw grants for rural students because we’ve made our case clear we feel that rural students need support getting their foot in the door when it comes to coming to university.”
Some, including Kane Faucher, associate professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western, doubt the influence of student advocacy.
“Given the conditions of our current political regime, where anyone associated with intellectualism is marginalized or ridiculed, it is unlikely any changes will occur from student activism unless they make their convictions known at the ballot box,” Faucher said.
In Faucher’s view, social media and activism should be aimed at making students more inclined to vote.
Mike Roslan, a third-year chemistry student at Western, echoed these sentiments. He doubted the impact of student attempts to raise funds for charity or awareness.
“I don’t think it makes a difference. I never hear of any positive results from any Canadian student group,” he said.
Roslan also mentioned that joining a Facebook group for various charitable causes makes absolutely no difference.
“There is a big debate in political science over the effectiveness of different types of protests and activism,” Dietlind Stolle, associate professor of political science at McGill University, said. “When it comes to easy forms of activism like joining a Facebook group suddenly people are asking ‘how effective is it anyway?’”
Stolle stated that the effectiveness of groups responsible for co-ordinating activist events can be measured in different ways. She added the most obvious measure of effectiveness is whether or not a group fulfilled its original goal, which could be simply showing dissatisfaction.
“They may be successful in showcasing their political opinion but not necessarily successful in bringing about the policy change or the end goal of their endeavours.” Stolle added. “To measure the effectiveness in a broader sense, let’s ask to what extent do these [activities] raise general awareness.”
Moreover, she referred to the prorogation of Parliament as an example of a campaign in which the goal may not be to directly change policy.
“We cannot really change Stephen Harper’s decision, but that may not be the goal of the protest […] it is a more symbolic goal of showing our dissatisfaction and that may be a better measure of effectiveness,” she said.
Some students, however, believe on-campus activism and student-run charitable activities do have a positive impact.
“I think it is quite effective,” Shawn Hendrikx, a third-year political science student at Western, said. “If you are in a student group you have a forum to communicate.”