UMSU Executive Fall 2020 Term in Review

By UMSU Executive Committee 

In too many ways to count, both good and bad, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. The global coronavirus pandemic has both pushed students apart, yet also brought us together.

As your elected UMSU executive team, we have been faced with challenges that none of us could have ever anticipated when we decided to run as candidates. And yet, it has been an honour each and every day over the past eight months to be able to work on behalf of all of UMSU’s 26,000 members by advocating for student interests, providing valuable services, and helping connect students with one another.

Throughout that time our efforts have been rooted in three main themes – building community, strengthening advocacy, and adapting to new technology. Here is what we have accomplished.

UMSU Executive Committee 2020/2021. Photo: UMSU

Building Community: Bringing UMSU together while being forced to stay apart

The pandemic has revealed first and foremost the importance of community in our lives, having taken away – for now – our ability to meet and gather with one another. In doing so, it has prompted us as executives to reflect upon and re-evaluate the ways in which U of M students connect with each other, and made us more appreciative of the solidarity that students have with one another. The disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic has also revealed opportunities and the necessity for us to strive to build our communities in ways that are more representative and inclusive.

UMSU has long believed that at the University of Manitoba this should begin with supporting Indigenous students and recognizing Indigenous cultures. Located on Treaty 1 land and home to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the U of M is uniquely positioned to be a leader in closing education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. At the same time, UMSU has continued to push the U of M to use its size and influence to champion the promotion and prioritization of Indigenous issues, and also amplify Indigenous voices.

UMSU held its second annual Indigenous Students Month in November, and played a major role in collaborating with Indigenous student activists to push for an Indigenous content requirement in B.A. degrees, which was passed by the U of M Senate that same month. At the provincial level UMSU has been lobbying the Government of Manitoba through meetings with both the minister of finance and minister of economic development and training to improve the ACCESS program – a special financial and academic aid program meant for Indigenous, northern and low-income learners to overcome barriers to post-secondary education.

Indigenous Students Month was highlighted by the U of M adopting a new Indigenous course requirement for Bachelor of Arts degrees.

Meanwhile, the inability for students to be in their natural learning environment on campus has taken its toll on student mental health. An UMSU survey of its members in June found that over half of U of M undergraduate students report their mental health worsening as a result of the pandemic.

With this in mind, UMSU expanded its former fall term mental health week into a mental health month, running mental health awareness-raising events, workshops and giveaways throughout October. Each week was themed according to different aspects of mental health, with week one focusing on mental health resources and week two focusing on intersectional issues. Week three focused on helping students gain a better understanding of the meaning of wellness while placing an emphasis on the supportive role of mindfulness and building healthy habits.

Going forward, UMSU is poised to continue to help streamline UMSU and university-provided health services.

Over the summer we worked hard to improve coverage provided under UMSU’s health and dental plan, resulting in additional coverage for visits to mental health practitioners, physical therapists, and chiropractors.  Knowing the toll that the ongoing stress and uncertainty is causing for students, we as executives intend on pushing for the removal of academic barriers for students seeking mental health supports and lobbying for more spaces for group counselling workshops, while also continuing to provide feedback on the Student Counselling Centre’s (SCC) service delivery model.

The latter focus will factor into UMSU’s recommendations for university’s 2021/2022 budget. UMSU proposals this past winter led to a $300,000 increase in the SCC’s budget for 2020/2021, marking its first effective funding increase in a decade.

We also believe that healthy sexuality is an important part of mental and physical wellbeing, and that students should be empowered to embrace their sexuality without fear of being stigmatized.

For that reason, we were proud to continue our work alongside campus advocacy group Justice for Women this year in providing consent culture training to over 70% of leaders of student associations, while also adding additional workshops to accommodate each and every U of M Bisons sports team. Given this proven capacity, and the valuable role that Bison athletes play as de facto student leaders in our community, UMSU is working to ensure these workshops become an annual requirement for Bison athletes.

Internally, UMSU has been hard at work to update our policies and governance model to reflect changing priorities and realities, with an emphasis on improving the union’s transparency. Throughout the fall term the UMSU Board of Directors debated and ultimately approved significant structural changes to the board in an effort to improve its decision-making ability and effectiveness. Most notable among these changes is the reduction of the board’s size from over 35 directors down to 11 directors, to now be appointed by a vote of all UMSU members in March each year.

Indeed, UMSU’s membership, comprised of undergraduates at the University of Manitoba, is one of the most diverse student populations in all of Canada. UMSU is committed to ensuring that student voices are heard and that administration is held accountable on its promises to make the U of M a more inclusive campus environment. All students should feel assured that their chosen place of higher learning is also a safe space that will empower them to achieve their goals.

UMSU modelled this behavior through the creation of the Black Students’ Union as a community organization for students who self-identify as Black, alongside creating a Black Students’ Representative on the UMSU board. UMSU’s Board of Directors in December also passed a motion to formally add the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism as the official definition the Union upholds within its position statement on achieving an equitable campus.

Meanwhile, to ensure that all 206 student clubs at the U of M receive equal support, a decision was made in November to cancel all permanent student club space areas in University Centre and the Helen Glass Building. Instead a booking on-demand system has been created that makes space available to all student groups, as well as students collaborating on group projects that need space to work.

Standing up for Student Interests: UMSU advocacy during the Fall 2020 Term

As if being a university student wasn’t already difficult enough, the emergence of COVID-19 and the threat of a possible second faculty strike in four years presented a host of new challenges in terms of making post-secondary education accessible and ensuring U of M students are provided with high-quality learning environments.

That is why we have been constantly engaged with both the U of M administration and all three levels of government – the City of Winnipeg, Government of Manitoba and federal government in Ottawa.

The widespread shift to online learning as a result of the pandemic quickly revealed that not all students have a home study environment conducive to their success. Based on UMSU’s June COVID-19 member survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they were concerned how strained family relationships, a presence of young siblings, noisy nearby construction, and lack of broadband internet at home might negatively affect their studies.

To help those in need, UMSU immediately got to work convincing the university to make available bookable, socially-distanced study space in the Fall 2020 remote term, ensuring that the most disadvantaged students were able to access to these spaces first. UMSU will also be part of a university steering committee being formed in January 2021 aimed at making campus space more functional in our new pandemic reality.

UMSU has also firmly maintained that students should not be paying for services that they will be unable to access under public health restrictions. With the UM Active Living Centre re-opening at limited capacity for the fall, UMSU helped secure students 30% off the original fee to account for limited access, without harming the revenue generated to support Bison athletes. In addition, we worked with UMSU’s LGBTTQ representative and other student activists in submitting a proposal in November to university administration on how to improve safety and inclusion of transgender students who use the Active Living Centre.

Amid ongoing difficulties with online learning, UMSU advocacy helped protect student learning outcomes.

The Student Senate Caucus, co-chaired by UMSU’s VP advocacy and the U of M Graduate Students’ Association VP academic, has been active on the advocacy front as well, having secured an extension of compassionate grading schemes and furthering discussions with administration around ways for the university to continue to improve and standardize online learning. UMSU’s Policy Review Working Group is also developing recommendations for updates to three university policies that are up for review in 2021, specifically those governing the Student Advocacy Office, campus sustainability, and practices around textbooks and course materials.

Amid all of this, we were also forced to find ways to work with both faculty and the administration to avert a second faculty strike in four years at the U of M. Given all the uncertainty infused into this semester due to the pandemic, additional academic disruptions would have been disastrous for both student morale and learning outcomes.

From this, the #SaveTheSemester campaign was born. UMSU penned multiple open letters to faculty, university leadership, and provincial government, and gained traction in the media over the concerns students had over a potential class shutdown. UMSU’s Board of Directors at an emergency meeting voted unanimously to endorse third-party binding arbitration as a means to resolve the labour dispute.

Student mobilization was key as well, with hundreds of messages sent to U of M Dr. Michael Benarroch using UMSU’s email writing template. Even more students signed UMSU’s petition urging the Government of Manitoba to ease the 0% salary increase mandate for the U of M, thereby granting administration the financial room necessary to negotiate with faculty. In the end a strike was averted on November 20 when members from the U of M Faculty Association ratified a deal offered by the university administration a week earlier.

Fall 2020 also saw UMSU play a leading role in the formation of The Manitoba Alliance of Post-Secondary Students (MAPSS), an informal lobbying partnership between UMSU, the Red River College Students’ Association (RRCSA), and the University of Manitoba Graduate Students Association (UMGSA).

Unsatisfied with a lack of coordinated student advocacy in Manitoba, and feeling that the relationship between the provincial government and post-secondary students could be improved, this partnership came to life with the hope of strengthening relationships and building networks with government. Altogether MAPSS carries the political weight of student unions that represent 61,000 post-secondary students.

MAPSS student leaders meet with members of the Manitoba NDP Caucus in October.

Over the course of two months MAPSS met with numerous MLAs from all three of Manitoba’s political parties, and in the process submitted several budget and policy recommendations for consideration. Among them were options for helping having institutions adopt open educational resources to help save students money on textbooks, the creation of a credit transfer data base, and more affordable options for international student health care. The recommendations were warmly received, and MAPSS in December submitted to the government a full costing and implementation proposal at the request of the finance minister. Budget consultation meetings with the minister of economic development and training, health minister, and finance minister are scheduled for early 2021.

Next on the agenda for MAPSS are concerns regarding the implications of the provincial government’s Bill 33 (formerly Bill 41).

Bill 33 proposes changes to the Advanced Education Administration Act, and appears to share significant commonalities with the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) passed by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government in January 2019. The SCI, part of the Ontario government’s plan to reduce tuition rates by 10 per cent, threatened both the autonomy of student organizations and the future viability of key student-funded services, and was struck down by an Ontario court in November 2019.

UMSU also continued to play a major role advocating for students at the federal level through the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU), contributing to policy objectives, writing briefing notes, helping with the coordination of UCRU’s annual federal lobby week, and taking concrete steps toward UCRU’s formalization.

Student leaders from UCRU at the end of November met with nearly 70 MPs, including ministers or ministerial staff from five federal departments. In the process they presented recommendations related to expanding paid undergraduate research opportunities, improving conditions for international students, added support for Indigenous students, and bolstering student financial aid. This fall also saw the launch of UCRU’s #DebtFreeDegree campaign.

As a lead member of UCRU, UMSU has been actively lobbying the federal government for enhanced student financial aid.

Closer to home, UMSU has harnessed the climate action momentum from 2019’s year of unprecedented climate activism to keep sustainability at the forefront of our organizational efforts. UMSU’s Board of Directors passed a motion declaring a climate emergency, while this year’s version of the UMSU sustainability working group furthered progress on the goals set out in the sustainability mandate passed by the UMSU Board last year. The working group is also aiding in UMSU’s review of the university’s sustainability policy, developing an ethical and sustainable purchasing policy in close consultation with the UMSU businesses managers, and planning a virtual sustainability week for 2021.

A green way forward also demands close working relationships with stakeholders in the community, and UMSU been intentionally developing more collaborative ties with the U of M’s Office of Sustainability.

Last year UMSU advocacy was vital in pushing the university to commit $100,000 toward feasibility planning to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Similarly, members of the sustainability working group took part in the third round of public engagement over the City of Winnipeg’s transit masterplan by filling out surveys providing feedback on a range of rapid transit concepts under potential consideration. Taking part was important for students to do, given how students represent one of the largest group of users of Winnipeg Transit.

The Future at our Fingertips: Helping students adjust to online learning

Perhaps the other leading lesson of 2020 has been just how fundamental technology is to our lives. With the pandemic accelerating how digital access, digital literacy, and strong digital privacy protections have gone from desirables to necessary rights.

Immediately from the onset of COVID-19 it became apparent to UMSU that not all students would have the technology they need to continue their studies successfully in a remote learning environment.

In collaboration with members of the U of M administration, UMSU helped push for the creation of a U of M Tech Fund to provide students in need with subsidies to purchase devices necessary for online learning. With online learning sure to remain prominent for the foreseeable future, UMSU hopes to see that fund replenished each academic term so long as there is demand for it. UMSU is also looking to launch its own data subsidy program in the Winter 2021 term for students who need financial assistance.

But perhaps the biggest technology story of the year has been the issues raised by the widespread use of online exam monitoring software, deemed by some as a necessary mechanism to maintain academic integrity in an online learning environment.

Throughout the summer, UMSU received multiple student concerns regarding Respondus Monitor, the online exam monitoring software which began being piloted in July 2020, with the intention of rolling it out across most departments in the Fall 2020 term. Most of the feedback stemmed from privacy issues with Repondus Monitor that students encountered during the summer term pilot project. As the fall term began and more students were made aware that this software could be used in their classes, the same set of concerns arose all over again.

The overarching theme of this year has been how online learning has affected the student experience. Photo: Ted Major/Flickr

In response, UMSU submitted numerous recommendations to the university at the end of September. They included that any professor who wishes to use Respondus Monitor be required to issue a practice exam to students; environment checks be conducted prior to an exam to cut down on the number of false positives allegations of suspicious behaviour flagged against students by the software; make training sessions mandatory for professors using the software; make recordings of students off-limits for research and development purposes; and ban the transfer of student videos and information to any third party .

As a result of this advocacy, the University of Manitoba agreed to work with Respondus to modify the proposed U of M contract to better protect our students. In the end, Respondus developed a custom modification to their terms of use, so U of M students’ videos are not used to inform biometrics and other research by Respondus. In addition, the U of M agreed to create a course within UM Learn available to all students that provides information about academic integrity and includes a practice quiz that requires the use of the software. This course provides students the opportunity to practice with Respondus Monitor as many times as they choose. Further, the Centre for the Advancement for Teaching and Learning (CATL) increased their production of best practice evidence and advice for instructors related to e-proctoring.

Even so, online exams can leave students feeling unclear on expectations, and sometimes, downright anxious. UMSU believes that all students should feel empowered to succeed in their studies – so when the University began to report increases in academic misconduct, UMSU raced to inform its membership of the do’s and don’ts of online exams in time for finals through a seven-day Academic Integrity Campaign in early December.

Finally, we believe that UMSU as a union should, like everything else these days, be available at the touch of a button. That is why we as UMSU executives are overseeing an overhaul of the UMSU website to make it more streamlined, informative, and user-friendly, with the hopes of completing the revamp of the website by the middle of 2021.

One term down, one more to go

Unsaid in all of this is the inspiration, encouragement, and motivation that we as executives have gained in both the summer and fall from engaging with you, UMSU’s membership.

All the virtual meetings, emails, phone calls, social media messages and other ways through which we’ve heard more about your ideas and experiences during this unprecedented time has been the driving factor behind everything we’ve accomplished. We couldn’t have done it without you – and we already can’t wait to get back to work to do more in Winter 2021.

Wishing you and your loved ones a safe and happy holiday season.

UMSU Executive Committee, 2021

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