All Posts Tagged With: "Student Unions"
Ottawa student lost bid to have student fee returned
I don’t like my student union’s Education is a Right campaign and I don’t go to social events on campus like the Winter Challenge. I don’t need the transit pass and don’t generally associate myself with the politics of my student union at the University of Ottawa, where I study part-time. So why should I have to pay to be a member?
Edward Inch didn’t think he should have to pay and so he tried suing the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa (SFUO) in small claims court for the $92.60 they charged him one semester after he opted out of the union in 2012.
In a court decision yesterday, deputy judge Lyon Gilbert decided Inch must pay up anyway. “As a student, Mr. Inch is bound to the terms and conditions of enrollment,” Gilbert said, according to The Fulcrum student newspaper.
Bank robbers? Embezzlement? A former executive reflects.
Two years ago, I was a second-year student considering running for Vice-President Academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union. Though I expected to learn plenty if elected, it was impossible to predict just how much I did learn on the job. If you are a student considering running at your school, I encourage you to give it a try. It could totally alter your life’s trajectory. Here are eight of the most memorable lessons I learned.
1. Unpredictability is just part of the job.
Unforeseen events can often get in the way of platform goals. In June 2011, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry plagiarized his speech to the graduating class, which packed my days with television interviews. A few months later, our executive learned that a student from the business students’ association was accused of stealing $27,000, so I did more interviews. Media relations wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time.
If we wanted these groups, we’d fund them voluntarily.
Liam Ledgerwood’s piece for The Arthur at Trent University generated more than a couple letters to the editor. After reading his argument below, check out one of those responses, written by two student politicians who support the fees. What do you think? Tell us in the comments section, on Twitter @maconcampus or on Facebook.
When I was an eager and green first year at Trent University, I remember my father telling me a story about one of his university friends back in the 80s. Like Trent, York University offered any student group “free” money to help finance its activities. Well, my father’s friend started a group, received a few hundred dollars, went and bought “prizes” (read: stuff he wanted) and held a “fundraiser” auction that went unadvertised. When no one showed up, guess who kept the prizes?
I laughed at the time, but I recently read the list of levies that each student at Trent pays to support various organizations, clubs, charities and special interest groups on campus. Every single one of us pays more than $180 per year to support more than 30 groups that most of us have a) no participation in b) receive no benefit from or c) have never even heard of.
Each year, $18.79 is charged to us to pay for Trent Radio (does anyone know the frequency?), $18.87 for Trent Annual (despite my never even seeing a Trent Yearbook through three years here), $12.50 for the politically ideological Ontario Public Interest Research Group, and the list goes on. Sure, some of these levies are “refundable,” but the total of all available refunds is only $51, and we have to go to groups individually to get our own money back. There’s no “opt out” button.
Former student union president pleads guilty
A former student union president pleaded guilty and apologized yesterday for bringing negative attention to Mount Royal University, her former school. Meghan Darcy Melnyk, 28, told reporters outside a Calgary courtroom that she is “so regretful” that her actions put the university in the spotlight. “I am very remorseful,” she said. “I’m willing to take accountability for my actions,” she added. Melnyk robbed a Servus Credit Union on Feb. 29 and was caught because a staff member had written down her PT Cruiser’s license plate number. For more, see the Calgary Herald.
Student doesn’t want his money funding political causes
A University of Ottawa student is suing his students’ union over the mandatory $92.60 fee it collects from all undergraduates. Edward Inch, 22, is taking the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa to small claims court to ask for his winter semester fees returned plus $210 in legal costs. His reasons are the political activities SFUO takes part in, like supporting Quebec protesters and striking postal workers. “They claim to represent all students, yet they take political positions I don’t agree with,” the 22-year-old chemistry major told the Ottawa Citizen. “If I wanted to save the whales and save the postal workers, I’d do that in my spare time,” he added. SFUO rejects his claims.
Voter turnout (%) in campus elections from 2009 to 2012
Most student unions aren’t transparent about your cash
Details on student fees—that ever-growing list of mandatory payments tacked onto tuition bills, mainly by student unions—isn’t easy to find.
Students are often outraged when they do find out—often in their fourth year—that they’ve paid dozens of fees to causes they don’t support.
That’s why students at the University of Alberta recently offered a presentation called “Students’ Union Fees Used to Spread Hate,” during which the speakers argued that many students are unwittingly paying mandatory fees that go to the Alberta Public Interest Research Group, which supports the always-controversial—they say hateful—Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).
Staff keep $30 wages, but don’t need to be replaced
The Simon Fraser Student Society lockout has ended after 94 days. ”I think both sides compromised,” President Jeff McCann told The Peak student newspaper. The Canadian Union of Public Employees staff signed a new collective agreement with the SFSS board on Oct. 11 and went back to work.
The major relief for current employees in the new contract is that permanent staff will keep their current wages, which average $30.48 per hour. The SFSS had originally proposed a wage cut of roughly $10 before the lockout began in July. New permanent employees will start at $25 per hour—lower than the union wanted—but more in line with the average hourly wage in Canada, which was $24.71 in August, according to Statistics Canada.
The board won concessions too, in that new student employees can be paid a much lower $14.50 per hour. That could save money. McCann had long argued that wages were so high that the SFSS was being forced to cut services and bursaries. Another win, as far as the board is concerned, is that they’re not obligated to replace staff when they leave, so long as they maintain a complement of at least six full-time and two part-time staff. There are currently 12 full-time employees.
Ultra-cheap resort for students is losing money
A budget deficit means UBC could sell Whistler Lodge, the ski resort that has provided ultra-cheap accommodation for students in the mountain town north of Vancouver since 1965.
The Alma Mater Society, UBC’s student union, has a $100,000 budget hole and at least $30,000 of the annual deficit comes from losses at the lodge, which offers students bunks for $29 a night or private rooms for $90. With the hotel prices in Whistler averaging $177 per night in 2010, it makes skiing and snowboarding possible for students who couldn’t afford to otherwise.
“[Selling] is one of the options on the table,” AMS President Jeremy McElroy told the Pique, a Whistler paper. ”(The lodge is) something that we like, students built it and it’s part of a tradition for UBC for the better part of 50 years. We don’t really want to shut it down.”
Union says $30-per-hour average wage is fair
Labour disputes are common at Canadian universities. And when they happen, student unions often take the side of the workers. But at Simon Fraser, the dispute isn’t between the university and a labour union — it’s between the labour union and the student union itself.
The Simon Fraser Student Society locked out its unionized office workers on Monday. The sticking point is wages — $30.48 per hour on average — which the Student Society wants to lower by as much as $10 per hour, according to a union representative. The average hourly wage for all Canadians aged 25 to 54 in June was $24.71 in June, according to Statistics Canada.
Student says slide would be more eco-friendly
The University of British Columbia’s student union is studying the feasibility of a slide to connect up to five floors of their new Student Union Building. Mike Silley, VP of administration for the Alma Mater Society (AMS) says that the goal is not only to make the building more fun, but also to make it more eco-friendly. “Each elevator costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement and that doesn’t even include the energy costs of running it,” Silley told the Ubyssey newspaper, saying the slide would reduce the need for elevators. He also says it would draw tourists to student-owned business. “They could come to the Museum of Anthropology [on campus] and then they say hey there’s a slide in the Student Union Building. Let’s take our kids to check it out. Meantime [they] have some Pie R Squared Pizza,” he says. Other examples of buildings with slides for adults include the Google headquarters in California and the Corus Entertainment building in Toronto.
Alberta student leaders to get 28.5% raise
The other day, I caught a item in The Gateway, the University of Alberta’s newspaper, about student union executives having their pay raised from $25,668 to $33,000, or by 28.5 per cent. Unsurprisingly, the article had more than its usual share of online comments from students.
Last year, On Campus compiled many of the student executive salaries across the country, and they varied between $20,000 and $35,000, often with very little correlation between the university in question and the amount of money/number of students they governed.
It’s fair for student leaders to think they deserve more money—they work long hours and are in charge of millions of dollars. They’re comparing themselves to executives of other organizations of similar budgets.
But students compare them to, well, students. Students who also have to work jobs and take classes at the same time, and who often don’t see the same benefits coming from their student union as other places they pay fees to—like their actual tuition dollars.
Much like university president salaries, student executive salaries are a hot-button issue, especially during times of relative economic hardship, because of the general gut reaction of “My Money Is Going Where?” At the same time, student union leaders tend to think that what they do is very, very important, and of course they deserve to be fairly compensated. Unsurprisingly, this creates tension, rarely of the productive type.
For example, at UVic, the student society realized they were in a financial crisis, the executive did what they could to reduce their salaries, held a referendum to increase student fees, and it passed.
At UBC however, the student executive of the Alma Mater Society (AMS) announced they were in financial trouble, only to ask for a $1,200 yearly health benefit package for themselves within the budget. Shockingly (at least to them), council took a month to pass their budget (though they got their health benefits), and the student body at large was so against a proposed referendum on increasing student fees to help the AMS’ finances that they postponed it until the new year. I’m not at UVic, and I don’t know how much impact the symbolic salary decrease had at that campus—but it is a line-item in the budget which always arouses tension, regardless of what province you happen to reside in.
CFS still lacks transparency, accountability
The Canadian Federation of Students wrapped up their semi-annual general meeting about a week ago, while last year’s meeting generated a great deal of controversy, as my colleague Danielle Webb has pointed out, this year’s meeting was rather tame.
But as a court battle in Saskatchewan shows, the CFS still hasn’t moved passed the issues that gripped last year’s meeting.
The majority of controversy in 2009 was fomented by several student unions that wished to leave the group. At a time when federation supporters were intent on making it harder to leave, several student unions introduced a series of reforms whose main thrust was to make it easier to defederate. The hope, according to backers of the reforms, was that by introducing a large number of motions, at least some would get through. Instead the “reform package” was defeated omnibus.
While these issues may not have come up at the meeting this year, the main reason is that the majority of student unions, including the three university members from Quebec, who pushed for “reform,” and who wish to leave the organization, didn’t show up.
The reason? At least for the Concordia Student Union, it’s that they no longer see themselves as CFS members. Instead of waiting for the CFS national office to set referendum dates, a process that can take years, several student unions went ahead and held their own referendums, likely counting on the courts to be more receptive than CFS leadership. As well several unions that requested referendums were denied on the grounds that they owed the CFS significant amounts of money for unpaid membership fees, in one case over $1 million.
These unions aren’t the first to be in a situation where their membership has voted to leave the organization but the CFS has refused to recognize the vote. In 2008 students at Simon Fraser and Cape Breton University voted to leave the organization. Despite the fact that the CFS participated in the referendums, at least initially, the CFS chose not to recognize the results. Both unions are still listed as members on the CFS website.
Leaving the organization without its permission can be a long road. Acadia, one of several schools where students voted to leave the CFS in 1996, was still facing legal action 10 years later.
But there’s something more unsettling about the picture of unity that came out of this year’s meeting.
All of the candidates for the three at-large positions on the organization’s national executive (chair, deputy chair and treasurer) ran unopposed. A similar thing happened last year, with only one serious candidate running for each position, the other candidates being from student unions who backed the “reform package.”
That’s not a sign of democracy. I’m sure we can all think of many countries that hold elections where only one name appears on the ballot, would you call any of those nations democratic?
Rather, it’s a sign that decisions are being made in back rooms, not on the plenary floor.
I cannot think of any reason why, two years in a row, in any large organization – especially one whose voting membership is made up of student politicians – we would not see multiple serious candidates standing for the organization’s top positions. A unified organization with a healthy culture of democracy should see multiple candidates with similar vision but different experience and priorities standing for those positions.
But even if the CFS did have more candidates seeking election to its highest positions there are still issues with transparency. While this year saw the CFS allow two journalists into parts of the meeting, one English and one French, a step up from last year when only an English journalist was accredited, no media was allowed in to the candidates’ speeches. It is incomprehensible why an organization that claims to represent such a large number of students, and to do so in a democratic manner would bar journalists – especially student journalists – from campaign speeches by candidates for the organization’s top positions.
The policy of only allowing one or two reporters is also concerning. The majority of student newspapers in the country are members of the Canadian University Press and share content through the CUP Newswire, in exactly the same way as the content generated by the two individuals approved by CFS was shared. More student journalists, wherever they are from, would mean more stories for all CUP papers. The CFS’ media policy also cuts non-CUP papers out from their meetings entirely.
Moreover, CFS requires reporters to sign an incredibly restrictive agreement in order to get access. The majority of real debate takes place in closed sessions. By the time most motions reach the plenary, where reporters are allowed, they have essentially been decided. They are also forbidden to conduct interviews with any delegates until after the meeting is over.
I have never heard of any organization in Canada forcing journalists to hogtie themselves like this to gain any level of access, let alone such meager access.
While I recognize that the CFS, like all organizations, does have a need to conduct some of its affairs behind closed doors, given that the delegates at these meetings supposedly represent students, don’t they owe those students at least some degree of accountability?
Last year, due to these extremely restrictive policies several student journalists, including myself, attended the meeting as student union delegates. When CFS executives found out about this they threatened to revoke the credentials of the one reporter they were planning to allow in unless these stories were not published on the CUP wire. During the course of that meeting, a McGill Daily reporter and I were informed that if we did not stop posting to Twitter from our newspaper’s accounts even the limited media access might be denied in the future.
So while the CFS’ new executives may have enjoyed “near unanimous” support at this meeting let’s not forget that the organization is facing student initiated legal actions across the country and their presence in Quebec has been effectively reduced to a single English-language CEGEP.
Student unions pour money into political causes that many members don’t even know about, let alone support
The story made headlines everywhere: it was Feb. 11, 2009, and Daniel Ferman was a member of Drop YFS, a group dedicated to overthrowing the York Federation of Students. Drop YFS was presenting a petition with 5,000 signatures—enough to stage a coup of sorts. They were protesting the student union’s support for a teachers’ strike, which would potentially leave students on the hook for missed class time. They were also against the union backing the Israeli Apartheid Week, which many pro-Israel students despised. As the press conference began, Ferman and his fellow Drop YFS members were faced with a crush of student union members who came in to denounce the petition rally. After a volley of shouting, the crowd moved to the Hillel student lounge where some of the Drop YFS members took refuge. “Students were barricaded in the lounge,” says Ferman, who was Hillel @ York’s president at the time and helped organize the Drop YFS effort. “It got very nasty. Police were called. There were racist slurs.”
Students like Ferman don’t think it’s the student government’s role to take sides on political issues. “I think students have every right to speak up when they feel student dollars are promoting hate and a toxic atmosphere on campus,” says Ferman. Since the 1980s, student unions have been growing in power. They take money from undergraduates every year, which is charged separate from but alongside tuition, and they’re supposed to work for students. Some of that cash funds services, such as health and dental coverage, and student athletics. But much of it goes to advocacy and clubs students may find offensive. “They’d taken very controversial stances on what to fund in pro-life versus pro-choice issues, on Tamil issues going on in Sri Lanka. On every worldwide issue, they’d taken a position,” Ferman says of the YFS, which operates with a $2-million budget. They rarely take the position he would take.
The Canadian Federation of Students—an umbrella organization for student unions—has been heavily criticized for rash advocacy using student funds. The national organization, with its provincial subsidiaries, lobbies on behalf of 600,000 student members across Canada. These “members,” who automatically gain that status if their student union is a member organization, each pay $4.01 per semester to the CFS. In 2010, that came to $3.7 million in membership fee revenue—money used to fund the not-for-profit’s advocacy work. Students also pay an average of $4 per semester to be members of their provincial CFS. That’s before student union fees, which average out at around $30 per student, depending on the school. CFS national chairperson David Molenhuis acknowledges that some of the national campaigns, such as its current effort to fight the Canadian Blood Services’ decision to ban gay men from donating blood, are hot issues—but he doesn’t think they’re controversial. “They attempt to address head-on issues that perhaps college and university administrators don’t feel comfortable addressing,” he says. Some students also feel uncomfortable with their fees going to such politically sensitive issues.
For example, last June, the CFS wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty joining the cry for a public inquiry into the “unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties” that took place at the G20. “The federation stands up for the rights of students to participate and to assemble publicly and to participate in demonstrations,” said the letter. “We defend the rights of students to mobilize in public, and the G20 is no exception.”
Some students at the University of Ottawa were upset to learn that not only does the CFS take a political stand on the G20, their own student union spent at least $1,000 to rent a coach bus to shuttle about 50 protesters to Toronto during the G20. Student Peter Flynn, who also heads up the University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives, blasted the expenditure as a “blatant misuse” of student fees. “I highly doubt that every single student who has to pay those fees would be happy to know their money was being spent to send a few individuals to protest for the weekend,” Flynn told the Ottawa Citizen.
York student Gregory Kay was also irked by his student union’s support for G20 protests. The YFS and the student union at the University of Toronto co-sponsored “Toronto vs. the G20: a teach-in.” Class included Black Bloc tactics, which ended up seeing storefronts and public property smashed during the summit in downtown Toronto. “That’s something most students don’t believe in at all,” says Kay, who is the business representative for the YFS board of directors. “Most students aren’t anti-capitalist. They’re not interested in civil disobedience.”
Of course, if students are unhappy with their student government, they aren’t doing much to change it. While voter turnout tends to be higher when contentious issues can be resolved with a ballot, the average voter turnout sits at between 25 and 30 per cent. Many students see student government as too divisive—or too inflexible—to even bother running. Ferman, for one, considered running for a seat on the executive in 2009, but couldn’t put his academic career on hold for a year as the bylaws dictate. He ran for—and won—a seat on the board of directors instead.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy—that the student president isn’t even a student,” he says. “There are lots of inherent problems with the organization, but the lack of flexibility is a major one.” In late August 2010, the university’s ombudsman released a report saying the student union’s electoral process needed a massive makeover, making recommendations Ferman believes might one day legitimize the organization. “Now the onus is on the student federation to take some of these recommendations to heart.”
Photo: Christinne Muschi/Reuters
Withholding funds while negotiations are ongoing is a sign of bad faith
Both the undergraduate and graduate students’ associations at Carleton University have called on a provincial judge to untangle a financial battle with their administration. On Oct. 25, the university’s board of governors decided to withhold the unions’ membership fees until a new funding agreement has been signed.
But, the students’ associations feel the university’s latest actions have been triggered by their traditionally critical opposition to issues on campus, including the current labour negotiations with campus faculty, and they’re using the funding agreement as an excuse to keep them quiet.
“This is about political interference plain and simple. They want to silence students’ voices on-campus,” graduate students’ union president Kimalee Phillip said in a statement on Nov. 11. “Students have decided to pay these fees for on-campus services and representation.
“Senior administrators think that they should decide where students’ money goes instead and are attempting to starve the students’ unions by withholding our only source of operating revenue.”
According to the university, though, it’s about accountability. The university wants to see audited account statements to prove that student money is being handled appropriately.
“The university has no interest in determining or directing how student associations at Carleton University spend their funds,” said spokesperson Jason MacDonald in an email to CBC. “The university is simply asking for CUSA and GSA to be transparent and accountable to the Carleton community with regard to how student fees are disbursed.”
This isn’t the first time a university has made that argument.
Back in 2005 and 2006, the administration of Quebec’s Dawson College withheld student fees from the Dawson Students’ Union over allegations that the DSU had not properly incorporated as a students’ society under Quebec law.
The issue of liability gets complicated, especially since nothing has been proven in court. But withholding funds while negotiations with the students’ unions are ongoing, is a sign of bad faith.
That results in the kinds of broad accusations that are now being hurled around.
While Carleton University might be uncomfortable with the way the students’ union is organized, it is a union elected and funded by the students of the university. That has to be taken into account. Elected officials screw up all the time. That’s nothing new. If funds are being mismanaged, it will be up to the electorate and the union’s oversight bodies to fix it.
If Carleton University has enough evidence that funds are being mismanaged, they should move through the courts or make their accusations known publicly. If they don’t, they need to back off and let students hold their own representatives accountable at their discretion.
Photo: Getty Images
Say administration is witholding membership fees for union’s critical stance
Student unions at Carleton University in Ottawa want a judge to order the university to hand over student membership fees. The Carleton University Students’ Association and the Graduate Students’ Association say the university is withholding the money to force them to sign new fee agreements.
They say the university wants control over how the money is spent, which student leaders say would jeopardize their autonomy. The groups add they have made concessions in negotiations with the administration. The student unions have been critical of the university’s handling of a number of issues, and they say the demands amount to political interference and an attempt to stifle student voices.
Students association president Alex Sirois says the fees are their only source of operating income and the university has no right to withhold the money. “Without these fees, we won’t be able to offer services like our food bank, safe walk home program, or health plan and may be forced to close our businesses,” he said.
The Canadian Press
Speaking for you, using your money
This weekend’s Pride Parade in Toronto was one of the most controversial in 30 years. The issue concerned a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), and whether it would be allowed to march in the parade.
In late May, the answer was “no.” Fearing a loss of city funding and private sponsorship, Pride Toronto decided to play a game of semantics and ban the words “Israeli apartheid.” In a statement released June 7, Pride Toronto said “the use of the words ‘Israeli apartheid’ made participants feel unsafe.”
Then, just over a week ago, Pride flip-flopped, announcing it would “no longer restrict language in the Parade.” Either Pride Toronto suddenly decided that “Israeli apartheid” doesn’t make participants feel unsafe, or it capitulated to pressure. You decide.
If we can put the embarrassing flip-flop aside; should QuAIA (or the words “Israeli apartheid,” if you want to play that game) been banned in the first place? I still can’t make up my mind. (Sorry, I know that doesn’t make for quite as compelling a read.) On the one hand, public dollars are feeding the parade. It seems fishy to use tax money to fund a potentially ostracizing message, especially at an event centred around inclusiveness. On the other hand, free speech should be upheld as a cherished right. Censorship can be a slippery slope, especially when a selected few are given the authority to decide what is and is not appropriate. But despite my wavering in that respect, I have made up my mind on one aspect of the parade and it concerns how student union leaders chose to participate.
Though I am certainly no expert on issues in the Middle East, the irony of QuAIA did not escape me. QuAIA members marched along the parade route Sunday, proudly chanting, “Israeli Apartheid, you ain’t fine, you ain’t got no alibi, you ugly!” despite the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that supports gay rights. Nevermind. Marchers boasted signs that read, “Israeli Apartheid is worse than South Africa” and “My Pride Includes Free Speech.” (Do you think that sign was recycled from the Ann Coulter event at University of Ottawa? No?) But all that didn’t irk me much. Indeed, QuAIA members aren’t speaking on my behalf, and though I didn’t agree with every poster board message, I watched placidly as they walked by. But then came the Ryerson/George Brown student float.
Yes, the music was pumping and the sun was just glorious, and there they were—students acting as my representatives—adorned in shirts boasting that their pride is “Against Israeli Apartheid.” Funny, I don’t think I’ve read enough on Israel to merit an opinion tee (I say that half joking). So why are my paid student representatives making a decision for me? And worse yet—why are they flaunting it on my behalf?
I have no problem with John Doe the individual advocating for whichever cause he desires. Nor do I have a problem with John Doe the public figure openly aligning himself with a position, however controversial it may be. I do, however, find issue with Mr. Doe, my representative, choosing a side on a polarizing issue, far removed from his mandate as a student advocate, and doing it on my dime.
I can already hear the response; “That’s government, kid. Get used to it.” Maybe so. And of course, this student union behaviour isn’t new. But when student fees are collected by a student union, I expect them to be spent on education issues. If nothing else, it seems careless from a strategic perspective for a student government to align itself, both fiscally and ideologically, on an issue that so severely divides its voting population, especially when the issue has little to do with education. City funding went to the Pride Parade as a whole, not specifically QuAIA. Student fees, on the other hand, seemed to be used to advocate a certain position.
At the very least, student leaders could have taken a sharpie to the “RSU” on their shirts. A city mayor advocating a certain position doesn’t speak for all municipal citizens in the same way a VP Student Life speaks for a university’s student body.
Here’s hoping the money for those student tees branded “Against Israeli Apartheid” was out of pocket, not out of student fees. Now, who’s up for a unicorn ride?
Because really, it’s a worthwhile investment
For those in the Toronto area, city councillor Rob Ford is revving up for a probable campaign for mayor. This wouldn’t be especially relevant to student politics, save that Ford’s attitude towards budgeting and reasonable expenses in fulfilling his role as a city councilor has always struck me as symptomatic of a problem in student organizations. Ford is a cost-cutter and a penny-pincher. This is his major claim to fame and the source of his popular appeal. He’s against office budgets and funds used to communicate with constituents and he thinks everyone gets paid too much to run the city. And I’ve got to admit, any time I see money spent in stupid ways or on stupid things or paid to stupid people I feel the tug of his message too. But then I remember where it’s coming from.
Ford, you see, is quite independently well off. Rather than spend taxpayers’ money he’d prefer to spend his own. That’s how he funds events in his riding, and how his official office budget each year is $0, and how he can afford to suggest that everyone running Toronto (including himself) is overpaid. He doesn’t need the money. And while his public spirit is admirable, and sometimes I even like him despite my disagreement with his politics, I also have to wonder where it would lead us if we follow that attitude towards its logical conclusion.
When folks look at students’ unions and see people getting paid to represent their peers they often wonder how it can be justified. This sometimes applies to the student press as well, and other organizations where students may be paid to varying degrees. One common reaction is to think “if they really cared about doing the job, they’d do it for free.” Some even think “hey, I’m willing to do it for free — why would anyone want them instead?” And while these ideas are commendable, in a Rob Ford kind of way, they do circumvent an important question. Who can afford to simply volunteer and to do these jobs for free? Or more importantly — who cannot afford to?
Some positions on campus represent very significant commitments of time and energy. It’s not uncommon for these positions to simply require a reduced course load — either formally in the by-laws of the organization in question or informally due to the demands of the job. And again, while there’s some justice to the notion that these roles are assumed voluntarily and anyone who goes in with their eyes open should be prepared for the demands, this notion necessarily suggests that a certain kind of person need not apply. So the students who are poor and can’t afford to volunteer dozens of hours each week, or cannot possibly afford to extend the duration of their studies without some compensation, they are effectively barred from the jobs entirely. And is that what we want?
Here is where I think there’s a special onus on representative organizations to ensure that it’s possible for anyone (or at least most people) to represent their peers. Much as I may applaud some of Rob Ford’s sentiments, his politics essentially imply that city council should be run by independently wealthy individuals who can afford to pay their own costs and fund their own activities. And this is not representative democracy in any real sense. It can only lead to skewed politics and bad outcomes. Government by the wealthy inevitably becomes government for the wealthy.
Now in a student context, there are obviously two important limits. First, some student groups simply can’t compensate their representatives adequately and so must run on volunteerism. If there’s simply no other choice then so be it — you do what you’ve got to do. Second, there’s no reason that students need to be paid well for their commitments — only adequately. And yes, I have seen some student organizations where executive compensation seems to have got out of control. This too can lead to unfortunate outcomes, so really it’s all about striking a balance.
When there are competing demands for every dollar in an organization — and this is inevitably the case because there’s never enough money — it’s easy to wonder why we’d bother paying students or funding their commitments. But in fact it’s one of the best investments that any organization can make. If the people who run your organization and who represent students are not themselves typical students then your entire mission is skewed. It undermines everything you are hoping to accomplish. There will always be examples of money that isn’t spent well or of people who don’t earn what they’re paid. And it’s useful to have someone around who will keep an eye out for that, even if it’s a Rob Ford type. But that attitude cannot be allowed to deflect the entire mission of a student organization, which is to represent real students. And students, typically, cannot afford to take on full-time jobs for free.
Using a student vote to increase fees has more to do with politics than services
Student union elections have become a pretext for yearly ancillary fee increases by way of referendum. Whether proposed increases are sought by the administration, the student union executive, or some wayward student club, students can count on the fact that student referenda, and accompanying fee increases, have become a normal part of university governance.
While superficially epitomizing the idea of university democracy, the practice is a wanton exercise in the abrogation of responsibility. Referenda insulate those tasked with making decisions, or with representing students, from doing their job. Having a new ancillary fee, or an increase to an existing one, approved by students allows those who proposed it to deny culpability, or to justify their actions, by simply pointing to the referendum. No other argument is needed. When everyone is responsible, no one is.
Ancillary fees are typically attached to specific services unrelated to academics. Academics are, of course, supposed to be funded through a university’s regular operating budget and financed partially by regular tuition fees. Referenda, usually held during student elections, are used to propose funding for initiatives like a university athletics centre or a universal bus pass, as well as for more ridiculous ideas.
Further, as anyone who has campaigned in a referendum, or watched one closely, certainly knows, it doesn’t take much to get a fee passed. Twenty per cent turnout for student elections is considered quite high, meaning as long as core supporters get out to the polls many initiatives can easily pass, regardless of whether the fee is useful or not. Similarly the failure of an initiative also has little bearing on the practicality of the proposal.
If ancillary fees cannot be accommodated through traditional governance practices, and thus easily revoked if proven ineffective, or otherwise useless, than they should be avoided. In the case of student unions, there should exist the flexibility to respond to student disapproval of an initiative attached to the new fee.
The notion that student approval equals legitimacy simply because students have been asked is patently false. The university population turns over every few years, and, so, the legitimacy of a student vote quickly vanishes.
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to the scourge of using student referenda to advance pet projects, supplement university coffers, and to otherwise subvert the decision making process. The practice is abetted, depending on the province, by a sometimes complicated web of legislation, conventions, and regulations.
Since 1994, the Ontario government has required that before new ancillary fees—those fees applying to services other than academics—can be levied, students must be consulted. While student support can be technically demonstrated through the wishes of student union representatives, the convention has been established that all ancillary fees, including student union fees, be subject to a student vote.
In British Columbia, government legislation explicitly requires that student societies poll their members before imposing any new fees. No such stipulation is placed on the university administration.
In Manitoba, the process for raising ancillary fees is legally left to an institution’s board of governors, but student votes are still used by both university administrations, and student unions, to raise fees, though the practice is not used as widely as in Ontario. Although student referenda in Manitoba are generally ad hoc, a peculiar practice has evolved over the past decade where regular tuition fees have been permitted to increase after a student plebiscite, despite the existence of a tuition freeze. In Ontario, using a referendum to increase regular tuition would not be permitted.
It is quite obvious why governments would support such a process. They can publicly proclaim that they believe student costs should be kept to a minimum, while permitting universities, and student unions to raise fees as they please.
If universities were private entities, they would have to conform to market realities and learn to keep costs low, while maintaining quality, lest they lose students to competitors. I’ll never understand why those who believe students should have greater control over their education, are also the same people who fly into hysterics whenever the words “private” and “university” are joined.
In any event, under our system of government-supported universities, student fees are treated like a tax, to be imposed in ways more related to the internal politics of the university than to the services actually provided.
Student execs say they are excited about the prospects of a larger lobbying budget
After lengthy debate about the wording of the motion but relatively little debate about its actual merits, UBC’s Alma Mater Society, the largest student union in Canada, has declared its intent to leave the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA).
Originally, the motion in front of council read, “Therefore, be it resolved that the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia – Vancouver cease its affiliation to the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.” However, after a letter was urgently sent from CASA to councillors reminding them that a) UBC could not legally leave CASA until April 1, and b) UBC legally needed to give 30 days of notice before taking formal steps to leave the organization, there was a debate about whether to delay the debate until the AMS had gotten a legal opinion on the matter. That vote was defeated narrowly, and the end compromise was to word the motion more vaguely, so that it simply stated the AMS’ intent to leave CASA after April 1, 2010.
As one councillor put it, “We should let the people whose job it is to write legal policy write this policy, to make sure we take the proper formal steps for this to happen legally.”
Debate on the actual motion was fairly short. The current AMS President, Blake Frederick, told council that CASA didn’t make sense for UBC. The 2008/2009 AMS President, Mike Duncan, told council essentially the same thing. And the 2007/2008 AMS VP External, Matt Naylor, told council…well, you get the picture.
While there were a decent number of vocal dissidents to the motion—once councillor said “I am ashamed to be part of a organization that is so unprofessional with the groups we deal with”—most were in favour of the motion, given that is non-binding.
So what does the motion actually mean? Well, barring a fairly big ideological change in the makeup of the AMS executive, or drastic change in how CASA conducts its business, UBC will become independent on April 1, 2010, and remain so for a while. Current and past executives are excited about the prospects of having a much larger budget for lobbying (In the past, the AMS spent $70,000 on CASA), to spend more time working on provincial issues, and being in full control of external relations.
Meanwhile, most councillors (and by proxy, the student body) don’t really care about lobbying so long as it doesn’t take up a ton of money and doesn’t cause any public embarrassments to UBC. Frankly, there’s just too much bad blood and pettiness between the two groups right now for good-faith bargaining to happen.