The main grievance at Tuesday’s Town Hall was the lack of student consultation on the hot-button issues of tuition and the allocation of student and research space as Principal Heather Munroe-Blum engaged with students en masse for the first time this school year.
Senators, council members, and core members of the activist group Mobilization McGill, along with other students, filled the Molson Hall common room. Unlike past town halls, few faculty or staff came forward to ask questions.
In response to questions about tuition, Munroe-Blum explained that when she came to McGill in 2003, Quebec universities faced a $350-million gap in average funding between Quebec and the rest of the country, but that government support was the highest in the country.
According to Munroe-Blum, government support is currently fifth or the sixth in the country. “And then we lack in Quebec the culture of philanthropy,” she added. She argued that tuition increases were a part of filling this funding shortfall.
“Tuition fees have their place if they are accompanied by a commitment to student financial aid, but our first stop is federal and provincial government,” she said.
Robyn Wright-Fraser, U1 Arts, asked how much of the current $800-million dollar gap in university funding would be filled by tuition hikes. According to Munroe-Blum, the majority of the gap will have to be filled by “sustained” government financing: “15 per cent less of our funding comes from tuition than other universites with our mandate,” she said.
Eli Freedman, U1 Management student and Management representative to SSMU council, voiced concerns over the emphasis on graduate programs and how this would impact the undergraduate student experience. Munroe-Blum explained that a Task Force on the issue and her appointment of a Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) in 2003 were meant to redress these concerns.
“We’ve increased our total revenues year after year for the better part of the last decade…there’s no question but that the overall investment in those domains [undergraduate life] has gone up,” she said.
Guy Mark Lifshitz, U4 Computer Science student and Mobilization McGill member, asked “why decisions regarding the Architecture Café [were] done in closed session,” referring to the confidential portions of Board of Governor’s meetings.
“Many of the decisions taken by the University develop on a multi-year basis – and the implementation of these decisions also happens on a multi-year basis,” Munroe-Blum replied. “Given the fact that student leadership changes every year, those who are involved are often not here when [decisions] are implemented.”
“One of the major goals of [Mendelson’s] working group is to understand how we can consult [in] ways that will have people who are affected, informed, and engaged in the decision-making process,” she continued.
She maintained, however, that there would always be closed sessions of the Board, to “to protect confidentiality, to deal with issues of competitiveness on real estate and other things.”
Heather Munroe-Blum repeatedly said that she was hearing of cuts in more localized areas for the first time – mainly grad student research space and employment as well as recent cuts to tier-two and tier-three sports teams.
Emily Essert, PhD 5 in English, said that she works in a department of “have and have-nots.”
“Those who have obtained RA-ships have study space, those who don’t may not…I got an email yesterday – when we go to teach, there may or may not be TA-ships available,” she said.
Munroe-Blum responded by saying, “We have narrowed the gap in support for our graduate students …but there is still a gap – we are looking to bridge it through philanthropy, and the majority of our campaign has gone to support students with a very special focus on providing financial aid and fellowships for our students.”
Joseph Giardini, U3 Computer Science, expressed his displeasure with a lack of “promised” follow-up on the bike forum held last month. Munroe-Blum deferred to Vice-Principal (University Services) Jim Nicell, who said that it wasn’t his understanding that there was a commitment to follow-up, but that there would be more “info sharing.”
“We’re working hard to eliminate those on the margins that don’t comply [with the ban on campus biking]…there’s not an appetite for going back on cars or bikes,” said Munroe-Blum.
In the wake of the Town Hall, SSMU VP University Affairs Josh Abaki, VP External Myriam Zaidi, President Zach Newburgh, and Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson met informally yesterday. They agreed that SSMU and the administration should work together on three issues. The issues, according to Zaidi, including Bill 100, government funding of universities, and government-sponsored financial aid to students.
“Ultimately the message at the meeting today is that we should be bringing the entire community together to lobby the government, rather than doing so in factions,” said Newburgh.
“We are in the process of developing an approach with the principal, and we sowed the seeds for this kind of partnership especially at today’s meeting,” he said.