Executives of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) were recently informed that SSMU is contractually bound to put any ancillary fee increases requested by the University to referendum. Under the provincial act governing the accreditation of student associations, SSMU’s Legislative Council would ordinarily have the power to debate and reject such fee increases; this newly-discovered contract with McGill negates that power.
Although this contract has been in effect since 2010, the current SSMU executive team only became aware of it in the context of a motion against ancillary fee increases which passed at SSMU’s most recent General Assembly (GA). Following the passing of this motion, which had been moved by VP University Affairs Erin Sobat, the administration apparently informed SSMU that the pre-existing contract effectively rendered it nonviable.
What are ancillary fees?
McGill undergraduates pay six different ancillary fees to the University. These fees finance a range of services and programmes, from the Office for Students with Disabilities to McGill’s Athletics facilities. Ancillary fees are non-opt-outable, and they are initiated and governed by student referendums.
These fees are automatically adjusted to reflect inflation, but every so often, McGill requests a significant increase. Sobat sat down with The Daily to explain why this happens.
“The way [McGill has] set up most of these units – in particular ones like Student Services or Athletics – is to be very reliant on student fee funding,” he explained, “and there are increases to their costs for salaries, for inflation, for maintenance of their facilities and buildings over time, and so as a way to address those increased costs, [administrators], on a pretty regular cycle, come back to students requesting an increase.”
“The way [McGill has] set up most of these units – in particular ones like Student Services or Athletics – is to be very reliant on student fee funding.”
According to Sobat, this pattern of financing is unsustainable, hence his attempt to freeze increases on the Athletics ancillary fee through the aforementioned GA motion. He told The Daily that this reliance on student fees to run certain services is allowed to occur because the services in question are considered non-essential.
“In something like Athletics or student services we have obviously been advocating for quite a while that the University stop charging overhead fees […] to those units,” Sobat continued. “For example, in the case of Student Services in the Brown Building, that has been deemed not central to […] the purpose of the University and so the central operating budget doesn’t pay for maintenance of the Brown Building – that comes out of the student services budget.”
Limiting SSMU’s independence
In 2010, SSMU’s executive team signed a contract with McGill which stipulates that whenever the University requests an ancillary fee increase, SSMU must send that increase directly to a referendum. SSMU Council, which is composed of representatives from every McGill faculty and is intended to act as the Society’s main legislative body, has no opportunity to debate and potentially reject the requested increase.
In an email to The Daily, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens explained his view of this contract. When asked if, in his opinion, it limits student democracy at McGill to a damaging degree, he responded emphatically in the negative.
“In something like Athletics or student services we have obviously been advocating for quite a while that the University stop charging overhead fees […] to those units.”
“We believe this Agreement actually strengthens ‘robust student democracy’ because it gives students – all students, not just a small group – the power to accept or reject a proposed fee increase,” Dyens replied. “That’s direct democracy.”
Another issue that has caused concern is the fact that this contract has no end date, meaning that it could theoretically remain in effect indefinitely. It’s unclear why this is the case, but Sobat explained that he’s committed to doing whatever he can to challenge the contract.
“I think that’s something certainly that should be looked at,” he said, “and obviously the ideal time would be in the context of the current Memorandum of Agreement [MoA] negotiations […] I hope that the incoming executives will be interested in and concerned about. I’m going to do more research both in a legal sense [ and] in the political sense […] and perhaps also working with other associations through a provincial student federation.”