Commentary  Why student politics matter

McGill says that it’s a student-centred university.  But the more that you talk to SSMU execs, attend Senate, or deal with administrators in any way, the more you start to realize that this isn’t really how administrators view the University, its goals, or their job.

McGill has a lot of priorities that come before students.  Administrators have to make sure there is enough funding and resources to foster research. They have to protect the University’s reputation, and highlight lucrative endeavours in which they’re involved in. Students – undergraduates in particular – can easily become seen more like boarders to whom the University rents its rooms to pay the bills, rather than the people the University exists to foster and serve. And it’s easy for the administration to view us more as a liability than as people at the core of this institution.

You can argue that this is a problem; you can argue that it’s understandable for an institution as massive as McGill to operate in this way. Whether or not you think the administration has bad intentions, this means that in order to put our interests forward, we have to be active, loud, and as united as possible. If we expect more from our University, we need to make them listen to us.

You might believe, like we do, that the word “McGill” refers first and foremost to the students that make up the University, and that students should be entitled to the McGill name by virtue of that fact. But the administration’s memoranda of agreement (MoAs) with the five independent student groups on campus make it particularly clear that they view students as a liability.

MoAs outline the formal relationships between independent student groups and the administration. SSMU, the McGill Legal Information Clinic, CKUT, QPIRG-McGill, the Daily Publications Society, and now the Tribune all have or will soon have such contracts. In addition to uncontroversial stipulations, an MoA contains restrictions on things like where student newspapers can be distributed and prohibitions on use of the McGill name.

The stakes involved in an MoA are clear. If a student group violates the terms of its MoA, the administration can withhold its funding – which comes from student fees. In 2007, McGill denied CKUT funding until the station dropped “McGill” from its name. And Haven Books’ massive financial losses and closure can be partially attributed to SSMU’s MoA, which prevented the Society from advertising for the bookstore on campus. The strict confidentiality of these documents prevents students from fully understanding many of the changes taking place on campus.

MoAs are just one indicator of a general trend: the administration worrying about their image and brand at the expense of the parts of student life that make McGill more than a revolving-door degree-granting factory: student governance, student advocacy and activism, and independent media are just a few examples.

This view of students is the logic behind McGill’s pioneering of deregulation – as witnessed by the massive increases in MBA tuition. And with the recent announcement of the Quebec budget and upcoming tuition hikes, there’s been a lot more talk about shifting a greater portion of the burden of paying for school onto students.

The administration – and Heather Munroe-Blum in particular – have been behind “re-regulating” tuition for a long time. That means, essentially, receiving less money from the provincial government and keeping more of the money that McGill students spend on tuition for McGill.

This benefits the administration and its long list of priorities, while students have to bear a larger financial burden. Munroe-Blum’s Capital Campaign is another example of how the admin puts its brand ahead of students and focuses on raising revenue – largely a result of the province’s unwillingness to supplement the costs of postsecondary education with public funds.

In order to make sure that what benefits McGill benefits students, too, we need to make our voices heard.

SSMU president Ivan Neilson wrote earlier this year that it’s hard to advocate for student life to the administration when we’re tearing each other down. From our point of view, tearing each other down this year has included, but was not limited to, aggressive opt-out campaigns, forcefully shouting down student-driven initiatives, and threatening fellow students with legal action.

Student representation on Senate was hard-won in the ’60s and ’70s, largely through student protest. We can’t take these gains for granted. We need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that our interests are represented to the administration. The opacity of MoAs threatens students’ ability to define their own experience at McGill. With SSMU’s MoA coming up for renegotiation next year, we need to keep the pressure for transparency on. The presidents of SSMU and PGSS are the only student representatives at the Board of Governors – the only body privy to MoA negotiations other than the student groups involved. So we need to make sure they know that we want more information on these deals.

Going into next year, we need to put our differences aside, stand united, and remember that no one will fight for our interests if we don’t, and we’re a stronger force when we have each other’s backs.