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Post-grads interrogate Deputy Provost about Student Services finances at Council

PGSS budget continues to suffer from CFS disaffiliation process

At a meeting on May 20, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Council approved their 2015-16 budget and voted to “create a formal, contractual agreement” with Projet pour le Mouvement Étudiant (PPME), a recently founded group comprised of student associations involved in the creation of a new Quebec student federation. Councillors also questioned Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens about funding for Student Services.

In addition, the Council voted to endorse the proposed sexual assault policy, expected to come to Senate for approval in September, as well as McGill Inter-Union Council’s campaign for a campus-wide $15 per hour minimum wage.

Budget and impact of CFS case

Presenting the 2015-16 budget, Financial Affairs Officer Nikki Meadows noted that most areas suffered a 10 per cent cut on average to begin paying back costs associated with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) court case.

Legal fees associated with the CFS disaffiliation court case cost PGSS about $185,000 in 2014-15, and approximately $138,000 in 2013-14. In addition, PGSS has had to pay CFS, under protest, over $300,000 of outstanding membership fees accumulated since 2010, in order to be able to hold the disaffiliation referendum in January 2015.

PGSS is currently suing CFS for the recognition of its 2010 disaffiliation vote as valid and the return of the membership fees, with the court case set for 2017.

Meadows indicated that the cuts would likely be maintained in future years. While PGSS has been able to save about $130,000 to $140,000 to be used for CFS-related debt in the Special Projects Fund balance, that money represents only about one third of the amount still owed.

“We’re making dents in it, but it’s a lot of money,” commented Meadows.

Student Services funding

In response to concerns amongst the student body regarding decreased funding of Student Services and increased overhead costs imposed on the unit, Dyens came before Council to present a summary of Student Services’ financial situation.

In 2015-16, the administrative overhead costs charged to Student Services by the central administration will amount to $588,733, up from $326,312 the previous year and only $30,679 in 2009-10. Additionally, the University’s $112,000 transfer to the unit’s budget will be eliminated, having already been reduced in previous years from $443,905 in 2009-10.

Dyens justified the cuts to the unit by invoking the $6 million surplus the unit has accumulated over the past few years and the rest of the university’s difficult financial situation.

“There used to be enough money for the university not to charge this [overhead fee], there’s not enough [anymore],” he said. “Unfortunately, right now it’s a zero-sum game; it’s a limited pie.”

Several councillors asked that the Deputy Provost provide details on salary expenditures in the unit, which will have increased by over $1.8 million since 2014.

“My experience is that [there are fewer] people providing services,” said Postgraduate Philosophy Students of McGill University Association (PPSMUA) representative Frédérick Armstrong, questioning whether the salary increases were reflective of an increase in non-administrative staff.

“There’s a limit to how much healthcare services we can provide – we are not a hospital.”

Although he failed to provide details, Dyens indicated that the increase was due both to new hires and salary increases, noting that “salaries at McGill were too low” compared to its competitors.

Addressing the increasing demand and months-long wait times at the Mental Health Service, Dyens emphasized the need for a preventative strategy to reduce student stress by investing in areas like supervision and advising.

According to a Mental Health Service estimate, the hire of 25 new full-time staff would be required to meet current demand, a $1.5 to $2 million expense. Dyens noted that, while possible, this would “create unsustainable expectations.”

“There’s a limit to how much healthcare services we can provide – we are not a hospital,” he added.

Recognizing that relying on the surplus was “unsustainable” beyond a few years, Dyens hinted at the possibility that an increase of the Student Services fee would be necessary. Student fees currently provide 75 per cent of the unit’s revenues.

Dyens also said that there was room for the elimination of “redundancies,” such as the existence of Mental Health and Counselling as two separate services.

“Before we reinvest, we want to make sure these services are as efficient as can be,” he said.

Student federation, public transit

External Affairs Officer Julien Ouellet brought forward a motion for PGSS to join the Projet pour un Mouvement Étudiant, an “incubator” for a new Quebec student federation created in the wake of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ)’s imminent collapse. PGSS is currently a member of FEUQ.

The motion entails the ratification by PGSS of the PPME’s formal contract of association, which grants PGSS a representative on the PPME’s board of directors. If the PPME is successful in creating a new student federation, PGSS members will have the opportunity to join it via referendum; if unsuccessful, the PPME will be automatically dissolved in two years.

The motion passed with six abstentions.

Council approved bylaw changes moved by Council Director Régine Debrosse to increase the size of the Board of Directors from seven to nine members, and to allow for the Board to elect a chair who is not the secretary-general.

Ouellet updated Council on his initiative to extend reduced fare public transit to university students above the age of 25 by instituting an opt-outable fee. Ouellet said that the Société de transport de Montréal (STM)’s marketing team looked favourably upon the idea, and several other student associations agreed to join the project.