On Thursday March 23, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council gathered for its penultimate meeting of this academic year. Council heard one notice of motion regarding amendments to the internal regulations of finance, two presentations (one of which was an update from VP University Affairs Erin Sobat on Memorandum of Agreement negotiations), and four motions brought forward by councillors.
The motions included a “NO” endorsement for the referendum on an increase to the Athletics and Recreation ancillary fee, a motion regarding continued SSMU participation in the Association for a Voice in Education in Quebec (AVEQ), a motion regarding revisions to the Equity Policy, and a motion regarding undergraduate senatorial elections, all of which passed. Council also heard reports from committees and executives.
Saying “NO” to fee increases
A motion was presented to Council which would endorse a “NO” vote in the upcoming referendum question regarding an Athletics and Recreation ancillary fee increase.
Earlier in March, a Winter 2017 SSMU General Assembly (GA) motion was presented which, if enacted, would have mandated SSMU to reject referendum questions seeking to raise ancillary fees until McGill acknowledged students’ concerns with these fees. Moreover, the motion demanded that McGill provide yearly financial reports to SSMU executives about the allocation of ancillary fees, and that a moratorium be imposed on increasing overhead charges.
Simply put, overhead charges are incurred when the University bills student-fee-funded units for central administrative services, which are automatically provided through the operating budget.
Overhead charges were vehemently contested during the 2012 Quebec student protests, and yet despite years of student advocacy, little has been done to curb them at McGill.
Although it initially passed at the GA, the motion concerning the Athletics ancillary fee was invalidated when SSMU learned of a pre-existing contract with the administration, negating their ability to enact such a motion.
At Thursday’s council meeting, movers of the motion to endorse a “NO” vote said that “recent Athletics and Recreation budget numbers indicate that it is within the university’s financial capacity to not only reduce overhead charges, but to increase funding transfers from the central operating budget to fee funded units.” They felt that a “NO” vote would send a clear message to the administration that students were no longer comfortable with overhead charges.
“[The administration] has set up this unsustainable budgetary model where every few years, their costs are increasing, and every few years, they come back to us for [a fee] increase, and they say ‘Don’t you care about these services? Give us an increase,’ and they have no incentive to change their budgetary model around the overhead charges,” said Sobat, in defense of the motion.
“[The administration] has set up this unsustainable budgetary model where every few years, their costs are increasing, and every few years, they come back to us for [a fee] increase.”
“They have a blank slate, or a free pass basically, to keep increasing [overhead charges and ancillary fees] because we’ve never rejected that kind of increase,” he continued. “It’s in the interest of showing the administration that as a collective student body, we are not in support of this funding model, and want to see a reinvestment – not even a reinvestment – but a reduction of those overhead charges, so that the money that we pay to Athletics actually goes in fact to Athletics and not back to the central administration to redistribute elsewhere.”
However, Athletics Representative Yue Jiao raised concerns with the motion.
“Why is it the understanding that having a ‘NO’ vote will result in the [administration] understanding that these overhead charges are too much?” she said. “The reality is that a ‘NO’ vote is actually going to cause Athletics and Recreation to put themselves in a situation where they have to re-evaluate their budget and that will affect the services that are being provided to students.”
“Especially if a ‘NO’ vote is associated with a strong message over overhead charges,” Sobat responded, “it is sending a message to the University that actually their financial practices do need to change. We’ve seen from the Athletics budget that they at times have been able to reduce those overhead charges or increase the transfers of money that they’re giving back to Athletics for particular initiatives.”
“[A “NO” vote] shows that students want to see that kind of funding model, and it is not the same thing as us just wanting to cut services,” he added. “This is a better message than us just saying, ‘No, we just don’t want to increase the fees.’”
“[A “NO” vote] shows that students want to see that kind of funding model, and it is not the same thing as us just wanting to cut services. […] This is a better message than us just saying, ‘No, we just don’t want to increase the fees.’”
A number of councillors agreed with Sobat. Science Representative Caitlin Mehrotra said that the administration’s demand for fee increases does “kind of sound like a threat,” and Senate Caucus Representative William Cleveland agreed that the administration had to be shown that “this is not acceptable.”
In concluding the debate, Jiao asked Sobat “Who do you think would benefit from the fee increase?” Sobat simply answered, “the administration.” The motion endorsing a “NO” vote passed with 13 in favor, four against, and five abstaining.
Restructuring the Equity Policy
Council approved a motion regarding revisions to SSMU’s Equity Policy, which had been tabled since February.
“[The motion] was primarily a restructuring of the policy to make it more clear and accessible to people trying to access it, as well honestly to interpret it for the Equity Commissioners,” explained Sobat. “The next step once it’s approved will be to develop some new communication tools around it: we’d like to have to flow chart to clearly outline the process, and some resources to make it as accessible as possible because we don’t want people to dive into this document as a first step if they’re looking for recourse in SSMU.”
Sobat explained that the motion also outlined the scope and jurisdiction of the Equity Policy, clarifying plans when issues outside of SSMU in other faculty associations arise, and how to refer said issues to other faculty equity committees. The motion passed unanimously.
SSMU participation in AVEQ
Council also approved a motion regarding SSMU participation in AVEQ. Last year in referendum, the student body rejected an offer to join AVEQ, but SSMU nonetheless serves as an official observer to the student federation. SSMU executives have argued that joining a student federation would greatly influence the Society’s ability to influence provincial and federal politics at a higher level.
Despite the student body voting “NO” to joining AVEQ, more students voted to abstain in the referendum than voted for or against, with some positing a “lack of awareness of the role of student federations in general and of the AVEQ in particular.”
The motion approved at Thursday’s council will allow SSMU to remain an observer at AVEQ until the end of 2017, and allow SSMU delegates to continue attending AVEQ member assemblies. The motion also stipulated that SSMU will continue to “educate its members regarding the existence and role of AVEQ,” and bring another referendum question regarding affiliation to AVEQ to Council for consideration in the Fall 2017 semester.
The motion passed with 14 in favour, six against, and three abstaining.
In November, Council allowed undergraduate Engineering senatorial elections to be organized by the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) rather than by Elections SSMU. At the time, it was argued that holding senatorial elections alongside the election of EUS executives would increase voter turnout and interest in Senator positions, without overburdening the EUS.
“[The motion] was primarily a restructuring of the policy to make it more clear and accessible to people trying to access it, as well honestly to interpret it for the Equity Commissioners.”
During the Winter 2017 senatorial elections, this was expanded to all faculty associations. Senate Caucus Representative Joshua Chin presented a motion to standardize this practice, officially amending both the Internal Regulations of Representation and Advocacy, and the Internal Regulations of Elections and Referenda.
The motion passed with no debate, 22 in favor, and one abstention.