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SSMU Holds Town Hall on Accessible Education

Discussion about unpaid internships, fair working conditions, and democratization of the university

On November 16, SSMU’s External Affairs Office hosted a Town Hall on Accessible Education where representatives of various student groups came together to discuss the barriers students face at their respective universities, and how SSMU can better advocate on these issues on behalf of McGill’s student body. VP External Val Masny, who was facilitating, explained that although holding such events is part of SSMU’s mandate, it hadn’t been done for several years. However, they believed in the importance of holding such events once more given that many groups on campus are currently organizing around issues related to accessible education. Representatives from Divest McGill, McGill Law Students’ Association (LSA), Education Undergraduate Society of McGill (EDUS), and L’Association des étudiantes et étudiants de la Faculté des sciences de l’Éducation de l’UQAM (ADEESE) were present at the town hall.

Alicia Prosser, from ADEESE, started off by discussing its ongoing strike which began on October 13 in response to poor working conditions when doing mandatory work experience programs. They brought forth six demands: fair workload, commute time, flexible absences, a better harassment policy, accommodations for students with children, and paid internships, with a particular focus on the last three. Prosser explained that UQAM’s harassment policy only applies within the university and not where the internship takes place, leaving people who experience harassment while on an internship with few options to address it. ADEESE also believes that student parents should get priority when choosing internship locations to ensure that it’s close to a daycare. Finally, they argue that it’s unfair to ask students to work for free at internships that are essentially work experience.

After four weeks of striking and protest, the university agreed to listen to their demands. As a result, UQAM created committees for a better harassment policy and accommodations for student parents, and they intend to continue organizing for paid internships. Prosser considers the strikes worth the effort, as they brought forth a lot of changes and helped to further democracy at UQAM. She encourages other students to do the same, adding that larger numbers will create a bigger statement.

Next to speak were Justin Liao and Anna Leung, EDUS VP Academics and VP Finance respectively. Like at UQAM, they explained that education undergraduate students at McGill aren’t fairly compensated for the work experiences they complete as part of their degree. Although EDUS has not yet mobilized for paid internships, they’re looking to develop a financial aid framework to offset some of the costs incurred with completing these mandatory field experiences. For example, Liao explained that transportation can be very costly as students are often placed very far away from where they live. He added that students have other responsibilities such as jobs, classes, and children, and field experiences often take up over 40 hours per week, with students being expected to take on the majority of the cooperating teacher’s work for none of the pay. Leung said that the recent strikes at UQAM resonated with the EDUS, which inspired them to push for increased financial aid. Although none of the current EDUS council would reap the benefits of these changes, they want to push for these reforms so that future education students can succeed.

After EDUS, Emily Thom, VP External of the LSA discussed the proposed Quebec Bar School reform, which would require law students to undertake more unpaid internships in order to complete their degree. Thom said that since law students often come into the program with prior degrees, they already have a lot of student debt. As it’s already difficult to make money while in school, mandatory unpaid internships would add additional challenges. Laura Doyle Péan, a law student present, added that this change would discourage students from pursuing more social-justice-oriented careers in law, as corporate jobs have higher salaries which makes paying off student debt easier. 

Masny presented a statement from the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) who weren’t able to attend the Town Hall. The statement focused on financial precarity among grad students, who often rely on grants and awards to fund their research. However, the funding offered doesn’t account for inflation and rising cost of living, and many graduate students have an income below the poverty line. They are requesting standardized funding processes and regulations across the university and a transparent process for resolving funding issues.

The last group present was Divest McGill, represented by Emily Hardie and Carley Dove-McFalls. Divest McGill has existed for almost ten years, and are planning actions to ‘celebrate’ their anniversary, including a collective scream in front of the James Administration Building and a Divest Birthday Party with free food and dancing. Divest McGill’s campaign revolves around divestment, democratization, and decolonization, particularly the democratization of the Board of Governors who refuse to divest from fossil fuels. In November 2021, they formed the Democratize McGill coalition alongside Queer McGill, Socialist Fightback at Concordia and McGill, McGill Corporate Accountability Project, and the Protestors Legal Information Clinic. During their two-week occupation of the Arts Building this year, they held three General Assemblies attended by more than 50 people, where they discussed what they wanted to see with regards to democratization. This includes the democratization of the Board of Governors, but also of other institutions such as student-led bodies, student housing, and food services, ultimately promoting community control over the University’s resources.

“At the centre of all these issues is the university’s undemocratic structure, which is what this campaign is trying to get people to realize,” explained Hardie. She also expressed frustration at the internal advocacy structures within McGill, saying that their bureaucratic nature forces groups to resort to protests and strikes to get what they need. Masny added that the Board of Governors can override decisions made by the democratically-elected Senate, another reason why groups may turn to alternate advocacy methods. Finally, they also argued that free tuition would reduce many financial burdens and make education more accessible to everyone, echoing the demands of the 2012 student strike.