As more students opt out, campus groups face budget shortfalls

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Last Thursday concluded the Winter 2010 student fee opt-out period, which had begun two weeks earlier on January 14, and the current academic year has seen the highest level of opt-outs ever.

Each semester McGill gives students a two-week window during which they can, through the online Minerva service, opt out of several fees that support Students’ Society and faculty association groups and funds, as well as a pair of independent student groups: the McGill chapter of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) and Radio CKUT.

The opt-out system has existed in its current form since 2007, when SSMU and the Student Accounts Office took the system online-although SSMU had wanted the system to be on their website rather than Minerva.

Students have been able to opt out of certain SSMU fees since 2006. Prior to the move in 2007, fewer opt-outable fees existed and opt-out rates were much lower. In Winter 2007, for example, the average opt-out rate for SSMU fees was 0.83 per cent of the undergraduate population.

That number spiked upward when opt-outs were brought online, however, to 6.45 per cent in Fall 2007-the first semester in which the new system was used.

Although opt-out rates have been lower in winter semesters than in fall semesters, there has been a steady year-on-year increase since 2007. The average increased to 9.76 per cent for the Fall 2008 semester, and then to 11.19 per cent in Fall 2009. For the current semester, the average was 10.11 per cent, versus 7.7 per cent in Winter 2009.

Although the trends in opt-out number are clear, the factors driving them are not.

“Opt-outs have gone up every year since they were instituted in 2006,” said SSMU Vice-President Clubs and Services Sarah Olle. “I would attribute much of this to increased awareness of the ability to opt out, and also the aggressive campaigning of certain opt-out groups.”

Chief among these groups is the “QPIRG: Opt-Out!” group, which maintains a Facebook group and a website, and, as its name suggests, encourages students to opt out of QPIRG’s $3.75-per-semester fee.

“QPIRG: Opt-Out!” doesn’t target SSMU groups, but many, including Olle, believe that such groups have the effect of drawing people’s attention to the opt-out process as a whole, which is not in itself a problem.

“Many people argue that people should have the right to opt out of a fee that they would not like to pay for, which makes perfect sense, and I think is totally logical,” said Olle. “The sad thing is that the opt-out numbers across the majority of the fees are consistent … so I think what this indicates is that people who are opting out are usually blanket opting out.”

To support this theory, Olle pointed to the number of opt outs across the seven SSMU fees, including a fee for the Tribune, which were put online in 2007. Despite the fact that these fees ranged from $0.50 (for the Tribune) to $8.50 (for the SSMU Library Fund), and covered things as diverse as referral services and Midnight Kitchen, the number of students opting out has remained consistent across all of them, even with the overall variance from semester to semester. In fact, the SSMU fees with the highest and lowest opt-out rates have never varied by more than two per cent.

“I think that as years go on people become increasingly aware about that capacity, that you can opt-out,” said Louise Burns, CKUT sales manager.

With rising and somewhat unpredictable numbers of students opting out, groups and funds that rely on these fees are finding it more and more difficult to plan their finances.

Groups that fall under SSMU, or one of the faculty associations, such as the Arts Undergraduate Society, have the added security of these parent organizations to fall back on. Because QPIRG and CKUT are independent groups, however, they have no such safety net.

On top of this, QPIRG and CKUT have to deal with opt-out numbers that tend to be higher than those for SSMU fees.

CKUT saw 12.43 per cent of undergraduates opt out of its fee during the recent opt-out period, and 14.13 opt out last September. Though QPIRG did not release their numbers, Burns said that QPIRG and CKUT’s stats are generally very similar.

Increasing opt-out rates have strongly affected CKUT’s finances, and although the station is not projected to run a deficit this year-because of the revenue generated by H1N1 public service announcements-it ran deficits in the two previous years, part of which is attributable to opt-outs, Burns said. Because of the persistent deficits, CKUT is considering cutting one paid staff position.

QPIRG, which was the first McGill group to institute an opt-outable fee, in 1988, has also felt the pinch due to increasing opt-outs. The organization faces the added difficulty of combating the “QPIRG: Opt-Out!” campaign.

“I think the thing that is the most infuriating for me is the claim of the opt-out QPIRG campaign that things are being done on the sly, whereas I think it’s fairly accurate to say that QPIRG has always been an open and democratically accessible organization,” Burrill said.

Although the factors driving the increase in opt-out rates cannot be known for sure, it’s clear that the affected groups and funds are having to adapt to increased budgetary pressures, as more and more students choose to opt-out, for whatever reasons. For Olle, as well as QPIRG and CKUT organizers, the most important thing students can do before they opt out is to inform themselves about the fees they’re opting out of before they do so.

“I would really hope that students would want to support the activities of their fellow students, even if it’s not something that they personally partake in,” Olle said “I think it’s really important that we keep campus life alive, and it’s only through this funding that we’re able to do so.”