I n Winter 2015, the McGill administration announced changes in Student Serves funding, stating that it would cease to supply Student Services with a yearly transfer from McGill’s operating budget. McGill also announced that in the event of further budget cuts by the federal government, the McGill administration would redistribute to other offices government grants previously given directly to Student Services. These budgetary changes sparked concern among student representatives in the McGill Senate about the future of services funding.
Concerns addressed at Senate meeting
On April 22, student Senators discussed funding for McGill Student Services, an administrative branch of McGill that oversees offices such as McGill the Mental Health Service and the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD).
Chloe Rourke, then Arts & Science senator and co-chair on the Committee for Student Services (CSS), explained that the budget cuts imposed by the Quebec government last spring resulted in uncertainty over the future of financing and operations for Student Services.
“My understanding is that the government has now shifted the responsibility [to McGill] to provide many services to students with disabilities that were previously arranged by the government,” Rourke said. “There is still much uncertainty as to how this will affect OSD and services for students with disabilities. How the funding will be distributed to each university is also still undetermined.”
Understanding budget changes
Rourke explained that Student Services is funded by three areas: Student fees, funding from the government, and transfers from McGill’s operating budget.
“The university has cut transfers from the operating budget to Student Services,” Rourke said. “Five years ago, the University was transferring over $400,000 to Student Services, and now they are transferring no funds at all.”
Arts Senator Erin Sobat underscores that, despite such changes, Student Services will be operating on a projected surplus. The reduction in transfers from McGill’s operating budget, however, has resulted in a cut in funding for certain departments (such as Campus Life and Engagement) within Student Services.
“While the overall [budget] of student services will look constant for fiscal year , cuts have been made to Student Services funding,” said Sobat, also a sitting member of the CSS. He cited McGill’s “cut of a transfer previously being made to Student Services for Orientation Week [$112 000].”
Both Sobat and Rourke noted that administrative overhead fees charged to Student Services had also been raised. “They have increased administrative overhead fees being charged to Student Services by over $260,000,” Sobat said. “Thus, while student services is able to cover these added expenses out of their surplus for the coming year, and it will not appear as a cut on paper, this still represents a reduction in funding.”
In response to the Sobat’s concerns, Deputy Provost Ollivier Dyens stated that offices within Student Services, like OSD, had not suffered funding reductions.
“Let me be very clear here: There has been no cut to OSD’s budget,” he said. “The alleged reduction in OSD services is a reduction in services not deemed essential caused by the substantial increase in the need for essential services.” Student services branches like the OSD, however, are different from services for students, such as the Arts Internship Office.
Reallocation of services budget
Dyens explained that Student Services could face additional changes to their funding structure if further budget cuts are imposed by the Quebec government.
“If we face unsustainable cuts over the next few years, we may be forced to reallocate a portion of the government grant to ensure the viability of [other] services to students,” Dyens said. “We would be able to do so only because Student Services has an accumulated surplus of more than $6 million.”
Rourke explained that she believed that Dyens’ proposal was unsustainable, and would not allow Student Services to fulfill student demand for the resources it provides.
“[The surplus] will run out in a couple of years,” Rourke said. “Then, Student Services will be forced make cuts and reduce service provision, or bring a referendum question [to raise] student fees. Even though Student Services is dipping into the surplus to compensate for these challenges, it will still not be enough to meet demands placed on the services this coming year.”
Rourke and Sobat noted that while the government grant would assist other general services to students, such as Service Point, however these changes would affect Student Services, a separate administrative branch.
“Student Services is a legal-administrative structure at McGill that is separate from the central administration and faculties in that it is a ‘self-funded’ unit. [Meanwhile], ‘services to students’ is an expansive category which ostensibly includes almost any non-teaching program or resource offered at McGill,” said Sobat.
The future of Student Services
The key concerns that Rourke and Sobat wished to see addressed were service reductions and lengthier processes to access resources provided by Student Services.
“The wait-time to see a therapist at Mental Health Services was over five months this year, even though Mental Health offered the most appointments [in its history],” said Rourke. “These demands are expected to [increase] next year and the current funding and resources available [are insufficient] to meet this demand. Additionally, [OSD] has had a surge in students making first time appointments to register for their services.”
Dyens explained that while services such as OSD and counselling were indeed critical, administration could not meet every demand nor ‘take over’ the public healthcare system.
“What we can do, however, is to focus on providing the best and healthiest possible environment, and to provide as much support as we can,” said Dyens.
Dyens additionally recommended developing a response to long waitlists and stagnant funding to meet rising demand.
“What we can also do is to have a well-developed wellness strategy and action plan,” he said. “I will ask the incoming senior directors of Student Services and Athletics and Recreation in coordination with every [Student Life and Living] unit to develop such a plan.”
In the face of these changes, Sobat stressed the importance of campus-wide awareness on the financial situation, stating that Student Services hosts a “large suite” of units that “every student [would] need to access” during their time at McGill. Rourke also advocated strongly for awareness and transparency on funding decisions for service units.
“McGill is an elite, competitive university filled with exceptional students, faculty and admin[istration]. [However], we need to start prioritizing the mental and physical well-being of our community […We also] need to focus on improving the well-being of our students, which has been shown in multiple surveys to be suffering significantly in recent years. Supporting Student Services is critical for student success and well-being,” Rourke said.