Stakes too high to legalize student association opt-outs
Quebec university students Laurent Proulx and Miguael Bergeron are challenging provincial legislation that mandates that every student in Quebec must be part of a student association, arguing that the current law infringes on students’ right to association.
If Proulx and Bergeron are successful, students will no longer be required to pay membership fees to student associations, such as the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). At the first SSMU Council meeting of the year, SSMU Vice-President External Sam Harris announced that SSMU will contribute $10,000 to the court case. This announcement prompts further consideration by McGill students of the issues at stake. We believe that the law should remain unchanged in that all students should be required to be part of a student association.
Perhaps the most important function of student associations is that they legitimize student representation in front of university authorities. In the case of SSMU, the six executives elected by the student body represent undergraduate students at a high level in the university. For example, the SSMU President is the only undergraduate to sit and have voting power on McGill’s Board of Governors. Similarly, the vice-president University Affairs sits in the committee that elects the new principal, and also coordinates the different faculty student representatives who sit on Senate.
If students had the possibility of opting-out, the student representatives’ ability to credibly speak on the behalf of the student body would decrease considerably. By opting-out of their student association, students would also forfeit the representation in front of the McGill administration. How these students would make their concerns heard is a question that remains to be answered.
Some students, including those filing the case, argue that a major reason why students should not be obligated to be members of a student association is that the positions taken by student associations often do not represent them. For example, the plaintiffs are concerned that their student fees were used to support the student movement in favour of free tuition, which they did not support. However, it is important to remember that student associations are organized as democracies, and that all students have the opportunity of participating in them.
In the case of SSMU, all students have the option of running for executive positions themselves, voting for the executives that best represent their political views, attending SSMU Council meetings concerns, or debating and voting in General Assemblies. Although ultimately not all students may feel represented by their student association, this shortcoming is inherent to the nature of the democratic system.
Student associations are also valuable because they provide services that fill in the gaps left by the university’s administration. For example, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), WalkSafe, and the SSMU Daycare provide services that otherwise would be absent from the university. SSMU provides an infrastructure for the creation and legitimacy of these student initiatives. As student-run ventures, they are more in touch with student needs and more adaptable to change than if they were run by the university.
While we believe that there is value in the fact that all students are required to be members of a student association, the lawsuit provides a valuable opportunity for students to discuss ways in which student associations are failing their members. We believe that student associations need to be held accountable to their members and face periodic review both from individuals and groups. This will ensure that they adapt to changes in needs and technology and that students dollars are managed efficiently and transparently. If students do not feel their associations represent them, it is worth working to improve them rather than shutting them down completely.
DISSENT: To preserve constitutional rights, allow opt-outs
The university students’ association, at first glance, seems like a static entity—immovable, unassailable. However, a current court case filed by two students earlier this year raises fundamental questions about the legal basis for these entities. Should students be obligated to join a student association, as the law currently requires them to? We consider such a statute, at least as it’s currently constructed, to be an infringement on freedom of association.
Their specific contentions point to five provisions of the act, including one which mandates that only one student association exist for each type (undergraduate, post-graduate, etc.) of student on campus, another which mandates that any student who is represented by a student association is automatically considered a part of that association, and one which states that any student registered at a university has to pay the dues of the recognized student association.
Mandatory membership in these associations can be problematic. Oftentimes student associations take strident political stances on issues—both internal and external to campus—that are, at best, highly contentious amongst the students they claim to represent. The most obvious example from the recent past was the Quebec student strike, where many student associations—though neither SSMU nor PGSS at McGill—throughout the province voted to boycott classes. These strikes at many universities meant picketed and cancelled classes as well as lost terms, and were the specific catalyst for the current lawsuit.
The rationale often given for mandating students to be members of university student associations is that, just as one can’t opt-out of a national government because of specific policies they dislike, students should not be able to opt-out of their “government” simply because it takes stances with which they disagree with. While at first glance there is some sense to this logic, it misses the essential difference between the contract one enters with a university and with a nation. The citizens are understood to enter a social contract with the nation they reside in, giving up certain freedoms for protection and a livelihood. The “contract” that constitutes being a university student starts and ends with a tuition bill and a basic code of conduct.
We feel that constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, such as the right to association, should be upheld first and foremost. However, having the legal right to opt-out of student associations does not mean that this is necessarily the right course of action for everybody. Student associations offer students resources, many of which we feel are absolutely crucial to fostering a culture of healthy and well-rounded student life on campus. It is vital that, if given the right to opt out of associations, students make a responsible and informed decision.
Political association at the university level ought to be taken seriously, and should not be mandated by legislation. If this lawsuit is successful, the financial future of student associations across the province will be put into students’ hands. We urge them to take into account all that their student associations do for them and for those around them, before writing them off completely.
Mayaz Alam, Alexandra Allaire, Max Berger, William Burgess, Ben Carter-Whitney, Wendy Chen, Jacqueline Galbraith, Alessandra Hechanova, Abraham Moussako, and Emma Windfeld participated in this dissent and agree with the views presented.