Give students a say in student services surplus

a/Editorial/Opinion by

At the end of last semester, an unexpected surplus was announced in the Student Services contingency fund, to the tune of $5 million. In the coming weeks and months, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens will be faced with the decision of how to allocate these funds. Although there are currently no official proposals on the table, it is crucial that these funds remain within Student Services—where they would be most beneficial to students—and that students themselves are given a voice throughout the decision-making process.

Given the ongoing budgetary constraints across the board at McGill, there is no shortage of potential destinations for this money. Indeed, with the announcement of these funds in December, Dyens proposed using the money towards the hiring of additional library security, among other projects.

Rather than being treated as an unattached sum, this money must be put towards fulfilling the Student Services mandate. Given the constant shortage of resources and lengthy wait times facing those who do seek to use these services, there is no justification for taking back money that had initially been budgeted to this unit. To his credit, Dyens was quick to step away from his initial suggestion when it was met with opposition from students—and since promised to keep the funds within Student Services—but there are still critical decisions to be made as options are considered.

There is also the issue of how to distribute the money within Student Services. Student representatives of the Student Services advisory committee have expressed a desire to see the individual units of Student Services (e.g. Counselling Service, Scholarships and Student Aid) consulted on the impact that the extra resources could have in their areas. While this would certainly help to ensure that an informed decision is made, the most important consultation to be had is with the students whom these funds will ultimately be serving.

Student consultation, however, is not an easy proposition. Attempts by the administration at consulting the student body—especially in recent years—have often consisted solely of poorly-attended town halls, and resulted in decisions to which the student body at large was strongly opposed, as seen in 2012 and early 2013 with the development of the Operating Procedures Regarding Demonstrations, Protests, and Occupations. While student apathy plays a part in these failures, the administration has a responsibility of its own. Effective consultation means engaging students, rather than merely providing a venue and hoping they show up. It also means making efforts to communicate what is at stake, and giving actual proposals as to what is possible, rather than trying to coax out students’ interests and priorities in the abstract. To that end, the administration could open up the different proposals to direct evaluation from students.

With $5 million at play here, Dyens has an opportunity to truly grab students’ attention—especially in an area about which students have proven to care so deeply. Recently, calls for the university to offer sexual assault resources of its own, the student-led Students in Mind conference, and student-run initiatives such as the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) and the newly founded Peer Support Network are all evidence of a desire from McGill students to engage and innovate when it comes to student wellness.

Arriving on the heels of a semester in which some of the most prominent topics on campus—from sexual assault to mental health—concerned student wellness and safety, this is a chance for the administration to actually demonstrate its commitment to these issues. Giving students a voice in the process will ensure that all standpoints and visions are heard, as we strive towards a happier and healthier campus.

  • Morgan Grobin

    The purpose of having student representatives on CSS *is* to facilitate student consultation. The committee is already a parity committee (equal representation from faculty and students). It would be a waste of university resources to have extensive student consultation on EVERYTHING.

    • Ponyboy

      Hm. What I got from
      this article is that student services is an area where students do have a lot
      of cool initiatives (say Students in Mind conference, Peer Support Network). Here’s an idea: what if
      there was some sort of callout for proposals for student projects in student
      services? That would be less extensive but still grab the attention of
      interested students.

      • Morgan Grobin

        That’s not sustainable. The kinds of initiatives that need to happen in student services are long term, and students don’t have sight for more than a year. I agree that new initiatives need to be pursued, but they need to be spearheaded by directors of services, developed with their advisory committees that *already exist*.

        The trib didn’t do their research on this subject. The director of student services has a plan to allocate the surplus, and it has involved extensive student consultation up to this point. Students are going to continue to be involved. If the newspaper editors really want to be involved in this huge project (that already has students involved in it) then all that they need to do is talk to one of the directors of any student service and ask to be involved in their advisory committee.

        • Ponyboy

          I’m pretty sure that the students who envisioned successful projects like SACOMSS or Nightline would disagree that student don’t have sight for more than a year.

  • Erin

    While I appreciate the Trib speaking out about this, they’re about a month behind on the issue (to be fair they don’t have all of the info, especially as the Committee on Student Services just met again today).

    The proposal from the Deputy Provost to allocate funds from the surplus to projects outside of Student Services is no longer going ahead; instead Student Services will pursue its existing plan to spend down the surplus through their yearly budgets PLUS an “Innovation Fund” of sorts that will take project proposals from students and staff. These will be vetted through the Committee on Student Services (which includes equal representation from admin and student reps, as Morgan mentioned) and only receive final approval (not direction) through the DP’s office. The existence of this fund will definitely be advertised once the terms of reference have been drafted and agreed upon sometime in the next few weeks. Note that the fund should be viewed more as “seed money” for one-time or trial projects rather than a continuous source of funding (this wouldn’t be sustainable), however it will be valuable both for the kinds of student initiatives mentioned in the other comments as well as to help the university move ahead to a more proactive, harm-reduction model for student services.