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SSMU Building at McGill
The Jan. 28 SSMU Council will see presentations from two student federations. (L-A Benoit / McGill Tribune)

Commentary: Looking ahead to a more affordable university centre

a/Opinion by

With the first Fall referendum period on its way, students once again have to face the University Centre Building Fee.After last year’s controversy regarding the referendum question, the “Yes” committee’s “Save Our SSMU” campaign argues that students weren’t given enough information to make an “informed decision” during the last referendum, and that the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was bound to paying the negotiated lease. However, students have yet to hear of any plans, short-term or long-term, about renegotiating the lease and working towards a future where we can one day potentially operate in the building free of charge.

In fact, the discussion regarding the University Centre Building Fee has been mostly one-sided. Students have been given facts here and there—some more clear than others—about the danger of a failed building fee, and have been expected to respond obediently. The students have been listening to the demands of the student union, rather than vice versa. The building fee represents yet another shift in costs to students—one that would set a dangerous precedent.

Given the scope of the discussion and how central it is to student life at McGill, the appropriate avenue for reintroducing the discussion of whether or not to run the referendum question would have been through a General Assembly (GA). The bylaws do not dictate a specific period during which the GA must be held. The audits were completed in August, and students would have had the ability to directly discuss the topic of student space and ask about the validity of reintroducing a failed referendum question. Although a GA was not called—partially due to urgency—communication with the student body has to be prioritized, especially with a topic like this.

That said, the University Centre Building Fee is less about SSMU’s operations and services than it is about the ability to have a student space to share interests, goals, and experiences. The value of events like Activities Night is seeing the variety of student interests and how passionate students are about their involvement through SSMU. Beyond academics, university is about growth and discovery, and critical to that is a space for student clubs and services.

Furthermore, the University Centre Building Fee is just another example of a recent trend in shifts of costs to students. SSMU currently charges students $8.50 for the Library Improvement Fund and another $8.50 to the Bursary Fund per term (totalling to approximately $350,000 annually for both funds). Financial aid and library space are not costs that should be charged to students. Those are services that should be provided by the university as a part of our enrolment here. Additionally, with recent cuts to the off-campus program and the closing of the sole Tim Horton’s on campus, the university is starting to cut costs left and right while actively looking for ways to gain revenues. Sadly, to no one’s surprise, students are getting the short end of these changes.

While it is true that our university is financially strained and that students should be understanding of these circumstances, we should be wary of new fees levies. The university will always be able to refer back to the fee as justification for us paying for it.  No matter what the financial situation of McGill University is going to be in seven years’ time, we are likely to continue to pay for the University Centre.

This is why we must be proactive. If we do believe that the University Centre should be a communal space for students and that we should have access to it for free, regardless of the outcome of this referendum, the next discussions we should be having regarding the Shatner Building is what value it holds to students, what foundations we will build to maintain its accessibility to our undergraduate community, and the methods we are going to take to be able to sign a cheaper lease.

The administration is financially weak and students temporarily have leverage. Renovating the building and evicting SSMU would be extremely costly, and would bring a lot of negative attention to the university. The past SSMU executives have built a strong base by significantly reducing the renting costs of the lease and we can continue to build off of that. Sooner or later we will have to make a decision about securing the future of our building; and perhaps then we will be able to call the Shatner Building not just sthe University Centre, but the Student Centre.

 

This article was updated Monday, September 29, 2014.

  • Only Slightly Cynical

    Interesting that your article doesn’t include any actual ways in which SSMU can be “proactive” and achieve the grand things you suggest. Certainly, there’s nothing that hasn’t been said before. Please, by all means, sit down with the Provost and convince him to shift all of these costs back onto the university. This is a trend that has been continuing for decades, not a year or two, and sadly students have very little leverage from their end, as we saw from just how long the lease negotiations dragged on for.

    • ElieLubendo

      Well, the first step is establishing what the end goal is. Of
      course there is no simple answer to this issue but not even having a discussion
      about it definitely won’t get us there. If a mandate is created to at least
      devote resources to going back to negotiations, the details can be worked out
      later. At some point, a line will have to be drawn and we’ll have to actively
      stand against it—and not just the Executives, but students (as many as
      possible). We went from a $1 lease (1999) to a $110,000 lease (early 2000s), to
      the recent $300,000 lease. The university is not going to charge us less; we’ll
      have to take greater measures to get there. In ten years time the rent may as
      well increase to an average of $500,000. All they will need to present to us is
      that the rent space is worth four times that. If we accept such terms on the
      basis that it’s cheaper than real estate price, the fee will only continue to
      increase.

      Regarding leverage and tactics, the current lease was reached
      because a decision was made to try to get the cheapest price possible and
      because it was deemed that the risks of going public with the negotiations were
      not worth it. That is a reasonable argument but we’ll have to gamble with those risks at some point.

      In library space, financial aid, and athletic fees, full time
      students are currently charged $27 a term. That’s almost five times the amount that the
      Building Fee would charge. Leveraging those fees would put a devastating amount
      of pressure on the university (and unfortunately on students too). However, the
      university is going to keep on charging more on the assumption that we aren’t
      willing to fight to the bone.

      I definitely don’t have the answers and I certainly understand
      that this has been an on-going trend over the last few decades. I know that there
      are a lot of variables that come into play with negotiations, but things are
      not going to get better if we believe that “we’ve made it!” The negotiations
      don’t need to happen now, but one way or another, at some point we’ll have to
      say “No.”

  • VPBradley

    Hey readers,

    Just wanted to clarify something I think is pretty important and inaccurate in this article. No SSMU fee is grandfathered–ever, period. All fees are up for existence referendum approximately every 5 years (some are 3). This process requires the group or collective receiving the fee to run a referendum question to either keep it at the same amount or increase it (or decrease it; to the best of my knowledge, this has never happened, but it is feasibly possible). If this process doesn’t happen, the fee is automatically ended.

    While I do think there is a problem with 5 year fees because most students only spend 4 years at McGill (or any University), there is a good reason why they are that length. For one, referendums take time and resources. The other (more important) reason is that groups, services, and ISGs make long-term plans about their operational activity, and these plans can’t be made without the knowledge that their main source of funding is confirmed. Many services could not operate without their fee funding, and rely on it for their main function. If this funding is constantly or frequently up for renewal, it puts a lot of pressure and uncertainty on these groups, who (justifiably) are more concerned with running their service than running a referendum question.

    Source: I am the VP Finance and Operations. I sit on McGill’s Fee Advisory Committee, write the “Where is my Money Going” brochure that explains all student fees, work with groups looking to modify/renew their fee, and assess all of the SSMU fees on an annual basis with McGill Student Accounts. If you are interested in learning more about fees and how they are charged at McGill, feel free to email me at [email protected]

    • Alumnigold

      I voted no. Point blank

    • ElieLubendo

      For clarification, grandfathered was meant as a figure of speech. What I meant was
      that, practically speaking, fees—as you admitted—neither decrease over time nor
      cease to exist. For that reason, unless re-negotiation plans are made ahead of
      time, it is likely that the fee will either pass again or simply continue to
      increase with a bigger fee levy. That is what I meant by grandfathering. The
      new student body that rolls over every three to five years, will become
      accustomed to pay for fees that students should not be paying for. Examples of
      that include last Winter’s renewal of the Bursary Fund fee and Library Fee; and
      as aforementioned, financial aid and library space are not things that students
      should be charged for, but rather given as a service rendered to students
      through enrolling here at McGill.

      I’m not sure what you mean by referendums taking time and resources. The only body
      mandated to work those out is Elections SSMU (excluding McGill who administers
      it to SSMU); the referendum process is highly unregulated, which we have now
      realized given that we can have two referendum periods within one semester and
      re-submit failed motions—I’m not debating those logistics, I’m just proving
      that the by-laws are pretty broad, if existent, regarding referendum matters.
      Secondly, the only mandate that groups have when running a student fee levy is to
      present it either at Council either through a Council motion or through the
      collecting of signatures. Nothing else is regulated at the SSMU level.

      As for your last point regarding Services and Independent Student Groups that run fee
      levies, although financial certainty is a good reason to have lengthy fee
      renewal periods, that reason doesn’t always hold up. The composition of these
      groups (certainly Services) often change and consequently long term-plans, that
      would resemble initiatives like Vision 2020 or the SSMU Five Year Ethical
      Investment Plan, often are either not planned for or often change. This is
      evident by the fact that the Mature and Re-Entry Students Association recently
      shut down as a SSMU Service, and that the last time a SSMU Service completed
      the entire fee renewal period and then renewed was in Winter 2011 (nearly four
      years ago) by the Referral Services, Nightline, Queer McGill, and the Union for
      Gender Empowerment (they bundled and ran one fee levy). Every single SSMU
      Service fee levy until then has been either to create a fee or to increase a
      fee before the renewal date. This is surely a sign that either fee levy
      increases happen too often, the fee renewal period is too long, or that there
      isn’t enough regulation dictated by the by-laws regarding the process.

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