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PGSS discusses education summit

Last Wednesday, the Council of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS) approved plans for a two-day series of panels and discussions as part of the McGill education summit this December. Other topics of discussion included the rights of graduate students as members of the Legal Information Clinic at McGill.

Education summit

According to PGSS Vice-President External Errol Salamon, Council’s plans for the summit began in September, when councillors expressed concerns about their ability to participate at the provincial summit on higher education, scheduled for February 2012.

“A local, student-organized education summit at McGill [will] enable PGSS members to …  voice the issues that are most important and relevant to them,” Salamon wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This summit will serve as the consultation that will inform the positions PGSS will submit to the FEUQ that will subsequently shape its positions for the Quebec Summit.”

The summit will be structured around five themes: the underfunding of universities; international and out-of-province students; the student and public contribution towards financing education; the role of research, teaching, and support staff; and public-private partnerships.

“We will aim to foster dialogue between McGill students, administrators, professors, support staff, unions, relevant external organizations (e.g., FEUQ, TaCEQ), and hopefully some Quebec MNAs [Members of the National Assembly]—many people who don’t typically talk to each other and who aren’t usually in the same place at the same time,” Salamon wrote.

Confirmed speakers currently include FEUQ President Martine Desjardins, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, and representatives from L’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) and the Association for Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM).

After the McGill summit, the PGSS executive will write a document, to be approved at its next Council meeting.

“This document [will] probably include a summary of each theme, including the various positions of the different groups that presented at the summit, as well as the final positions that the PGSS adopts at the summit, which will be articulated as policy recommendations,” Salamon wrote.

PGSS will conduct this event separately from the series of consultations planned by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), but all events will be open to members of both Societies.

Legal Information Clinic

Last Wednesday’s Council meeting also included a discussion with representatives of the Legal Information Clinic at McGill, currently in talks with PGSS on graduate students’ambiguous rights as members of the clinic.

PGSS members currently pay $4 every year to the clinic, a non-profit organization that provides free legal information, presentations, and student advocacy. According to the clinic’s Executive Director Emily Elder, PGSS members currently do not clearly fit into the clinic’s categories of members as outlined in their by-laws. Although this does not affect their coverage at the clinic, it means that their rights as fee-paying members are ambiguous.

Elder said a subcommittee has been working on the by-laws since the problem came to her attention in July, and that she hopes the Board of Directors (BoD) will approve the amendments at their Nov. 19 meeting so that the by-laws can be made available to all members by the end of the month.

PGSS Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney said PGSS has been in discussions with the clinic about increasing the organization’s transparency, including improving access to by-laws and financial statements. He also expressed concern over the lack of PGSS representation on the clinic’s BoD.

“We feel that meaningful participation in the governance of an association that one supports through the payment of a fee is essential to ensure accountability,” Mooney said.

According to Elder, however, organizations are not legally obliged to disclose their by-laws or have representatives on their BoD. She said the BoD has not explored the process of doing so because no one had made that request before PGSS did last summer.

“Historically, we used to have a PGSS representative on our board, as well as a SSMU representative,” Elder said. “My understanding is that it wasn’t a constructive relationship. We’re operating under significant legal constraints, [and] that’s not always clearly understood by student representatives.”

Mooney also said the clinic has never run a referendum question for graduate students about their student fee to the clinic. In 2009, they ran an existence referendum, but only polled undergraduate students.

“In effect, the university and  the [clinic] agreed to continue collecting fees from graduate students based on a referendum polling exclusively undergraduate students,” Mooney said. “This indicates a fairly serious policy inconsistency.”

According to Elder, however, the clinic is bound by the administration’s policy for accepting the referendum, which considers a majority vote of undergraduate members as the “requisite threshold” for the continued existence of the clinic. She expressed hope that the two groups will be able to reconcile these concerns in the future.

“I really think that what we’re seeing is a communication breakdown rather than any real problem with our services,” Elder said. “I am open, willing, and wanting to mend that relationship.”

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One Comment

  1. Get real LICM!

    Actually, there are very real concerns with the service, or total lack thereof from the perspective of grads and postdocs. These comments by Elders are either disingenuous or unfortunately ignorant. In either case, Elders isn’t likely to pull the wool over the eyes of the PGSS.

    It’s rather perfunctory to make a statement like, “We’re operating under significant legal constraints, [and] that’s not always clearly understood by student representatives.” Considering that many PGSS members hold multiple law degrees and are members of multiple bar associations, it strikes me as a bit odd that somehow they aren’t capable of finding useful student input, especially from grads and postdocs.

    The statement, “I really think that what we’re seeing is a communication breakdown rather than any real problem with our services,” is total horse shit. This whole thing started when the PGSS couldn’t find graduate students that could unequivocally explain what the clinic did, or that they ever benefited from its existence or the fee they pay for its existence.

    Worse, those that did pipe up, clearly indicated that they found the clinic to be rather useless: poorly trained “staff,” poorly organized space, no actual legal advice, no useful referral program, and so on. When PGSS inquired with its own Graduate Student Support Committee (now renamed) which deals with grad and postdoc legal issues, they confirmed that their “clients” invariably report that the clinic is of no help. In fact, the committee and its long line of commissioners, have gone so far as to actually make it standard practice to point its clients away from the clinic to keep them from wasting the time, energy, and resources that are so precious in their time of need.

    All of this was relayed to the Executive Director of the clinic last year. In fact, PGSS offered to actually work on a fee increase so that the clinic could retain an actual lawyer! The clinic completely failed to respond to these offers, instead opting for the “duck and cover” strategy hoping that this year’s PGSS executive would forget about them and let them quietly collect their cash in peace.

    That this executive has not forgotten about the very real problems with the clinic is testament to the fact that these problems run far deeper than “a communication breakdown.” How disingenuous can you get?

    I smell a cash grabbing rat!

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