McGill, News, SSMU

SSMU severs ties with for-profit company offering Grammarly and other services to students 

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) decided to end its partnership with the for-profit company Student Support during a Legislative Council meeting on Feb. 9. The partnership, which provided students with access to Grammarly, Calm, and Udemy, was a trial run for the academic year, costing students $9.99 per semester. 

The governing body debated the matter and ultimately decided to strike down a referendum question that would have allowed students to vote for an opt-outable fee renewal. As a result, Student Support informed students via email that the services will be unavailable as of Aug. 13, 2023. 

Matthew O’Boyle and Angelica Voutsinas, Arts representatives to SSMU, both voted against the referendum question. They explained that Student Support’s motion was struck down during the Council session because it was written by Ajamu Attard, the CEO of Student Support, instead of a McGill student. 

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Voutsinas argued that the motion did not meet the standards of SSMU’s Consultation Policy, which mandates movers to demonstrate a clear engagement with a representative body of stakeholders, under section 6.4.

“I asked if [Attard] could speak to their consultations with the VP [vice-president] Finance, as that was the only consultation listed on the motion,” Voutsinas said. “They didn’t answer the question. They talked around it. Then, I asked the VP Finance the same question and he told me that he wasn’t really a consultant. He was just asked to review the motion and read it over.” 

Student Support disputes this version of events, claiming that Voutsinas “never asked [Attard] about consultations about the [VP] Finance.”  

Amelia Whitcomb, Science representative to SSMU, was concerned about the limited information available about how Student Support was using student fees. Whitcomb mentioned that SSMU provides members with an itemized list of how their fees are used.

“What can we say about Student Support, aside from ‘it’s to provide you these services?’” Whitcomb said in an interview with the Tribune. “Obviously, the money is also going somewhere else.”

In a follow-up email, Student Support provided the Tribune with a financial breakdown of their income and expenses, along with a projection of operation costs and profits if an opt-outable fee was introduced through SSMU. The company’s calculations estimate a loss of $67,036.39.

Whitcomb pointed to another red flag: Attard ran another for-profit student company in the past, called FundQi, which partnered with student unions at both Toronto Metropolitan University and Carleton University to help students find scholarships. According to the Ontario Business Registry, the FundQi Corporation, registered on Nov. 19, 2020, changed its name to the Student Support Corporation, but remains the same business. 

Mark Colley, a former news editor at The Charlatan, an independent student newspaper at Carleton, covered the FundQi controversy when the service was still available. The program was discontinued at Carleton when over 90 per cent of students voted to remove FundQi because of trouble with unequal scholarship distribution, late opt-out fee reimbursement, and a majority disapproval of the service’s fee being increased to $105 from an original $10.

“I don’t think we ever got specific numbers from FundQi about how many students were using the service,” Colley said in an interview with the Tribune. “Given the end result of the vote, it really seemed like not a lot of students were using it or finding it was worthwhile.”

An annual report compiled by FundQi for the 2020-2021 academic year stated that 2,143 students used the service.

While Whitcomb alleged that she was never informed of the company’s past by its founders, Student Support claimed in an email to the Tribune that they had discussed the past company with SSMU members during consultations. 

But some students are disappointed with the loss of helpful services. Antonina Nikolaev, U1 Arts, hopes that SSMU can continue to provide services such as Grammarly for students. 

“It’s unfortunate that we’re discontinuing our professional relationship with Student Support,” Nikolaev told the Tribune. “I hope that the SSMU is working on finding an alternative solution to provide these services for McGill students. Grammarly is such an important tool, especially for those who don’t have English as their first language.” 

Legislative councillors are currently exploring solutions to continue providing students with access to Grammarly, Udemy, and Calm. Whitcomb is working on a motion that would mandate SSMU to find equal alternatives to Student Support for students.

Article updated at 10:00 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2023.

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