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To be or not to be

Every semester, McGill students encounter flyers, emails, and campaign slogans that draw their attention to issues that are the subject of the current referendum period. For some student groups and services, referenda are a valuable opportunity to request an increase in student fees. But referenda can also be a source of anxiety—especially for the five Independent Student Groups (ISGs) McGill requires to run ‘existence referenda.’ A ‘no’ vote means the end to both the group’s fees and their Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the university.

However, the McGill administration has only required existence referenda since 2006. In light of the upcoming existence referendum for the Daily Publications’ Society (DPS), the Tribune set out to find out why the administration requires existence referenda, how McGill’s referendum system compares to other Canadian universities, and what those involved think of the process.

History of existence referenda at McGill

Existence referenda are tied to the renewal of a student group’s MoA, the document which governs the group’s relationship with the administration. The MoA covers issues such as insurance, office space, and the collection of student fees.

Unlike most student groups, which receive their fees through the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), ISGs are financially autonomous. The administration therefore collects student fees on behalf of the group, as established in their MoA.

This arrangement affects five ISGs—the DPS, the Tribune Publications Society, Radio CKUT, the Legal Information Clinic (LIC), and the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG).

“The logic is that we actually have three parties here—we have the university, we have the student body, and we have an independent group, which exists only if the student body wants it to exist,” Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson said. “The university is asked to enter into an agreement, take money out of the pockets of students, and hand it to the independent group.”

According to Mendelson, the current system came into practice following several incidences where the administration was asked to mediate issues between students and ISGs. In 1995, for example, SSMU attempted to run a referendum to lobby the administration to cut the DPS’s student fee, after councillors expressed concerns about the ability of students to participate in the DPS. However, the DPS successfully had the results invalidated by the SSMU Judicial Board.

Mendelson said tension also emerged over the structure and management of CKUT, leading some to question the role of the radio station in relation to the student body. According to a document from the Office of the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG) voiced concerns about CKUT’s structure when its MoA was brought to them for approval in 2001, citing the fact that only four of 12 members on the CKUT Board of Directors were McGill students.

“The university reflected that there was no mechanism in place to know whether the activity still had student support for it to continue on campus,” the document reads.

Following these concerns and negotiations, CKUT ran McGill’s first existence referendum in the Winter 2006 semester. Since then, the administration has required all five ISGs that collect student fees to run existence referenda every five years, before the university renews their MoA. According to Mendelson, this time frame was implemented so that students have the opportunity to vote on most organizations’ existence during their time at McGill.

Mendelson said he does not know why the BoG did not propose existence referenda prior to 2006.

“The Board of Governors changes and the notions of accountability change,” he said.

Referenda across Canada

Across Canada, universities’ referendum systems vary. Concordia University, Simon Fraser University (SFU), and Queen’s University each require referenda for student groups to establish fee levies. However, none of these their administrations require groups to run referenda at set intervals. The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia were not available for comment.

Student groups across Canada have faced referenda on whether students wish to remove their student fees. In 2008, students at the University of Waterloo voted to stop paying a mandatory fee for CKMS radio station. However, this referendum was initiated by the students’ council, and was not the result of a regular system like McGill’s.

Mendelson emphasized the  relative novelity of McGill system’s when comparing it to other universities.

“It’s very possible that other universities may move in this direction,” he said. “Regardless, we feel that our process safeguards the interests of students at McGill.”

At SFU and Concordia, a group must establish a fee levy in a referendum, but groups are not required to run referenda to renew student support. Tim Rahilly, associate vice-president of students at SFU, said existing fees for independent student groups can be cancelled through student-initiated referenda.

“SFU’s system does not provide a mechanism requiring a new mandate from the student body, but does require a concerted effort by a group of students who might want to stop paying to support one of the organizations funded by student levy,” Rahilly told the Tribune.

According to Mendelson, differences between referenda systems at universities probably come from provincial legislation, and different arrangements between administrations and student groups.

“I don’t know whether other universities in Quebec have the kind of arrangements that we have with our independent student groups,” he said. “Our arrangements with student associations pre-date the law for the accreditation of student associations, so we’ve been doing this for many, many years.”

Like McGill, Queen’s University has a referendum system where student groups must renew their student fees. However, this “triennial review” is implemented and conducted by its student government, the Alma Mater Society (AMS).

“The entire referendum process and all of its rules and procedures are governed by the AMS,” AMS President Doug Johnson said. “The university does not have much say in how that works.”

The system at Queen’s also affects far more student groups than  McGill’s. In the 2012 Winter Semester, 22 student groups ran referenda renewing their fees, and three of these failed.

Allison Cooper, SSMU vice-president clubs and services, said she does not think SSMU has ever considered running existence referenda for student clubs. She explained that she does not support the administration’s requirement that ISGs prove that students support them every five years, because referenda require a lot of money and effort on the part of student groups.

“Students [should be able to] bring an existence question to the table if they feel it is necessary, but I think having it as a default … should not be the case,” she said.

According to Cooper, referendum costs include the use of online voting software, staff salaries, and up to $300 in campaigning costs for each ‘yes’ and ‘no’ committee.

Negotiations over graduate students’ votes in referenda

While referenda affect all students, not every student is allowed to vote in McGill existence referenda. Jonathan Mooney, secretary-general of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), has talked with Mendelson about the inability of PGSS members to vote in existence referenda that are run through Elections SSMU, even though the results often affect PGSS student fees too.

“The decision on the part of the university to either continue or cease to collect the fees levied by an independent student group on postgraduate students should not be based on a referendum of exclusively undergraduate students,” he said.

Graduate students pay fees for four ISGs—the DPS, CKUT, QPIRG, and the LIC. Mooney said this issue came to his attention after examining the LIC’s 2009 existence referendum, which was run through Elections SSMU.

Mendelson described this issue as a “shortcoming” in the referendum process, and said he is unsure of how it came about.

“In the past, what had happened, I believe, [was] that the undergraduates were polled and the graduate students were okay with the results,” he said. “So you could imagine that [PGSS would] say ‘well, there are so many undergraduates that have given support, and as a student body we don’t expect that we would have a different result.’ ”

According to Mendelson, resolving the issue would be complicated. For example, someone would have to determine if both PGSS and SSMU would have to pass referenda, or if the result would be determined from their combined votes. He said he is willing to have conversations with PGSS about the issue.

Mendelson added that nothing currently stops ISGs from polling both undergraduate and graduate students. To do so, however, groups have to either run their question independently of SSMU or PGSS—which means the group would bear the costs—or have separate questions run through PGSS and SSMU simultaneously.

Next winter, the DPS will run an independent referendum that will poll both undergraduates and graduates combined. DPS Chair Sheehan Moore said the DPS felt this was the fairest way to run their referendum.

“I’m aware that the administration is willing to accept the results of questions that not all members have been polled for,” Moore said. “For me, this willingness raises some serious questions about their claim that existence referenda are all about democracy and accountability.”

Mooney said he is confident that the current system comes from “a legitimate interest in assuring accountability.” He expressed optimism that the involved groups can work together in the future to improve the system.

“I believe accountability may be ensured in multiple ways via the MoA—for example, requiring that bylaws ensure sufficient student member participation in the group’s governance,” he said. “PGSS could certainly work with SSMU, the incoming Deputy Provost, and the Independent Student Groups to explore alternate mechanisms that consider the concerns of the Independent Student Groups while preserving accountability for students.”

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