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.