Posted in In the news, Opinion

#6party is over, but the hypocrisy continues at McGill

Showing what I consider to be a rather stunning level of restraint, McGill University allowed a group of students to occupy its administration building for days before finally calling in the police to have them “evicted”.

The occupation has naturally divided the McGill and general population. Some see it as a heroic at of defiance against an evil regime that seeks to undermine student groups that are trying to make societal change that goes against their right-win world view. Opponents see it as a bunch of whiny privileged white kids who are trying to act out their Che Guevara/Berkeley fantasies by pretending to be hippies and engaging in an annoying disruption that will in the end accomplish nothing.

Then again, it looks like some stuff has been accomplished by all this resistance.

But what about the issue that led to the occupation in the first place?

This whole issue came about because of a recent student referendum vote on the renewal of student fees for CKUT radio and the McGill chapter of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group. Unlike other groups receiving student fees directly through tuition payments to the university (including all those at Concordia who do so), these groups are required to renew their fees every few years. The alternative would be either having a process of revoking student fees from organizations (one student unions and the student groups getting the funding would be very hesitant to participate in), or acknowledging that once a group gets approval from students for a fee, that fee remains in perpetuity. Neither alternative is particularly desirable.

But rather than a simple question asking if students wished to continue paying their fees, both questions included a second part about the opt-out system.

Opting in to opting out

Recognizing that some students need every dollar they can get, and it’s incredibly hypocritical to demand a free education on one hand and hold out the other demanding a mandatory fee from every student, many groups have agreed to allow students to opt out and get a refund of their fee directly from the organization.

I’ve always been suspicious of this (some groups at Concordia do the same thing), because the process seems to involve actually going to their offices and demanding money back, which can be pretty intimidating. Does the process require signing paperwork? Do you have to justify your reason to opt out? Will you get a lecture about how much the organization needs your money to survive, or about how you’ll be denied services if you say no? I never went through the process, so I don’t know. Most other students didn’t either, because they didn’t know about it or because they couldn’t be bothered.

Perhaps recognizing this, McGill changed the way it works in 2007 and allowed students to opt out of their fees to these organizations electronically, anonymously, without having to set foot in the offices of the groups concerned.

The result, these groups say, is a significant drop in their revenue from student fees. They point out organized campaigns to get more students to opt out that are hurting their bottom line.

Begging the questions

So the referendum question asking students about maintaining the fee also added in a bit about no longer using this opt-out system.

The questions as they appeared on the ballot, according to the SSMU (PDF) are as follows:

Do you support CKUT continuing as a recognized student activity supported by a fee of $4.00 per semester for fulltime undergraduate students, which is not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but is fully refundable directly through CKUT, with the understanding that a majority “no” vote will result in the termination of all undergraduate funding to CKUT?

Do you support QPIRG continuing as a recognized student activity supported by a fee of $3.75 per semester for fulltime undergraduate students, which is not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but is fully refundable directly through QPIRG, with the understanding that a majority “no” vote will result in the termination of all undergraduate funding to QPIRG?

Both questions passed with clear majorities. But the university decided against recognizing the results, arguing that the questions were unclear. Students naturally protested this and hence we have the occupation that’s been getting all the news coverage.

I can see the university’s point here. The part about opting out seems like more of a statement than a question. But loaded questions like this are fairly common in such student referendum questions (most are heavily biased in favour of approving new or higher fees for student organizations), and I’m not sure why McGill has chosen here to start a fight.

The motive

The big question here is: Why don’t these organizations want to make it easier for students to opt out? It’s a question that I’ve yet to see a convincing answer to.

CKUT summarizes its opposition to the system, using arguments echoed by QPIRG McGill. I further summarize them as such:

  1. Having the university administer the opt-out system is an unacceptable encroachment on the finances of those organizations receiving fees.
  2. Students never approved such an opt-out system in a referendum, nor was it negotiated with the groups or with the SSMU.
  3. The university doesn’t allow students to opt out of its own fees with this system.
  4. Because opting out is so much easier, more students will do it and the groups will get less money.

Let’s be honest here: The last argument is the only one that really matters. And it makes it clear that these groups have no intention of making it easy for students who don’t want to fund them to get their money back.

The first argument about jurisdiction makes sense only if you ignore the fact that the university collects student fees in the first place, tacking them on to tuition bills. Why would a deduction at source be unacceptable?

The second argument, about student not approving such a system, could easily be tested by having a referendum question about it. But I’m pretty sure the groups know they would lose that battle if the question was posed fairly.

The third argument is a red herring, and has nothing to do with the debate at hand. Student groups allowing students to opt out of fees shouldn’t mean the university has to do the same.

The arguments about university control are, frankly, minor. This is about money, and how offering an opt-out system has always been more about image than practicality. These groups are interested in making it as hard as possible for students to get their money back.

The hypocrisy

Back when I was at Concordia, the university came to a compromise with the student union, which was upset about an ill-defined “administration fee” that was costing students a lot of money every semester and looked an awful lot like a back-door tuition increase.

The university decided to allow some students to opt out of that fee. To be more accurate, it offered a bursary to students with financial need equivalent to the cost of that fee.

The Concordia Student Union went on a campaign, passing around the form to apply for this bursary to as many students as they possibly could. They wouldn’t be satisfied until every student opted out of this fee. Many did, but again many just didn’t bother.

Now, you could argue that this isn’t incredibly hypocritical because students never approved the administration fee but they did approve the CKUT and QPIRG fees. But somehow that argument feels a bit hollow to me.

The power of apathy is strong, and McGill’s student groups had been exploiting that to keep the money of students that don’t support their activities. Now that McGill has streamlined the process of not paying, and these groups get a clearer idea of how many students don’t think their services are worth the money, they’re up in arms that their existence is threatened.

It sucks, I know. But that’s democracy.

UPDATE (Feb. 13): CKUT writes to the McGill Daily about this issue, and says it lost $27,000 to student fee opt-outs last year, which is very significant. (The part about it being the most listened-to station isn’t right. It’s supposed to say that CKUT is ranked first or second in the annual Mirror readers’ poll.)

17 thoughts on “#6party is over, but the hypocrisy continues at McGill

  1. R.

    Thank you for posting this. I am currently studying at Concordia, and I have thought about opting out of certain groups that I feel go directly against my views, such as QPIRG Concordia. However, to opt out, I must go to their offices, state my case, show them my tuition bill (with my contact info and address), and then they’ll issue me a refund.

    (Source: http://services.csu.qc.ca/index.php?module=pagesetter&func=viewpub&tid=3&pid=209)

    To say that I feel uncomfortable doing this is a total understatement. These people are very aggressive in their campaigning, are very vocal and visible on campus, and can easily be someone in one of my classes that I have to do a project with. I would love for an online opt-out, similar to McGill, to be made available to us. The current system is really just designed to say “hey, well you can opt out”, but nobody that I know would makes the effort to track down every single group and go through the hoops to get money back.

    In terms of the occupation, students have to realize that university life is not the epicenter of society. Many students see every single little incident on campus as a magnified attack on the well being of society and global life as we know it. In the real world, if you stormed your CEOs office and occupied it, you would be fired and dismissed immediately. You would also likely be arrested for trespassing.

    To my fellow students who think “how dare they forbid them from using the washroom- it’s humane”. Grow up. Realize that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to show dissent. How dare they not be allowed to use the washroom? Pity they can’t just leave and use a washroom anywhere else – oh wait…

    I think McGill should be applauded for their restraint in dealing with this. In many peoples’ opinions, the cops should have been called day 1. But McGill was trying to desperately avoid a PR fiasco, even when they’re int he right, such as November 10th.

    In terms of the crux of the issue, the referendums: the students knew that the administration had to approve their questions if they were to accept them. They went ahead without the proper approvals, and look what happened. Accept the consequences for your poor planning. In the real world, you can’t occupy your supervisor’s office until he or she changes their mind.

    As a student just trying to finish my education, these stories irritate me to no end. With that in mind, that was just my 2 cents. :-)

    Reply
  2. McGill Grad Student

    It sucks, I know. But that’s democracy.

    I think your argument is compelling, but I disagree with the analogy you made in this sentence. In a democracy, we use our tax dollars to support many programs to which we object, or may never personally utilize. While this is not a perfect analogy, of course, I think it can be at least used to question why these opt-out procedures need to exist.

    This type of opt-out seems to be a double referenda on the existence of these student organizations. If the McGill community, as a whole, through a democratic procedure decided to create and fund these organizations, why should some students deserve a right to opt-out of their financial obligations to this community?

    Personally, I believe that the Concordia model you suggested would be a better option, if the process was simpler, of course. With the exception of cases were financial need can be demonstrated, I do not believe that students, being members of a democratic community, should have a right to opt-out of obligations inherent in that community membership.

    As an aside, if McGill insists on its easy opt-out crusade, it would be appreciated if they could make their $115.50 semesterly “Athletics & Recreation Fee” an opt-out expense as well. If students who do not support campus radio deserve a right to opt-out of these fees, shouldn’t students who do not support varsity sports, or utilize private gyms, also deserve opt-out rights in these areas as well?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      In a democracy, we use our tax dollars to support many programs to which we object, or may never personally utilize. While this is not a perfect analogy, of course, I think it can be at least used to question why these opt-out procedures need to exist.

      Sure. But if you’re going to offer an ability to opt out, why complain when it’s made easier?

      The ability to opt out is often used as a way to soften opposition when a fee levy comes up for a student ballot. You tell them they can always opt out if they don’t like it. What you don’t tell them is how hard you’re going to make it for them.

      Reply
      1. McGill Grad Student

        You’re right, of course. If the fee has an opt out available, it should not entail an arduous process. I guess my comment was not necessarily addressing the McGill situation specifically, but the issue of allowing students to opt out of student society fees in general.

        Reply
    2. R.

      What you’re forgetting is there’s a substantial difference between student-oriented fees and University-oriented fees. The university is not obligated to make any fees “opt-outable”. You want to attend that university, you got to pay the inherent fees to support athletics. No questions asked.

      Student fees such as QPIRG, at any university, are not mandated by the university. Therefore, it’s common practice for student fees to be opt-outable. However, McGill seems to be a rare example of actually not making it nearly impossible to get your money back.

      Reply
      1. McGill Grad Student

        I don’t see how the difference between “student-oriented” and “university-oriented” fees is nearly as “substantial” as you claim it is.

        You want to attend that university, you got to pay the inherent fees to support athletics. No questions asked.

        Couldn’t the same argument be made for student societies on campus, especially those that have established their existence and fees through a democratic process? You want to attend that university, you got to pay the inherent fees to support that university’s student associations. No questions asked.

        I don’t necessarily believe that McGill should allow students to opt out of athletics fees, I simply wrote that paragraph to counter the obvious argument that McGill is arguing for these opt out procedures out of some concern for student welfare.

        Reply
  3. Vahan

    I am not so sure that the opting out option is such good thing. Here goes the old man in me coming out, today many students are very apathetic about most things. They want their Canada Goose coats, iPhones, Starbucks coffees and to party with a bottle of Grey Goose. They would rather spend their money on these things, so if you are giving them the option to opt out, which in their mind means, more money to spend, then the majority would opt out, no? As a taxpayer, if the city gave me the option to opt out of paying for a new traffic light, for example, I would probably chose to opt out, not realizing that the light may slow down traffic and save a life or two, for me it would be the immediate satisfaction of not paying. If I had a choice to opt out of paying for the CBC, as a quick, gut reaction I would. Only then would I realize that hey, sometimes I tune into the CBC, I do get entertained and informed more than if CBC wasn’t a choice for me. I am sure if we had referendums in Canada asking taxpayers to opt out of paying for, let’s say, some obscure environmental protection agency, or some less used social program, I am positive the majority would vote to opt out, not realizing that these far flung agencies or programs do in many ways trickle down to all of us, for example a program to get kids in gyms and off streets, would I pay for it, no, I don’t care my kids are not on the streets, but in the long run those kids will contribute to a better society. We have to look past our noses. I applaud the McGill students for their efforts. Right or wrong, in an act of civil disobedience they made a point. Much of the world has changed with little acts of disobedience, as long as it is peaceful, I am all for it.

    Reply
  4. McGill Grad Student

    An interesting note, regarding the origin of these opt-out procedures for CKUT. I assume a similar series of events probably occurred for QPIRG as well:

    http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2012/02/do-you-want-a-radio-station-or-not/

    Opt-outs are historically a student-initiated institution, and it is by no means unprecedented that the opt out-ability of a fee has changed in an existence referendum. CKUT’s fee became opt-outable at the behest of SSMU when we needed council’s approval of our last existence referendum question in March 2006. At that time SSMU assured CKUT that would be able to manage our own opt outs. We won that referendum, but we also entered a period of arduous negotiations with the University, which didn’t end until we finally signed our MOA in December of 2007.

    Reply
    1. dave

      From the article…$255,000 we pay in salaries to our six full-time workers and two part-timers. (On top of that we have a few non-permanent staff, including two students in McGill’s work study program.)
      The annual salary for the average full-time staff member at CKUT is $26,000

      I’m no math wiz but 26 times 6 equals 156 leaving about 100 large on the table. I’d love to see actual list of employees and see how many have crossed back from commercial radio.

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        I’m no math wiz but 26 times 6 equals 156 leaving about 100 large on the table.

        This was also raised in the comments below the article. CKUT points out that there are also temporary workers hired for special projects. There are also things like employer pension contributions that are salary-related but not paid to the employee.

        Reply
        1. dave

          they list 2 temps and with special projects that means approx 40% of salary expense is outside fulltime workers. 100 large is a significant expense and shouldn’t be swept under the rug as other..other..other.
          I’d love to see an audited financial statement for these guys.

          Also; the expense of $44,000 for rent and of course other misc fees to McGill seems huge. First, being in a “student union” building I figured would give them a significant break on rent…but obviously I’m wrong in this or maybe that break is implemented and $44,000 is final result. If that is the case, would $44,000 get them better facilities somewhere else. Know rents are high in Plateau but if somebody is squeezing me that hard, I might start looking around for different digs.

          Reply
  5. dave

    It would be one thing if CKUT was a STUDENT or McGill radio station. Anybody who has ever listened to it quickly finds out that sadly…it is not. There’s so many hosts who are over 50 and have been doing there programs for at least 20 years.
    If I was a student I would certainly opt out of this and I’m a big believer that such clauses shouldn’t exist…but this monster should somehow be tamed. Len Dobbin was about 75 when he died a couple of years ago…while he leant his hand to all sorts of outlets including Gazette and CJFM over the years…he also had a show on CKUT for many years orior to his death. Great man…but does he really belong on college radio? Same for Bluegrass host on Sunday evenings (sorry, don’t remember name).
    College radio should be by students for students. Sure it will lack continuity over years and have ups and downs…but many will get to cut their teeth and go onto bigger, better or more important things. CKUT in its present format I find is pretty unlistenable. …I think most McGill students would agree.

    Reply
  6. wkh

    I like how people who never actually opted out (Steve and R.) are going on about it being intimidating. I actually did opt out of several fees as a Concordia Student and it wasn’t any sort of big deal whatsoever. The last thing these groups want (precisely because they don’t want Concordia admin to get any stupid McGill ideas) is bad press running around about how they harrassed students coming in for an opt-out.

    The hate on campaigns run by conservative students at McGill have virtually destroyed CKUT and QPIRG’s budgets and make no mistake that’s exactly the admin’s intent. They don’t want either of these groups around anymore, so they made online opt outs and let people spread all kinds of misinformation and nonsense resulting in people taking away their money. If they want to opt out, they can at least have the courtesy to go to the office, fill out the form (and no you do not have to justify why but the organization will be curious of course and ask) and opt out rather than click in some sort of angry solidarity against people who think perhaps Israel should be subject to the same criticisms as any other nation on this earth.

    Reply
    1. R.

      If you want to get into the Israel debate, then we can. But “same level” is absurd. Same level would imply “Syria Apartheid Week”, “Egypt Apartheid Week”, “Jordan Apartheid Week”, and a whole lot more. QPIRG sponsors 1 and 1 only.

      If you had a pleasant opt-out experience, great. However, I don’t buy the conspiracy theories that McGill is trying annihilate the student groups by giving students a convenient opt-out method.

      Reply
  7. wkh

    Further, I’m really tired of people equating fee levy student groups with rising tuition costs. Asking students for the equivalent of a couple of cups of coffee to fund services they are all welcome to enjoy and utilize is entirely different than raising tuition by several hundred, even thousands, of dollars to pay Bloom and Lowy more than the Prime Minister of Canada.

    Reply

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