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 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:
- Having the university administer the opt-out system is an unacceptable encroachment on the finances of those organizations receiving fees.
- Students never approved such an opt-out system in a referendum, nor was it negotiated with the groups or with the SSMU.
- The university doesn't allow students to opt out of its own fees with this system.
- 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.
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.)