Tag Archives: Education

#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.)

The Clique de Concordia

Judith Woodsworth and some of the Concordia board members who may or may not choose to eventually find out why she left her position as president

I find myself, more than anything else, amused that everyone is focusing on Concordia University’s Board of Governors in the wake of the sudden departure of its president, Judith Woodsworth.

When I was a student at the university from 2000 to 2005, I tried to attend as many of these board meetings as I could, to get an idea of how the university operates. It didn’t take me long to figure out how things work there.

Like many other such bodies, the Board of Governors is largely a rubber-stamp organization. The big decisions are taken at the level of the executive committee, who presents them to the board as a fait accompli. Sometimes there is debate – particularly when someone outside the ruling clique has a problem with the decision – but the result of the eventual vote is rarely in doubt.

Strange definition of “community”

Concordia’s Board of Governors is made up of 40 voting members. The largest group – and one which by itself forms a majority – is 23 people selected from among the “community at large”. The others are a mix of faculty (6), staff (1), students (5) and alumni (3), each appointed by their respective associations, plus the president and chancellor.

A look at the list of those representing the “community at large”, and you see the words “chairman”, “president and chief executive officer” and “corporate director” a lot. They’re all from the crowd you see at black-tie galas for hospital foundations (in fact, many members of the board are also on the boards of hospital foundations), not the ones setting up community gardens or organizing festivals or doing all the other stuff you think of when you think “community”.

The biggest problem with this group is that it is de facto self-appointed. The board has a nominating committee, which recommends candidates to the board, which appoints them to a body called the Corporation of Concordia University (whose makeup is identical to the board), who then appoints them to the board. The “community at large” group forms a majority on each of these bodies.

The inherent problem with this setup has been obvious to the Concordia Student Union for more than a decade. But they control only four seats on the board. Occasionally, they might get support from the one graduate student, but their cause is always a losing one. Faculty, staff and the general public weren’t on the side of the crazy anarchists.

Questions from unexpected places

The sudden departure of President Judith Woodsworth just before Christmas was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Concordia’s previous supposedly-permanent president, Claude Lajeunesse, also left well before his first mandate was to end, and also for reasons that were never made clear. Meanwhile, the university has lost a lot of other senior administrators over the past couple of years.

Now people are starting to take notice. Donald Boisvert, who was the university’s dean of students while I was a student there, wrote a piece in The Gazette demanding an explanation from the board. Lucie Lequin, president of Concordia’s faculty association, wrote a public letter to members (PDF) saying they should also demand to know why so much money is being spent forcing senior administrators to leave.

The situation has attracted the attention of the news media. Peggy Curran, The Gazette’s universities reporter, is writing a piece every day or two about it. On Saturday, an article in the Globe and Mail. Chris Mota, the university’s official spokesperson, has been working overtime the past couple of weeks doing interviews for TV and radio, trying to explain a statement that Woodsworth herself has reportedly admitted isn’t true.

Meanwhile, that “community at large” group remains silent. The chair, Peter Kruyt, and the other members of the board have not been heard from. A complete blackout on public statements.

Time to shine some light

Clearly someone needs to step in and demand explanations. Unfortunately, the only body with the power to overrule the Board of Governors is the Quebec government, and they have shown a strong reluctance to do so in the past. We don’t know yet whether this latest scandal will be enough for them to step in.

If they do, though, questions should be raised not only about the process for hiring and firing senior administrators, but about whether there is something inherently wrong with an organization that controls millions of dollars having a self-appointed board of directors. The government should investigate whether this is a good idea, or whether it is likely to lead to the formation of a clique, conflicts of interest, and the negative consequences that come with it.

Concordia, like all universities, is a publicly-funded institution. It needs to be responsible to the public.

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The resistance has begun...

So last week, the Liberal-controlled provincial government rammed through Bill 115, née Bill 103, which sets rules whereby students in English-language private schools not otherwise eligible for public English education can acquire such a privilege.

And if you believe Pauline Marois, Pierre Curzi and others with similar mindsets, the French language and Quebec society are one step closer to extinction thanks to the evil anglophone invader.


And yet, the public outrage about this law isn’t what they expected. In fact, many politicians and pundits are downright shocked that there hasn’t been some sort of mass uprising about Bill 115.

As an anglophone, I’ll admit that I’m hard-wired to be against whatever the leader of the Parti Québécois is for when it comes to language policy. It’s instinctual more than it is reflective.

But I agree with them that this is a bad law and creates a system where the rich have more rights than the poor.

Where we disagree is our alternatives. The PQ would rather deny rights to more people than have the rich be able to buy it. I think we need to look at whether denying English education does more harm than good to the future of Quebec.

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So bad, it makes the CSU look good

The annual Concordia Student Union elections used to be a lot more interesting, with articles in real newspapers and everything.

But this week, even though the drama on campus seemed to be just as big as every year (The Link this week was filled with election stories – PDF), nobody really cared off-campus.

Part of it is that the left-right divide that polarized student politics 5-10 years ago doesn’t exist anymore. Looking at the two parties that ran this year, I couldn’t figure out which party was on which side.

In the end, the party that was expected to win did so handily, with 73% of the student vote, 26 of 29 seats on the Council of Representatives, all four elected seats on the university’s senate and both elected seats on the Board of Governors.

But that wasn’t the big story of this election.

Instead, the big issue was on the referendum ballot, and questions about fees.

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Those who can’t, research: Concordia MA in journalism studies

Concordia University is launching a two-year graduate program in journalism studies for fall 2009, and is currently accepting applications. Unlike its one-year graduate diploma, the MA program isn’t designed for students interested in pursuing a journalism career, but academics and mid-career journalists looking to research about journalism itself, and complete a research project (perhaps to find a business model that will bring back those 30% margins?).

Applications are due by April 30 (April 10 if you want to apply for scholarships)

Students shouldn’t manage student finances

In Sunday’s Gazette, universities columnist Peggy Curran has a piece on the current silliness at Concordia University in which hundreds of thousands of dollars are unaccounted for (so much so even the auditors can’t figure it out), a huge blackmail plot is alleged and everyone is suing everyone else.

In it, Curran points the finger at student apathy, saying people who go to university just don’t care enough about what goes on in their student government:

The truth is, your average student is usually too busy with classes, work, movies, gym and love life to pay attention to student government. So the decision-making and, more importantly, that ginormous bankroll, falls to that small clique of keeners for whom politics is passion and bedside reading is Robert’s Rules of Order.

This argument sounded familiar to me, so I went looking in the archives. Allison Lampert said the same thing eight years ago, when students started to turn on their radical left-wing student government:

It’s a university with a history of political activism, and a group of older, working-class students who feel their social causes are as important as what they learn in the classroom.

It’s also a university that attracts mature working students, who prioritize their jobs and part-time classes over voting for student council.

“The same things that make a small number of students really active also make a large number of students less involved,” observed Concordia University student Zev Tiefenbach, 23.

Some observers argue the CSU executive was elected because of voter apathy at Concordia – about 7 per cent of students cast ballots in the last election, compared with 20 per cent at McGill University.

Their explanation: Concordia has a larger number of part-time students – 45 per cent of the student population – who are often less inclined to get involved in school politics.

Apathy is certainly a problem, no matter what the political leanings of the student government. And apathy breeds corruption. But the CSU actually gets a lot of students involved. Its elections have gotten as much as 10% turnout, which is very high for student elections in large universities. The fact that these scandals are being uncovered should be considered a good sign in that regard. I’m sure there are plenty of questionable expenses from smaller student groups, like clubs and faculty-specific student associations. But few people care about those.

It’s not just Concordia, either. Dawson’s student union learned a hard lesson last fall when an executive went crazy with a union-financed credit card.

Should the university step in, and take the financial reins? Even if they wanted to they couldn’t. The CSU is an accredited student union that’s separate from the university, and Concordia can no more step in and take control than an employer can take control of a workers’ union.

The decision must be the CSU’s to make, and while they’ve already promised even tighter financial controls, that’s not the answer. After all, financial controls are what got them into this mess in the first place, after almost $200,000 went missing from its coffers in 1999 and 2000.

And it’s been shown time and time again that turnover every four or five years causes an inescapable loss of institutional memory, and the slow deterioration of any good intentions that may have been placed there by predecessors. Outside staff hired to make up for that loss (like the bookkeeper accused of mismanaging those hundreds of thousands at the CSU) end up gaining more and more power through their growing knowledge, and learn how to manipulate things behind the scenes.

Instead, the CSU and other student associations charged with managing any money simply shouldn’t be doing so. They should setup an independent organization to handle their finances, sign their cheques and do financial reports (with another accounting firm doing the auditing, of course). Political decisions would rest with the elected student government, but balancing the chequebook would be left to professionals instead of 20-year-old students with no experience handling a million-dollar-plus budget.

My worry isn’t so much about the CSU, which has a few eyes on it at all times, but more about the smaller organizations getting student money that aren’t the subject of constant attempts at coups d’état. Their financial mismanagement – or just imprudent choices of where to spend money – might go on for years before anyone notices them.

If student government want to be truly proactive about solving this problem, they first have to admit they have a problem, and that they need help to solve it.

UPDATE: A McGill student association executive resigned over personal use of a $2,000 hotel gift certificate that was deemed inappropriate.

Benevolent dictators, with rules

The Quebec government is planning a new law that would impose minimum requirements on university boards of directors/governors/regents/Imperial Senate. They include ridiculous things like gender quotas, and things that seem to make sense like requiring community consultation before big decisions.

One of the provisions requires that at least two thirds of the boards’ members must come from outside the university and be chosen from the “community”

That sounds great, in theory. Universities are government-funded, so they should belong to the people.

But in practice, there’s a major problem with these boards that the law doesn’t fail to address: How they are appointed.

Currently, board members are chosen out of applications from the community by a committee set up by the board, who then make recommendations to the board which are then approved by the board.

In other words, these boards are self-appointing. They literally dictate their successors like some sort of monarchy.

Fortunately, the boards of universities (which, in theory, can be overruled by the Quebec government) are benevolent dictators, take their responsibilities seriously and work to better the universities out of a sense of civic responsibility.

But these boards also have a very strange sense of what “community” really means. They’re predominantly business elites, CEOs of large corporations and their friends/wives/tennis partners. You won’t find many plumbers, community activists or artists here unless they bought their way onto the board with huge donations to the university. Though there’s never a formal quid pro quo, the reality is that your chances of being appointed to a university’s board are much greater when you’ve given a substantial amount of money in donations.

This is what the Quebec government has to deal with, this idea of informal shareholders who buy a stake in a university in exchange for a bit of control over it. But the government won’t do that because they rely on these donations to offset the huge cuts the government made to education over the past two decades.

All this makes the new law seem a bit silly, don’t you think?

The Champlain bridge

In case you missed it, last Thursday’s Gazette included a four-page insert called “Champlain’s Gazette”, which showed what a fictional newspaper might look like back then (mind you, it wouldn’t have had pictures or process colour, nor would the text have lined up perfectly, but you gotta take some creative license).

Editor-in-chief Andrew Phillips explains the history of the project in his blog. He also links to the associated website, as well as a page with teaching materials for educators who want to make this part of their classrooms.

It’s another snow day! (mostly)

Since people have been Googling about school closures tomorrow (Monday, December 17), here’s a quick list of decisions that have been made as of 11pm Sunday. (Assume “open” means “tentatively open” and check the website before leaving in case they change their minds.)

School boards

(Decisions apply to all schools and head office unless otherwise indicated)

English private schools

(That I could think of, have your butler check the website (or CJAD’s list) if not listed here)

English CEGEPs:

Universities are usually open through all but the most crippling of snowstorms. Check individual class websites or student portals for details.

Doing my part

I was going to do some Christmas shopping today, but because (a) shopping malls amazingly are still closing at 5pm on weekends two weeks before Christmas and (b) I took one look outside, I decided to stay home and be one less strain on the transportation network.

That kept me in perfect position to see the lightning that everyone’s talking about, along with its acoustically suppressed thunder.

UPDATE (Dec. 18): The Journal wonders if the schools jumped the gun and if the closings were really justified.

AP needs more sleep

Apparently forgetting that correlation is not causation, Associated Press promotes a study that says more sleep leads to better performance in schools compared to all-night cram sessions the night before an exam.

It reaches this conclusion based on the fact that people who stay up all night have statistically better grades.

This is an uncontrolled study. Rather than take two randomly-selected students and have one stay up and the other go to bed, it asks people after the fact about their habits. While it shows a link between sleep and grades, it does not show that the lack of sleep while cramming causes a decrease in grades.

The study could be simply explained away by the fact that students who do poorly tend to procrastinate to the last minute and do all-night cramming. There’s no evidence that getting them to bed earlier would improve their grades, because nobody has actually tested for that.

AP (and the Globe) should know better than this. Comments attached to the Globe story pounced on it immediately. Why didn’t a journalist?

Screaming matches are not interviews

A memo to Jean-Luc Mongrain:

Acting like Bill O’Reilly doesn’t make you a better interviewer. When you invite a leader of the student protest movement on your show and yell at him like a madman, it doesn’t make people agree with your position more. In fact, people already agree with your position that protesters provoke police and that the tuition hikes are modest and don’t necessitate this kind of response.

So why are you yelling like a baby who thinks nobody is listening to him? You invited the guy on your show to speak his mind. At least let him speak.

Mongrain Clenche Porte Parole Etudiant 50 Dollar
Uploaded by mediawatchqc

UPDATE (Nov. 19): Mongrain’s contract expires next spring, and he doesn’t seem worried about his future.

UPDATE (Nov. 20): via Patrick Lagacé comes this example of classic Mongrain:

More cries of “police brutality”

As predictable as the sun’s rotation around the Earth, the militant student group ASSÉ, which is on “strike” this week against the unfreezing of tuition (despite the fact that most of its members are CEGEP students who don’t pay tuition), started a fight with riot police during one of their protests and is crying “police brutality”.

It’s not that I think there aren’t any rotten eggs in the police department, or that their tactics aren’t a bit heavy-handed when it comes to protesters (fully-armored riot cops don’t exactly have to fear for their lives against kids), but at some point the boy has to stop crying “wolf”. Especially when the protesters are the ones starting the fights.

The tuition debate is over

As if to deliberately underscore how chaotic and disorganized the student activist movement is, two separate, competing protests are being organized over the next two weeks concerning tuition and accessibility of higher education.

The first, by the CEGEP-heavy, highly militant unlimited-strike-at-the-tip-of-a-hat ASSÉ, is this Thursday afternoon. (The event’s tagline is telling: “Parce que la lutte continue, tabarnak !!!”)

The second, by the bigger-budget, more organized PR-savvy FEUQ, is the following Thursday.

The reason behind the two protests is nothing more complicated than the two groups engaging in a pissing contest with each other. Rather than put aside their differences and come together, student groups prefer to fight and sue each other.

But even if this wasn’t the case, the protest is pointless for one simple reason: They’ve already lost the battle.

In the last provincial election, Liberal leader Jean Charest made it abundantly clear he intended to unfreeze tuition and raise it by a small amount. ADQ leader Mario Dumont even wanted to go further. Those two parties took over 2/3 of the seats in the National Assembly.

The public, meanwhile, made it very clear that keeping Quebec’s tuition the lowest in Canada is not their top priority. Even some students think our tuition is too low, and would prefer to see more student money go into the education system.

These protests (and the laughable “unlimited general strike”, which hurts no one but the few students participating in it) are organized on the assumption that the public supports them. But it doesn’t. And tying up downtown traffic so that some hippies can yell how $200 a course is too much to pay for university education isn’t going to help their cause at all. It will just piss people off and make them think that these students have far too much free time on their hands that they could be spending earning money to lessen their tuition load.

The tuition debate is over as far as the government is concerned. If you’re going to try to revolutionize the way Quebec finances post-secondary education, you have to convince the voters to think like you. That means a big, honest education campaign, not a protest.

And don’t hold your breath expecting attitudes to change overnight.