After paying tuition, many students may not know what happens to their money. But organizers within the McMaster Students Union are working to see that changed, and show students what happens to their fees.
The finance committee of the MSU has proposed changes to a bylaw that would see student groups have their levies put up to referendum on a regular basis. The bylaw in question deals specifically with the five non-MSU, non-university organizations that currently receive a portion of student funding.
“What this bylaw essentially does is give [students] more information on where their money is going,” said Daniel D’Angela, MSU Finance Commissioner and Social Science SRA representative.
The groups that fall under this category are Ontario Public Interest Research Group, McMaster, Engineers Without Borders, Incite Magazine, the McMaster Solar Car, and the McMaster Marching Band. The money these five groups collect from the student body amounts to $10.86 for each full-time student.
And despite the enthusiasm of key players within the MSU, the groups affected have come out in vocal opposition of the motion.
“It’s an inefficient way to consult students,” said Lexi Sproule, co-president of the McMaster chapter of Engineers Without Borders of the proposed system.
Under the changes, EWB and the other four organizations would have their levy put on the presidential ballot as a referendum for students to vote on every three years.
“It’s not very in-depth feedback,” said Sproule. “Even if you get approved, you don’t know if students have any issues with how you run things. It’s so much energy for feedback that’s kind of superficial.”
Proponents of the referendums disagree.
“I don’t think that once every three years having to spend two weeks going out and telling students about what you do, I don’t think it’s that taxing,” said Jeff Doucet,
EWB currently collects 37 cents from every full-time undergraduate student. While not making up their entire budget, the approximately $7700 it receives goes directly to funding students participating in the Junior Fellowship Program, a four-month volunteer placement overseas.
While the dollar amount per student is small, the effect the potential loss is on some of the organizations is significant.
“[Without the levy] I don’t think we’d be able to operate—that’s what keeps us going,” said Yuvreet Kaur, one of eight student board members of OPIRG McMaster.
OPIRG McMaster is one of a network of organizations across the province, which promotes social justice issues through grassroots organizing and through the funding of student and community-led working groups.
Of the five affected groups, OPIRG currently collects the largest fee, at $7.57 per student. However, the fee is refundable within three weeks of the drop and adds date in September.
“We give students the opportunity to take that money if they need it or if they don’t support the work we do,” explained Kojo Damptey, also on the OPIRG Board.
”We’re the only organization on campus that does that.”
The threat of OPIRG McMaster losing its funding is not unheard of; other OPIRG chapters across Ontario, including those at the University of Toronto and at Queen’s University, have come under scrutiny through NOPIRG campaigns, which aim to abolish the system of contributing student fees to the organization.
In the case of Queen’s, NOPIRG organizer Stuart Clark told the Queen’s Journal he was opposed to the levy because of “the use of publically available funds for certain activities that don’t reflect the values of the entire community.”
Mac’s chapter, however, feels that its values align very well with the university.
“Our current president [Patrick Deane] talked about forward with integrity—we’ve been doing that for two decades here,” said Damptey. He emphasized that the working groups funded by the group, which address a range of social justice issues, are the product of student ideas.
“There are certain working groups that a lot of the McMaster population is familiar with,” echoed Board Member Sabeen Kazmi. “Other groups…like the McMaster Farmstand and MACycle started under OPIRG.”
OPIRG and the other four organizations involved are seeking not only to make students and SRA members aware of their role on campus, but also to voice their opposition to the process of the bylaw changes being made.
Sam Godfrey, co-editor-in-chief of Incite Magazine, expressed her concern with the idea of a referendum to determine fees.
“It’s hard to measure worth…by whether the majority of students read [Incite]. If you only funded things that the majority wanted, you wouldn’t have the same kind of community at Mac.”
However, D’Angela said that his impression was that the groups were in support of amendments.
“I met with them midway through the summer, the fee holders, and overwhelmingly, I’d say they agreed with increasing with transparency,” he said.
Sproule explained that while EWB is completely supportive of financial transparency, no mention of the proposed changes was made.
“All we heard was ‘great job’…what are we supposed to do with that? If we’d heard they had concerns, we’d be happy to change things,” she explained.
The bylaw changes were made within the Finance Committee but did not involve any further consultation with the groups.The process of amendment also didn’t involve notifying the groups when the motion was set to go to the SRA for voting; a system that was met with concern by OPIRG, Incite, and EWB, but to others was not problematic.
“If the finance committee decides to make a change because they feel we need more democratic input, should they notify the groups in advance that they make their change, before it goes public? I’m not sure if that will change the conversation that much,” said Doucet.
The discussion on the proposed changes will continue at the upcoming SRA meeting, scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 29.
Despite the opposition raised by the five groups, who are expected to present at the meeting, D’Angela and Doucet stand by the Finance Committee’s suggestion.
“If students want to have democratic input, referendum is the most efficient way to do so,” said Doucet.
“We think that the students are smart, they are intelligent people and they’re able to weigh the pros and cons of any single vote,” explained D’Angela upon being asked about the effectiveness of a referendum.
“We think that students are able to make decisions if you give them the right information and give them the important information.”