On Campus

Forget student referenda!

Using a student vote to increase fees has more to do with politics than services

Student union elections have become a pretext for yearly ancillary fee increases by way of referendum. Whether proposed increases are sought by the administration, the student union executive, or some wayward student club, students can count on the fact that student referenda, and accompanying fee increases, have become a normal part of university governance.

While superficially epitomizing the idea of university democracy, the practice is a wanton exercise in the abrogation of responsibility. Referenda insulate those tasked with making decisions, or with representing students, from doing their job. Having a new ancillary fee, or an increase to an existing one, approved by students allows those who proposed it to deny culpability, or to justify their actions, by simply pointing to the referendum. No other argument is needed. When everyone is responsible, no one is.

Ancillary fees are typically attached to specific services unrelated to academics. Academics are, of course, supposed to be funded through a university’s regular operating budget and financed partially by regular tuition fees. Referenda, usually held during student elections, are used to propose funding for initiatives like a university athletics centre or a universal bus pass, as well as for more ridiculous ideas.

Further, as anyone who has campaigned in a referendum, or watched one closely, certainly knows, it doesn’t take much to get a fee passed. Twenty per cent turnout for student elections is considered quite high, meaning as long as core supporters get out to the polls many initiatives can easily pass, regardless of whether the fee is useful or not. Similarly the failure of an initiative also has little bearing on the practicality of the proposal.

If ancillary fees cannot be accommodated through traditional governance  practices, and thus easily revoked if proven ineffective, or otherwise useless, than they should be avoided. In the case of student unions, there should exist the flexibility to respond to student disapproval of an initiative attached to the new fee.

The notion that student approval equals legitimacy simply because students have been asked is patently false. The university population turns over every few years, and, so, the legitimacy of a student vote quickly vanishes.

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to the scourge of using student referenda to advance pet projects, supplement university coffers, and to otherwise subvert the decision making process. The practice is abetted, depending on the province, by a sometimes complicated web of legislation, conventions, and regulations.

Since 1994, the Ontario government has required that before new ancillary fees—those fees applying to services other than academics—can be levied, students must be consulted. While student support can be technically demonstrated through the wishes of student union representatives, the convention has been established that all ancillary fees, including student union fees, be subject to a student vote.

In British Columbia, government legislation explicitly requires that student societies poll their members before imposing any new fees. No such stipulation is placed on the university administration.

In Manitoba, the process for raising ancillary fees  is legally left to an institution’s board of governors, but student votes are still used by both university administrations, and student unions, to raise fees, though the practice is not used as widely as in Ontario. Although student referenda in Manitoba are generally ad hoc, a peculiar practice has evolved over the past decade where regular tuition fees have been permitted to increase after a student plebiscite, despite the existence of a tuition freeze. In Ontario, using a referendum to increase regular tuition would not be permitted.

It is quite obvious why governments would support such a process. They can publicly proclaim that they believe student costs should be kept to a minimum, while permitting universities, and student unions to raise fees as they please.

If universities were private entities, they would have to conform to market realities and learn to keep costs low, while maintaining quality, lest they lose students to competitors. I’ll never understand why those who believe students should have greater control over their education, are also the same people who fly into hysterics whenever the words “private” and “university” are joined.

In any event, under our system of government-supported universities, student fees are treated like a tax, to be imposed in ways more related to the internal politics of the university than to the services actually provided.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.