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Lobby group stands to get six-figure student payout

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As the campus-wide referendum on whether or not to pay an annual fee to join the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) draws near, the organization’s policies are coming under increasing scrutiny.

From Nov. 5-7, U of T students can vote on whether to join the organization, which represents over 450,000 post-secondary students nationwide.

Formed in 1981, the mandate of the CFS is “to provide students with an effective and united voice, provincially and nationally,” with its main goal being to influence government policy.

With an annual budget of $2.7 million, some are criticizing the effectiveness and value of such an organization.

“$12.54 from each full-time undergraduate is a high price to ask for anything—about $450,000 in total annually—never mind something as useless as CFS,” said Mike Foderick, a volunteer at SAC. “If someone were to compile a list of things that U of T students would like on campus for $450,000, I don’t think CFS memberships would be in the top 50.”

According to 2000 enrolment figures, U of T has 33,868 full-time undergraduate students. If each student paid CFS dues, $424,704 would flow to CFS coffers.

U of T Progressive Conservative president Matthew Curtis agreed with Foderick’s assessment. “The 2002-2003 CFS budget reveals that the organization is bloated and inefficient….The CFS must see U of T students as a cash cow who are willing to pay for their multi-million-dollar budget.”

CFS’s three main strategies are research, government lobbying and membership mobilization, with half the budget going directly to these initiatives. The rest of the budget is spent on administration and office fees ($284,500), general and executive meetings ($200,000), executive salaries ($127,500) and legal fees ($125,000).

SAC External Commissioner Alex Artful-Dodger defended the budget, saying, “An effective organization that wishes to express the voice of students needs to have staff that can do the research, campaigning and lobbying necessary to win students’ demands.” She also noted that the budget is decided democratically by its members at general meetings.

Ontario CFS chair Joel Duff agreed. “It’s not the case that you have a bloated bureaucracy in the CFS. It’s a highly efficient and dedicated team of people who have an interest in trying to ensure that post-secondary education is protected.” Duff also noted the yearly fee is a small price to pay for the national, provincial and local representation CFS provides.

“On the front of political victories [for the CFS] is the defeat of the federal income-contingent loan scheme, which would have doubled tuition fees and increased student debt,” Duff added.

“There’s absolutely no question that it was the CFS that put 100,000 students on the streets in 1995, and again in 1998,” Duff said. He added that an increase in the tax exemption for scholarships in Ontario was also the work of the CFS’s lobbying arm.

“The provincial government was forced to implement a $500 top-up,” Duff said.

The broad scope of the organization’s policies is also a source of debate. In its extensive policy manual, the CFS calls for Canada to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and pushes for public salaries for all homemakers and a minimum corporate tax to fund social programs.

“The CFS is virtually irrelevant as a lobbying organization,” said Foderick. “It lacks credibility due to the many bizarre and outlandish stances it takes on issues that involve students in no direct way at all.”

Curtis agreed. “The CFS policy manual shows how out of touch the CFS is to the daily concerns of students.…The more U of T students learn about the CFS, the more they will realize that the organization doesn’t speak for them,” he said

Artful-Dodger, however, believes many issues beyond education are of importance to students. “The Canadian Federation of Students has always had a succinct focus: to promote an accessible university experience for every student in Canada. All of their campaigns are directly related to this.…The members of the CFS have taken up issues such the GATS and the FTAA because of their incredibly negative impacts on public post-secondary education.”

“All the work that we do relates to fighting for better education policies,” said Duff.