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A principled defence of voluntary student unionism

Opt-out option for incidental fees could improve political participation, democracy
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As part of its omnibus announcement on changes to the postsecondary education financial framework, the Progressive Conservative (PC) government announced that students would be able to opt out of university-defined “non-essential” fees that are placed on top of their tuition fees, starting from the 2019–2020 academic year.

Subsequently, several groups have indicated that the policy will seriously compromise the effectiveness of student organizations and services. In being funded by student fees, these groups rely on a broad pooling of payments from all enrolled students. The opt-out option, in their view, would not only mean a significant decrease in available funding, but unstable and fluctuating yearly budgets.

This presents us with an intriguing question: whether students should be able to choose to not pay for a non-tuition service. Despite what seems to be a universal fightback against it, there are advocates of the move, at least in principle, in the campus community. Some perceive that many of these services are useless and a waste of money, or that some funded organizations act in ways antithetical to their mandate.

A primary argument among advocates is a moral claim, wherein students, as the rightful custodians of their money, ought to be able to pay for what they choose. I do not buy this argument. It assumes a consumerist logic that everything ought to be treated like a market.

Student representation cannot be framed within this relationship. It relies on the collective pooling of resources to work toward the broader benefit of students as a whole. You give expecting someone to benefit, even if that person may not be you. In deciding to not contribute, you must follow by not gaining benefit from it, lest you behave hypocritically.

But since student organizations will likely be open to all, regardless of contribution, a student who opts out would still be able to use and benefit from that service. This potential free-rider scenario weakens the practicality of this first argument.

I am instead supportive of a second argument: that in facing the possibility of losing funds, student groups will make a greater attempt to align to student needs, thereby increasing accountability and democratic legitimacy. With this would come regular attempts to convince students of the merits of spending decisions.

My main concern here is the degree of student apathy or dislike toward their representatives. The main benefit from this opt-out policy may be an increase in the average student’s sense of stake and interest in student politics. At this point, it should be clear that I am only speaking of elected student unions, because they claim to represent and advance the interests of all students.

This means that other fees, such as those for clubs, student media, and services should be exempt from the opt-out option. While these groups are in some sense democratic and service-based, they do not claim the same level of universality and authority as student politics.

The opt-out option of student union fees can be thought of as another democratic mechanism, much like slate elections and referendums. It is direct democracy at its purest: not just providing an option to reject spending allocations, but determining the amount of funding themselves.

It seems that, at least in theory, this would increase student union accountability. For these organizations, no dollar will be taken for granted. Instead, student representatives will have to justify all spending to the campus community.

This is given impetus by the recent scandal at Ryerson University, in which it alleged that up to $273,000 may have been spent by Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) executives on improperly authorized purchases. At UTSG in 2017, the St. Michael’s College Student Union collapsed after similar financial decisions were made public. And let’s not forget our own University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) quarter-million dollar scandal from a few years ago.

With an opt-out option, it is unlikely that student unions will receive significant funding from its students next year. Instead, they will slowly need to gain back student trust and respect, to the point that students feel the organization is using its financial power to invest in positive and student interest-based programs.

A potential objection here is that such a process will result in total instability. For instance, it would be difficult for representative groups to implement long-term goals, since they will have little knowledge of what will come in the future. My response is that democracy itself is inherently unstable.

However, an increase in accountability is not my main concern. Student representatives at U of T seem to have sufficient accountability mechanisms in and of themselves. These include annual elections and various membership-approval requirements in different organizations.

But these mechanisms have become defective and inefficient from a lack of student involvement. This academic year the UTSU drew criticism as it failed to maintain quorum through to the end of its Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Meanwhile, after failing to meet its AGM quorum, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) will be required to hold a special meeting for its membership to approve its draft financial statements. The UTGSU’s General Council also recently voted to reduce the special meeting’s required quorum from 300 to 150 members. In other words, rather than find ways to increase participation, they’ve opted to simply cut the required level of participation.

Election turnouts have also been abysmal year after year. The only reason that a remarkable 25.3 per cent of students voted in last year’s UTSU executive election is because students were concerned about the simultaneous U-Pass referendum. In other words, a vote on a direct allocation of money saw much more student interest than in any other student election.

Student representative decisions have been confined to a small set of campus activists who, although well-intentioned, are not always able to understand and voice the concerns of all students. In this year’s UTSU AGM, several important decisions that impact over 50,000 students — the split with the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, the ban on slate campaigning, and the condemnation of the provincial free speech policy — were decided by less than 250 people.

Voting, although seemingly simple, can often be overlooked and forgotten due to the busyness of student schedules. But the opt-out option will be done through tuition, and is therefore unavoidable. Students, in enrolling for another semester, must make a conscious evaluation of how they believe student groups ought to work, and the power they themselves have in the opt-out.

My hope is that the opt-out option can give students an opportunity to think about what their respective unions do, and the potential influence they can exercise over them. This will work against student apathy, and encourage participation in other democratic mechanisms. The result may be a snowball effect that sees substantial democratic returns in the years to come.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsitys UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.