Did we choose student life?
September 2019 marked the first of possibly many registration periods in which students could opt-out of student union fees deemed non-essential. This change, instituted by the Government of Ontario in January 2019, is part of the widely criticised Student Choice Initiative. In the past, McMaster’s student union fees for all clubs and services have been mandatory. Non-essential fees range from a few dollars, like the $1 fee for Mac Farmstands or $2 for Horizons, to $13.72 for CFMU 93.3FM or $17.50 for Campus Events. As early as January, student groups have feared the worst and prepared for the inevitable cuts.
Nearly two months after the SCI was introduced, the impact on students and the MSU isn’t entirely clear. Despite other universities having already released comprehensive opt-out rates to their university’s student unions, McMaster’s registrar’s office still hasn’t released final numbers. According to Alex Johnston, the MSU’s vice-president (finance), an official breakdown won’t be released until registration is finalized. The final registration numbers have yet to be disclosed by the university.
As a result of the Student Choice Initiative, many aspects of what the MSU offers to students will become financially optional between September. 12-20. The MSU encourages students to #ChooseStudentLife. Learn more about how your money is spent at: https://t.co/GdcabjjSMF. pic.twitter.com/EOvrhnB3bY
— McMaster Students Union (MSU) (@MSU_McMaster) September 10, 2019
What we do know is that students opted out of services at a rate of roughly 32 per cent of across non-essential fees. These fees include services such as campus events, Shinerama and Mac Farmstand. How this 32 per cent rate translates into absolute dollar losses for the MSU is unclear, and Johnston says it’s difficult to speculate. Throughout the opt-out period, Johnston states that the MSU prioritized transparency. For example, the MSU created a “Choose Student Life” page to encourage undergraduate students to learn about the MSU services and fee breakdown before opting out.
“We did communicate that this could lead to the potential for a pay-for-service model or a reduction of overall services or just reduction in service operations. So those are things we did communicate. Where we actually end up going right now, again I think it’s a little too soon to tell,” said Johnston.
Despite the MSU’s focus on transparency, some felt that the MSU could have done more.
Ed, a part-time manager of a student service deemed non-essential that asked not to be identified, said that they were displeased with the MSU’s communication leading up to and throughout the SCI implementation.
“Communication has been fraught. Everytime I would bring it up I would receive a ‘we don’t know for sure yet’. And then no follow ups,” said Ed.
Daniel, another PTM who asked not to be identified, felt that work they had previously done to improve their service’s finances hadn’t been taken into consideration. They felt that the MSU should have encourage more discussion about SCI leading before the opt-out period.
“I knew for the majority of my role finances are important … which is why I made a lot of changes … I don’t want to say they weren’t willing to have that conversation really early, but I kind of wish we had that conversation early,” said Daniel.
As for faculty societies, whose fees were also deemed non-essential, the SCI’s impact is unclear.
Madeleine Raad, the McMaster social sciences society president, said that the society is being careful about spending, although the alumni society has stepped up to fill their funding gaps.
“From my understanding, the social sciences opt-out was not as high per say maybe other faculties I might have heard of. However our fee is one of the lower fees, our fee is $16,” said Raad.
Although it may be too soon to see the long term impact of the SCI, changes are already being made to non-essential services.
To prepare for the possibility of high opt-out rates, all MSU services were asked by the executive board to make pre-emptive cuts to their operating budgets for the 2019-2020 school year
“[We] cut back on things most companies cut back on which is promotions … The last thing you want to cut back on are salaries and wages and actual staffing positions,” said Sandeep Bhandari, the campus radio station’s administrative director.
In the Oct. 20, 2019 SRA meeting, Johnston gave a report on audited statements from the MSU’s 2018-2019 fiscal year. While optimistic, the numbers reflected deficits across the MSU. Johnson mentioned that the Underground, the Silhouette, and 1280 bar and grill all had large deficits and outlined plans for improving finances going forward. Johnston also said that the MSU is soliciting proposals from an external consultant to assist with financial changes the MSU will need to make going forward as the SCI becomes an annual affair.
“If we continue the way we’re going, we’re going to deplete our operating funds in two years. So that’s obviously not sustainable so we need to make some changes going forward,” said Johnston.
Johnston also reported that the MSU’s executive board, comprised of full-time staff and SRA members, had also made decisions that impact part-time services. The Executive Board has decided to push back the hiring of PTMs for Macycle and Farmstand into 2020, although they are traditionally hired in the fall. Johnston said this decision was made to buy the MSU more time to figure out a financial plan going forward. While this is a temporary push-back, there are still worries that the PTMs will be expected to participate in the hiring process after their terms without pay or be cut out of the important process it entirely.
“This is a discussion that happened in close session … but we did decide to delay the hiring for Farmstand and Macycle. Typically those part time managers are hired … but due to the fact that we don’t have final opt-in numbers yet we did decide to delay their hiring so we could re-evaluate then move onwards,” said Johnston.
The executive board also made the decision to pause all operations for the Creating Leadership Amongst Youth conference for the 2020 year. Typically CLAY happens in May, but this year will be the exception.
“We did decide to put a hold on operations for CLAY 2020 just because we couldn’t delay the hiring and then have the part-time manager start later because the conference just couldn’t function,” said Johnston.
Johnston says these decisions are a part of the MSU’s efforts to develop a strategy to make the union more sustainable going forward. The long term impacts of the SCI are unclear, but the MSU is doing what it can to adapt, including expanding The Grind in an attempt to alleviate 1280’s running deficit and hiring a full complement of staff for the Underground so it can operate at full capacity.
A big concern for most non-essential service employees was job security.
James Tennant, CFMU program director, and Bhandari stressed the importance of student radio, especially for student staff who can’t get these unique experiential learning opportunities elsewhere.
“We do have a very small staff compared to some other services on campus. But it’s definitely a concern, and it’s the last thing we would want to do … Because they’re valuable to us and the experience they get in the positions is valuable to the students,” said Tennant.
Bhandari said, “It’s been said for many years it’s giving a voice to those who don’t otherwise have access to the airways. And that is the nature of campus community radio across the country.”
Daniel also reflected on the SCI. He expressed dismay that his efforts to improve his service’s financials weren’t headed leading up to the SCI implementation, despite clearly outlining ways the service could improve financially going forward in the wake of the SCI.
Ed wished that there had been a bigger push over the months leading up to the opt-out period, not just during it.
“SCI’s really bad but the MSU’s attitude of not talking about it makes everything worse,” said Ed.
Ed also had hoped for solidarity amongst all MSU services, not just advocacy from the ones impacted. He felt like nearly enough people weren’t talking about it.
Indeed, when Sandy Shaw, MPP for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, visited campus in February 2019 to talk about the provincial policies impacting students, the MSU gave her a tour of the PCC, Maccess and WGEN—three services deemed essential and therefore not at risk of being impacted by the SCI.
Despite criticism of the SCI’s rollout and MSU advocacy efforts, many PTMs are are just worried for the future of their services.
Daniel said, “Thats been the biggest impact of SCI: emotionally. The worry for the future of the service.”
Ed said, “If my service doesn’t run its going to affect the people who volunteer for me and it’s going to affect all those people who use my service regularly.”
“I’m sad because I don’t want my service to die,” said Ed.
With the SCI mandated for the next two years, with possibility for renewal, the long-term implications could be dire. Without a clear path forward, part-time student staff, volunteers and services users are left to worry for what is to come. MSU advocacy may have mitigated what could have been worse opt-out numbers, but future efforts will be essential to keep services afloat.