McGill, News

SSMU student fee investigation reveals lack of due diligence, financial accountability

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) released a report titled “Investigation into the SSMU’s Student Fee Policies” on Jan. 21, coming after years of student concerns regarding the levying and administration of ancillary fees. The report revealed a lack of financial due diligence and accountability in current practices and contains recommendations to rectify these issues. 

Spearheaded by the SSMU Finance Committee, the report examines the approval process, levying and accountability of student fees directly under SSMU’s control, primarily the Student Society Fees. Student Society Fees include all fees falling under S.52 of the Act respecting the accreditation and financing of students associations, legislation that governs student societies province-wide and stipulates that new fees, or increasing existing fees, must be approved through a student referendum.

Any student group wishing to start collecting fees must first gain the Legislative Council’s approval by way of submitting an official motion. Aside from including the amount per person that the group wants to levy, whether the fee can be opted out, and the duration of the fee, groups seeking approval are not required to provide any budgetary information to the council. If endorsed by the council, the fees must then be approved by a student referendum before they are automatically applied to students’ bills. SSMU Finance Commissioner Sebastien Duckett explained that the current requirements for submitting a financial motion to the Legislative Council lack due diligence.

“Traditionally, they haven’t done it as the industry standard,” Duckett said. “[What is] problematic is that a lot of groups will make up a number and then spend that money later.” 

The report found that between 2015 and 2020, the Legislative Council approved 95 per cent of fee applications—a number, the report suggests, that demonstrates that the current policies in place hinder the council’s ability to make informed judgements when voting on whether or not to approve fees. The report also found that fee proposals gained “overwhelming support” at referendum, but voter turnout is often below 20 per cent

One recommendation contained in the report suggests consolidating SSMU Services Fees, SSMU Funding Committee Fees, and other SSMU Fees into the SSMU Membership Fee, as the SSMU Membership Fee is subject to a rigorous external audit every year, whereas the other fees are not. Consolidating the fees would give the Legislative Council power to freeze, reduce, or transfer surplus funds to different services—subject to council approval. Implementing this recommendation would involve cancelling all of these fees and proportionally increasing the SSMU Membership Fee, and would have to be approved through a referendum.

“It’s easier said than done,” SSMU Vice-President of Finance Gifford Marpole said. “Obviously, the ultimate goal is to consolidate all the fees into the base membership fee [….] It might take a few steps, but it will likely be rolled out throughout this year and next year.”  

The report also recommends adjusting Legislative Council powers to enable action against any student groups underusing fees, and in some cases, improperly using fees and running large surpluses.

According to Marpole, several of these recommendations could be implemented during this year starting in June 2021 when the new SSMU fiscal year starts. 

Through a survey on the student body’s opinions about the levying, administration, and value of ancillary fees, one question showed that 35.2 per cent of respondents felt the transparency, accountability and fairness for fees paid was not adequate.  

“[The confusion around finances] has existed for decades,” SSMU President Jemark Earle said. “We have the ‘where’s my money going’ document which we published […], but I think there can be a lot more […] town halls [and] presentations to the student body that make this language more accessible [….] In the long term planning, SSMU can do more […] than just post a document online that outlines where the money is going, but actually take the time to walk through the document with the student body.”

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