This year, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) will be spending $17,000 on its membership to the Table de Concertation Étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ). Better known as the Quebec Student Roundtable, the organization is a student federation that seeks to represent its members on issues regarding student affairs by lobbying the Quebec government.
While $17,000 may seem insignificant in comparison with the SSMU’s $1 million budget, the budget cuts that McGill continues to face have led students to question the allocation of money across the university, including in governing bodies like SSMU. In March 2013, for example, a SSMU Council discussion on TaCEQ turned into a heated debate of the organization’s relevance, transparency, and usefulness to SSMU members.
Consideration of similar factors has led other member associations to contemplate leaving TaCEQ—the graduate student assocation of the Université de Sherbrooke (REMDUS) will be holding a referendum on Dec. 3-5 where they will decide whether or not stay in the association.
This week, the Tribune takes an in-depth look at TaCEQ to examine how the organization is making use of student dollars, and whether SSMU members benefit from being part of the organization.
What is TaCEQ?
According to its website, TaCEQ is “a national group of university student associations whose main objective is to promote and defend the rights and interests of students.” TaCEQ represents approximately 70,000 students, including members of SSMU, the Université Laval’s post-graduate student association (AELIÉS), the Université Laval’s undergraduate student association (CADEUL), and REMDUS. TaCEQ is headed by a secretary general and two deputy secretary-generals—one for administrative and financial affairs, and another for internal affairs and communications.
As part of the job profile, SSMU’s Vice-President External acts as SSMU’s liaison to TaCEQ. Last year, SSMU also created the position of TaCEQ delegates, who accompany the Vice-President External to TaCEQ meetings to advise the VP in decision-making.
“The idea was that these people would be any SSMU member, councillor or not, who would be elected or appointed by council to go to TaCEQ meetings with the VP External,” explained former VP External Robin Reid-Fraser, who was involved in the creation of the position.
TaCEQ meetings are hosted monthly, most often in Quebec City, where the University of Laval is located. Votes are allocated proportionally based on the number of students per member association, with SSMU currently holding four votes out of 13.
Why is TaCEQ not nationally recognized?
In order to be nationally recognized, a union must have a minimum of four student associations on four separate campuses. Since two of TaCEQ’s four members come from the Université Laval, the organization does not qualify as such.
The primary issue with not being nationally recognized is that TaCEQ does not receive government bursaries, meaning that students of the member associations are required to pay additional fees to keep TaCEQ running.
Additionally, TaCEQ does not have the same influence in campaigning the provincial government that other nationally organized student unions, such as La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and La Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ), would have.
According to Reid-Fraser, the lack of national recognition is a fundamental problem for TaCEQ.
“[National recognition] allows [unions] to have more full time staff, provide more research, and do more outreach work,” she said. “TaCEQ would like to increase its capacity and have people who are working for it who are paid and aren’t expected to be volunteering a lot of their time.”
Current VP External Sam Harris said TaCEQ has made an effort to become nationally recognized even without reaching the required number of member associations.
“TaCEQ has written a letter to the current government asking it to re-consider the arbitrary decision of the previous government,” Harris said.
Additionally, if REMDUS chooses to leave TaCEQ this December, TaCEQ’s legitimacy could be further weakened because the union would only represent two universities.
TaCEQ vs. FEUQ
SSMU has a long history as a member of FEUQ, and only joined TaCEQ when it came into existence in 2009.
As a much larger student union, FEUQ represents over 125,000 Quebec students, has a larger budget—$620,000 per year from student fees, not including government bursaries. FEUQ therefore has more money to spend on its campaigns and research. This nationally recognized student union is also invited to more government-organized events and summits than TaCEQ.
SSMU withdrew from FEUQ following a dispute with the student federation in 1995, when SSMU was listed in a FEUQ resolution supporting the Quebec secession referendum even though SSMU had asked to abstain.
In order to avoid future issues such as these, SSMU, along with the three other student associations, collaborated to form their own student association.
Unlike FEUQ or L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), which have a centralized governing structure, TaCEQ has a decentralized body, which means that decisions are controlled by its member associations rather than by an autonomous governing body.
According to Harris, this means that members have more say in political decisions, official positions, and campaigns. In addition, member associations can choose to opt-out of their involvement in TaCEQ decisions if they do not support the motions.
“A decentralized association […] is one which has far fewer execs, staff, and resources, and whose decisions and direction are based on the collaboration of the execs or representatives from each member association,” Harris said.
Member associations of TaCEQ can leave the federation by submitting a question for their student association’s referendum period. This referendum would have to pass with a majority vote.
In contrast, one advantage of centralized student associations is that there may be a more fluid decision-making process because of their larger executive committee.
Because of its larger size and government, FEUQ is also able to branch to address the needs of specific student unions. Jonathan Mooney, Secretary General of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), said one reason for PGSS’s membership in FEUQ is its council on post-graduate student unions.
“PGSS undertook a comprehensive review of its external affiliations in 2009 and choose to affiliate with FEUQ,” he said. “FEUQ includes an autonomous council of Postgraduate student associations dedicated to postgraduate issues, le Conseil national des cycles supérieurs (CNCS), and dedicates 20 per cent of its budget to CNCS.”
The cost of TaCEQ
While there are no per-member fees for TaCEQ members, member associations are required to provide funds for a percentage of TaCEQ’s annual budget in order to keep the organization running.
Each member association pays a proportion of the budget in relation to how many members the student association has. SSMU, which has 26,000 members and makes up 33.5 per cent of TaCEQ’s membership, pays 31.5 per cent of TaCEQ’s $53,500 budget, totaling $17,002.50 this year. According to Reid-Fraser, the vice secretary general of administrative and financial affairs compiles the initial budget, which member associations vote on.
At $0.65 per student for this year, this is less than the cost of being a member of FEUQ, which requires $2.50 per student per semester. This means that being part of FEUQ would cost SSMU members over $130,000 per year.
However, SSMU has also contributed more than its required amount toward TaCEQ-related activities this year. For example, this year SSMU committed to contributing up to $10,000 towards TaCEQ’s role as an intervener in a court case challenging the law that all Quebec students are required to be a member of an accredited student association.
“All the TaCEQ associations agreed that this was an area of common interest,” Harris said. “We would be helping to defend the validity of all student associations in Quebec—including SSMU—and setting a precedent against any future challenge of that nature.”
SSMU’s contribution does not come out of their TaCEQ budget, but rather from SSMU’s legal fees budget. The decision to contribute was made by the current SSMU executives this summer.
Additionally, SSMU has had to help pay fines after TaCEQ failed to properly pay its taxes in time in 2012, totalling $975, with SSMU having to pay for $326.63 of the fine.
“That was an issue of having some confusion in terms of getting paperwork filed and paying taxes to Revenu Québec,” Reid-Fraser explained. “There were some fines that were associated with that and those were shared by all the member associations.”
The main question that councillors brought up about TaCEQ in Council last March was about what the roundtable has achieved for students during its brief existence.
Both Reid-Fraser and TaCEQ Secretary General Paul-Antoine Cardin said they believe that TaCEQ’s involvement in the 2012 student movement has improved their reputation as a student federation.
“TaCEQ was quite involved in the 2012 student movement,” Cardin said. “We were and are still against the tuition hike and demanded that tuition be freezed with the prospect of instating free education in CEGEPs and universities [….] We were at the negotiations and we had good relationship with the other national associations.”
Harris also cited TaCEQ’s invitation to the provincial government’s Higher Education Summit in February. However, Allison Cooper, former SSMU Vice-President Clubs and Services who attended several TaCEQ meetings last year, questioned the purpose of attending the summit.
“The education summit was pointless [and] not very participatory at all,” Cooper said. “It was completely unclear what a supposedly non-representational body [like TaCEQ] was representing at a political representative meeting. This wasn’t a victory in any way.”
As an indication of the organization’s engagement in the education summit, Reid-Fraser pointed to a proposal that TaCEQ presented to suggest an alternative funding source for education in Quebec. The proposed model would fund higher education by taxing companies relative to the number of salaries they give out.
Although this proposal was not accepted at the summit, Reid-Fraser said the union’s accomplishments in the last few years signify that it is on the right track.
“Just the fact that TaCEQ was able to do some organizing around the strike and did participate in the education summit and brought some ideas that were different from some of the other associations […] has been a definite positive sign,” she said.
One of the major difficulties that TaCEQ has faced in the past has been to clearly define its goals moving forward. Because of TaCEQ’s decentralized nature, it can be difficult for the association to unanimously agree on more specific goals.
In order to better organize these goals as well as reform the association as a whole, member associations planned to organize a congress this year on Oct. 5-6;
however, the initiative has been suspended indefinitely.
“The cancellation of a congress has stalled the reform process, which had been asked for to some extent by everybody last year, including SSMU, “ Harris said. “Its main goal was to have a much larger group of members from each association, and for their input to inspire the changes TaCEQ was to make.”
Guillaume Fortin, TaCEQ’s Vice Secretary General of Internal Affairs and Finance, explained that AELIÉS chose to stall the congress, claiming that it had too many accompanying problems. The problems with the congress include its structure as well as the actual subjects for discussion. AELIÉS decided that because these issues couldn’t be resolved before the congress was set to take place, the meeting should be postponed.
“AELIÉS thought it was impossible to fix the problems of the congress in time,” Fortin said. “The decision was more a restart of the preparation process for the congress.”
Cardin outlined several goals that he hoped the association would be able to address and solve this year.
“TaCEQ proposed some ideas about the evolution of the current financial assistance system, the future Universities’ National Council, and the eventual bill on Quebec universities,” he said. “We are still in contact with the government to ensure that our opinions are respected and understood.”
Criticisms of TaCEQ
Having a more decentralized approach often requires more negotiation and involvement among the member associations of TaCEQ during the decision making process. While this has its advantages, it can also result in an increased number of disputes and stalemates.
Harris said that while SSMU has a close relationship with REMDUS, this is not the case for the other two student organizations.
“It’s not really a question of disliking them, it’s just that we’ve struggled to find areas of common ground,” Harris said.
SSMU has had ongoing debates regarding reform of TaCEQ’s governing structure.
“I was personally shocked the first time I attended a TaCEQ meeting by how truly disconnected I saw that SSMU was from the organization,” Cooper said. “There appeared to be many translational issues that were taking place, in addition to just really frustrating representatives from other member associations who would, for example, roll their eyes and make inconsiderate and anti-constructive remarks when the idea of producing bilingual materials for our primarily anglophone membership came up.”
TaCEQ’s website and executive documents are currently exclusively in French, although Cardin said the website will be translated by January 2014. According to Cooper, issues such as these point to a more fundamental problem with transparency within TaCEQ.
“It scares me that the only real public information about the TaCEQ-SSMU relationship last year came from SSMU Council and the VP External’s reports,” she said. “[These] say astonishingly little considering the behind-the-scenes conversations and shed zero light on what TaCEQ is actually doing with the thousands of dollars of SSMU members’ money.”
REMDUS has expressed similar frustrations, which will be addressed in its upcoming referendum on leaving TaCEQ. According to Harris, the referendum was prompted by frustration with the lack of progress on projects such as English translation and the congress.
In response, SSMU will assign its political attaché Julien Benoît to conduct research on SSMU’s student association membership history. SSMU aims to use this report to strategize its membership future following REMDUS’ referendum results.
“Our political attaché is preparing some research on what it would mean if they left and on our implication at the provincial level generally, as well as SSMU’s past affiliations and the reason for their demise,” Harris said. “The legitimacy of TaCEQ as a whole would be further questioned if it represents students from only two universities.”
Only having two universities in the association could further affect TaCEQ’s ability to actively promote the interests of its members. According to Cooper, her experience with the other member associations leaves her doubtful that representatives would be willing to cooperate with each other.
“Whether the failure of this relationship was on SSMU or TaCEQ’s end is certainly not 100 per cent clear,” Cooper said. “However, I think there were communication and engagement issues on both ends, and that speaks to the worth of having the affiliation at all.”