a, Editorial, Opinion

Concordia opt-out controversy carries lessons for McGill

The issue of student group fee opt-outs has returned to a university campus, but this time not McGill’s. On Feb. 12, a representative from Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB) presented two completed petitions to hold referendum questions on student group fees.

One of the questions, as reported in the Link, seeks to automatically opt-out JMSB students from fees for a number of student organizations, including the Concordia arm of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), Concordia’s Cinema Politica, and Concordia University Television (CUTV), the university’s video media outfit. The other question, meanwhile, would force student groups that are not fully managed by the Concordia Student Union (CSU)­ to seek fees on a faculty-by-faculty basis rather than simply winning a single referendum of students across the faculties. Both of these provisions, were they to go into effect, represent a fundamental and ultimately negative shift in the relationship student organizations have with the student association.

While the issue of student group opt-outs hasn’t loomed large at McGill in the past year, it was once a reliable annual showcase of polarized rhetoric. The majority of these controversies focused on the McGill chapter of QPIRG. Opponents of the group, which receives an opt-out able fee, ran “opt-out” campaigns highlighting QPIRG’s political stances  on issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict and the legitimacy of the Canadian state. QPIRG generally countered by noting the valuable programs the group supports, and accusing the “opt-out” campaigns of misinformation. Even though the QPIRG controversies have been dormant for the past two years, as existence referenda run on five-year cycles, these issues will likely return to our campus.

While student group fees like the one mentioned in the CSU petition should remain accessibly opt-outable, both referendum questions have serious problems. First, forcing requests for funding from groups not under the direct umbrella of the CSU to go through a faculty–specific process could create additional administrative costs without necessarily increasing groups’ responsiveness to particular faculties or issues. Even though groups would have to expend the resources to tailor campaigns to the specific faculties, day-to-day oversight would not be at the faculty level, thus preventing any real exercise of accountability outside of election periods. Rather, forcing a student group campaign to disparate faculties would obviate the point of the group even operating under the administrative framework of the CSU as opposed to a faculty-specific organization.

The second provision—the one that would have students in the JMSB automatically not pay for these student groups—is not only worse because it represents a significant cut to the budgets of these groups, but also because it eliminates choices for future students. Even if the referendum was a 90-10 vote in favor of severing the fees, the result would leave new students at a disadvantage, as they would be automatically opted out of paying for groups that could provide services they deemed useful. Furthermore, these students could easily contribute to a “free-rider” problem of using services to which they are not contributing resources, in cases of student groups that lack the resources to check if students have paid the fee.

Passage of the referendum question would, at its core, remove the inertia that allows for groups to collect critical funds from students who don’t necessarily care to take any action. While the right—if one has moral or political objections—to not pay for a student group does and should exist under the status quo, the burden of effort ought to fall to the one opting out.

Given an accessible and publicized opt-out system, student organizations that don’t serve the interests of the student body would be given more than enough of an incentive to change their ways by way of students voting with their dollars. To demand anything beyond the opt-out option would not only be unworkable, it would be to the broader detriment of student life at the university, choking off worthy entities of funding.

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