a, Editorial, Opinion

The incredible shrinking university

Last week, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) announced the introduction of a laptop lending program (LLP), similar to the program phased out by McGill’s library system at the beginning of this academic year due to budget cuts. The AUS’ part in this is commendable; they saw a service eliminated by the university yet desired by students, and stepped in to provide it. That is not our concern here. Rather, it goes towards the broader troubling—and seemingly inevitable—trend: the gradual shift in the burden of services and costs from the university to students, either through direct fees or student association fee increases.

This transfer of responsibility is not isolated to the LLP.  Last year, the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) voted to enact its own fee­—the Engineering Undergraduate Support Fund (EUSF)—in an attempt to soften the blow of then-anticipated cuts to the university. The fee—$80 per year for full-time engineering students—was designed to be available to professors to pay for teaching assistants, support staff, and tutorial sessions based on the votes of a student committee. Similarly, last term, the Dental Students’ Society instituted a $2,500 per semester fee on incoming students to fund $800,000 of a $16 million faculty relocation. Another example came this Fall term, when McGill instituted a one-time $20 fee for students who accessed the university’s Mental Health Services. While this fee was rescinded after public outcry, the fact that it was considered and implemented in the first place is just another example of budget cuts trickling down to students.

The sweeping budget retrenchment holding its grip on McGill for the past year and a half is the main culprit behind the shift in costs. The unresponsiveness of the provincial government to the effects of these cuts signals that they are the reality for the foreseeable future. This forces a choice between further reductions in services and a shift of these service costs from the university to student associations. The question is in the implementation.

For one, student associations, especially those below the level of the largest, cross-faculty groups like the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), suffer from a lack of professionalization. The AUS executives, for example, are not paid, and essentially perform their duties on a volunteer basis. While they carry out their duties to the best of their abilities, any greater administration and institutional memory needed to carry out more services at the faculty level would likely also necessitate a compensated executive, as well as a permanent bureaucratic apparatus. Several faculty associations, including AUS and EUS, have a permanent office assistant or manager, but the responsibilities of this role will grow as student organizations continue expanding their services.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the infamous theft of $12,000 from the AUS after frosh several years ago, there are real concerns of accountability if student associations provide more services to students. High turnover at most student associations may also pose issues with the long-term sustainability of services, as opposed to university administration professionals.

With those caveats noted, there are also benefits to these services shifting to the student association level, such as more detailed awareness of student need and—theoretically—more opportunity for student input in funding decisions than the McGill bureaucracy provides. The increased importance of student executive positions, through their increased funding and greater mandate for service provision, may also lead to the oft-hoped-for increase in student political engagement.

In the long term, with the combined reduction in university funding and the increase in the student association role, there  should be a change in the ranks of bureaucratic structures at both levels. Students should not be funding McGill’s bureaucratic infrastructure for services the university is no longer offering. Redirecting these funds to help student associations manage their increased burden will eventually be a necessary step if this trend continues.

The shift in fees and provision of services from the university to students will likely continue apace as McGill continues to deal with budget cuts. However, with the right changes to student associations, the positive aspects to this trend can be maximized.

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  1. Justin Fletcher

    To clarify:

    The laptop lending, while initiated by the AUS and paid for through the Arts computer Lab Fund, is being administered by the Ferrier Computer Lab, which is operated by McGill staff members, or “university administration professionals.”

    Justin Fletcher
    AUS President

  2. While I share many of the editorial board’s concerns regarding McGill’s cost-distribution practices, this is not a new trend at all. The university has been slowly pushing more and more costs onto students for decades, such as by adding previously centrally-administered units like OSD to Student Services (a unit funded largely by student fees). In addition, the claim that SSMU is more “professionalized” than the AUS is ironic considering the heavy losses incurred by SSMU on this year’s frosh, and does not consider serious efforts by the AUS and other campus groups to improve transparency, accountability and sustainability of their projects. Initiatives such as the Laptop-Lending Program have been set up to be administered through the faculty, rather than the AUS office, to ensure this exact “professionalization” and continuity that you mention.

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