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Sudden change in fee collection causes distress for ESS

By Matty Hume, September 26 2018 —

On Sept. 19, an email from the University of Calgary’s vice-provost student experience Susan Barker left the undergraduate engineering community confused.

“We have determined it is not appropriate for the university to be collecting fees on behalf of an individual student society, including the Engineering Students’ Society (ESS), and will no longer be doing so,” read Barker’s email.

One of the largest students’ societies at the U of C, the ESS has had their $10 per semester membership fee collected by the university through a mandatory addition to undergraduate engineering tuition. The university began collecting a mandatory fee on behalf of the ESS after approximately 70 per cent of engineering undergraduates voted in favour of the mandatory collection in a 2006 plebiscite.

According to ESS president Jiani Deng, the mandatory membership collection resulted in around $69,000 in annual revenue for the ESS. The sudden revocation of the significant sum caused immediate concern for the ESS, especially for the already-budgeted upcoming year.

“We’ve spent the whole summer trying to plan for the year and we signed a lot of contracts unfortunately already” Deng said. “We weren’t ready for that when it did come out and so immediately we do have to do a review of our budget that was voted on back in April and we didn’t know about this at all.”

According to Deng, the ESS has already signed four noteworthy contracts for this year, which now face uncertainty and further financial consequence if defaulting on the contracts becomes a reality. These contracts are for the ESS’s largest initiatives: a first- and second-year dinner, a third- and fourth-year dinner, a graduation banquet at the BMO Centre and a subsidized yearbook for graduating students.

“We’re going to draft up a proposal to the dean’s office asking for funding for some of the things that we’ve already written contracts for,” Deng said. “We do have to look at the events that we offer and unfortunately cut quite a few because we just don’t have the income. We haven’t really looked at the budget for next year [or] what we’re going to cut, but chances are it’s going to be those large ticket-items that we do have to sign contracts for one year in advance.”

In addition to financial uncertainty, Deng said the ESS was flummoxed by the lack of student engagement or direct consultation with the ESS itself.

“This fee was implemented by student vote so [students] thought that maybe that was kind of the procedure to get rid of the fee as well. Students that I’ve been talking to seem very largely surprised that this fee was just taken away from without more student engagement,” she said. “I don’t know what their reason is for this either. I would want to know why as well.”

When asked what prompted the U of C to stop collecting mandatory fees on behalf of the ESS, Barker responded that it was the result of regular university practices.

“The university continually reviews processes and procedures to ensure they are administratively efficient and appropriate,” Barker said in an email to the Gauntlet. “Universities are dynamic institutions and continually evolve. We talk about the university as a fair and just campus, and want to ensure our practices align with our values.”

While the university continually reviews processes and procedures, an individual student effort to remove ESS fees also commenced over the summer. After requesting an interview, the Gauntlet received a prepared document from former Students’ Union engineering representative Chinmoy Ayachit, titled “Statement on the change in collection of ESS fees by the University.”

In the statement, Ayachit suggested that engineering students “had grown increasingly dissatisfied and apathetic with the lack of impactful events, services and programs provided by ESS” and that “a mandatory membership had withdrawn incentive to perform.”

Also included in Ayachit’s statement was the description of a “detailed proposal” to the office of the vice-provost student experience, “backed by rigorous evidence and hundreds of student-support signatures.” The proposal is never referred to as a petition in Ayachit’s statement, but the signature-featuring document nonetheless requested a review into the university practice of mandatory fee collection.

“A lot of the students that I’ve talked to I guess are not educated about all of the services and events we provide,” Deng said. “Again, there’s a whole list of them, but a lot of [students] have attended things in the past like frosh week and first-year welcome.”

When asked if the proposal described by Ayachit influenced the university’s decision, Barker said the U of C was aware of it, though their decision differed from the proposal’s request.

“We were aware of the petition but understand that was to request a plebiscite to determine whether engineering students wished to continue the practice of having mandatory fees collected on behalf of ESS,” said Barker. “This is different to the decision that we made.”

In Ayachit’s statement, he wrote that the proposal included the significant legal point regarding the Alberta provincial government’s Post Secondary Learning Act. Section 95(2)(2) of the act protects mandatory memberships for Students’ Unions, but not other student groups or associations.

Barker noted that no other students’ associations will be affected, as the ESS was the only students’ association collecting fees through the university.

According to Barker, the U of C and Schulich School of Engineering recognize the exceptional affect the change of procedure will have on ESS, stating the faculty will provide interim support while ESS adjusts to the change.

“Schulich recognizes the value of the ESS to the support of student life in the faculty and is committed to providing support,” Barker said. “I understand they are currently working with the ESS to plan what that will look like.”

Deng says that it is still unclear what this support will look like in actuality.

“I don’t know exactly what [Barker] was referring to, but I know that the dean’s office has offered assistance for this year,” she said. “We will get as much money as we can from membership drives as well as whatever funding they can support us but from my understanding they will not be able to give that kind of monetary support every single year.

“I guess moving forward ESS will try to do what we can with whatever funds we can collect for this year and kind of look at what we can cut from previous years,” Deng continued. “But we would also like to engage in more conversations with the university to see if they would be willing to work with us.”

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