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Engineering Students’ Society faced difficult year without mandatory student levy

By Ashar Memon, February 25 2019 —

Jiani Deng was on vacation when she got an email from the associate dean of the Schulich School of Engineering. He wanted to have a meeting.

They agreed to speak after Deng, who was a few months into her term as president of the Engineering Students’ Society, returned to Calgary. It was in September, during Fall Orientation, when Deng learned what the dean wanted to tell her — the University of Calgary would no longer collect the $10-per-semester ESS membership fee from students. 

“Right after I made a speech to all the first years, [the associate dean] dragged me aside and was like, ‘So, Jiani, this is the situation,’ ” Deng said.

The membership fee accounted for about $70,000 of ESS’s revenue.

ESS did manage to sign up some members, but Deng said that because it was too late to hold a membership drive, it only received a fraction of its previous membership. She estimates that ESS’s current membership is about a seventh of its original count.

As a result, ESS has been operating on a substantially reduced budget. It’s been forced to scale back, or even out-right cut, many of its services. It stopped selling merchandise and has begun charging students for some of its events.

“We reduced a lot of social events and we weren’t able to host as many charity events because we were losing money on those. As well, we weren’t able to support Engg Week,” Deng said. “There was a lot of cuts made to grad. For next year, I don’t think we’re going to be able to host grad anymore.”

Since ESS had already made a budget before the membership change, the Schulich School of Engineering stepped in and funded some of the large contracts ESS signed earlier in the year. While Deng is grateful for the faculty’s financial aid, she isn’t sure yet if that aid will continue.

“I think at the end of the day, ESS does need to be financially independent,” Deng added. “We can’t always be relying on the faculty.”

As she tried to arrange alternate ways to collect the membership fee, Deng spoke with various higher-ups on campus. The week after she was told about the membership change, ESS held meetings with officials from Schulich, the U of C and the Students’ Union. 

Deng turned to the SU early on and explained the membership issue before it was publicly revealed about a week later. Then, in late September, after both Deng and the U of C sent emails to students explaining the membership situation, Deng met again with SU vice-president student life Nabila Farid, along with SU president Sagar Grewal.

During the meeting, Farid said that she told Deng about SU resources available for all clubs, like special event funding and club room-bookings.

“We kind of gave [ESS] a large background from the SU’s perspective on how we can support them moving forward,” Farid said, adding that there was no further communication between ESS and the SU after their two initial meetings.

“We just never heard from ESS again. We sent follow-up emails and we just never heard from them,” Farid added.

In response, Deng told the Gauntlet that when it became clear to her that the SU couldn’t help anymore, she stopped contacting them.

“They told us they empathize with our situation and wished us luck. Apart from telling us to apply for free pop and SU travel funding, there was nothing the SU could do for us specifically,” Deng said. “At that point, it didn’t make sense for us to keep reaching out to the SU when it was the second time hearing there wasn’t anything they could do for us.”

Deng added that she hadn’t received any emails from the SU after their meetings.

“Unless Nabila [Farid] sent follow-ups to another email other than mine, we have not heard from the SU since then,” she said.

A major point of contention surrounding the meeting was the topic of an alternative method of collecting the ESS membership fee. During the meeting, Deng asked if the SU could collect the fee on behalf of ESS through a levy. She proposed the idea of a plebiscite that would ask engineering students whether or not the SU could charge them the fee.

Farid said she rejected the idea on the spot, telling Deng “that is not an option that [the SU] could even explore.” Farid said that it would be “operationally difficult” to allow ESS, an SU-registered club, to charge a mandatory membership.

“If we were to start administering a club’s fee, what will that look like if all the other clubs started approaching us,” Farid said. “To be honest, it wouldn’t be fair.”

Farid said that the issue of a plebiscite would ultimately rest with the Students’ Legislative Council, the SU’s highest governing body.

As the 76th SLC comes to a close, representatives for the next session of SLC, selected by students in the SU general election, could have significant influence over a decision to hold a plebiscite.

Two of the three engineering representative candidates running in the 2019 SU general election said they would push for a plebiscite asking engineering students whether or not they want to pay the membership fee.

“As the people directly affected by the ESS are engineering students, I agree that they should have the final say on whether or not they should automatically be paying a membership fee. For this reason, I would advocate to hold the plebiscite, so that engineering students can decide for themselves,” said Keely Lindsay, a third-year engineering student and candidate in this election.

“All engineering students benefit in some way by at least one of the programs or events the ESS holds,” said Barney Miao, another election candidate, who also agreed that he would advocate for a plebiscite in some form.

The third candidate, Khaled Elmalawany, cited the university’s decision when asked if he would support a plebiscite. He added that he wants to work with the ESS to reach a compromise.

“I will bring this issue to the table, with the cooperation of the ESS, to be discussed among the SLC members in which we can find a solution that is agreed upon by all the members,” Elmalawany said.

Even if a plebiscite was held and the majority of engineering students agreed to a levy, it’s unlikely that ESS would see the funds anytime soon, meaning ESS would have to go through another year with a trimmed-down budget.

Deng, however, said she was optimistic about ESS’s future and that despite the upheavals, the past year was not all “doom and gloom.” Despite cuts to some of its services, ESS was able to increase involvement in engineering competitions. It also continued its mentorship program and held free events, like mixers.

“We had to really look at what ESS did, strategically, and see which events and services we felt had a greater impact,” Deng said. “It’s bittersweet, but I think because of this, ESS has moulded to cater to student needs and really look at which events were valuable and which events were not.

“It’s still our mission to advocate for students, it’s still our mission to provide the services and events that students need — that’s not going to change,” she continued. “How we go about that is going to be different. What events we’re going to do are going to be different. ESS is quite resilient and there’s a lot of passionate people who are willing to step up and take on the challenge next year and in future years.”

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