Fault lines are being drawn in the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) general election over whether due process was followed in the approval of a $64 fee increase on all U of M undergraduate students late last year.
The fee hike has sparked considerable controversy since its near unanimous approval by UMSU council on Nov. 19.
The hike did not go to a referendum, and councillors were not given much time to review the motion before being expected to vote. The primary consultation mechanism used by UMSU to gauge student support was an online survey that garnered about 2,500 student responses.
Funds raised from the fee hike are slated to be managed by the UMSU endowment fund, with $15.9 million allocated to several big-ticket items over a 10-year period.
These projects include $2.4 million for a new childcare facility on campus, $3.5 million worth of renovations to the first floor of University Centre, $5 million for scholarships and bursaries for indigenous students, and $5 million for undergraduate research grants.
While UMSU councillors were fully briefed on these projects, they were not informed that the money could be counted as a donation to the university’s $500-million Front and Centre fundraising campaign. A motion to approve the fee hike at the U of M board of governors on Jan. 26 said that the money would be included as part of the university’s capital campaign.
This is “something that was never acknowledged by the UMSU president, and never disclosed to UMSU councillors or students at large,” reads a petition on change.org seeking to repeal the fee increase.
The petition has 636 signatures toward a 1,000-signature goal.
Jeremiah Kopp, current UMSU president, told the Manitoban that the board of governors’ motion simply opens the door to the possibility of the money being counted toward the Front and Centre donation total.
“The UMSU funds are not necessarily considered at the moment to be a Front and Centre contribution,” Kopp said.
“The board of governors motion was written in such a way that the door would be left open for such a possibility, but if it is to be a joint marketing effort and an effort to reflect collaboration and a culture of philanthropy, that will ultimately come before UMSU council.”
Kopp added that he expects to present a motion regarding this matter to UMSU council before the end of his term on May 1.
Take Back UMSU
Only one slate of UMSU executive candidates has vowed to repeal the fee and bring the question to a referendum in the fall.
Andrew Fenwick, the current UMSU students living with disabilities representative, is a candidate for president under the Take Back UMSU slate. At the Nov. 19 UMSU council meeting, he abstained from the vote against the fee hike, calling for a referendum on the issue.
If elected, Fenwick told the Manitoban that he will solicit 1,000 signatures for a petition to repeal the fee and call a referendum on the issue. Moreover, he said that he will seek to amend UMSU policies in order to prohibit the executive from campaigning one way or another on the matter.
“Any proposition of a fee change should go to the students, it shouldn’t be 42 people voting on 27,000 students’ behalf and that’s exactly what I said at the Nov. 19 council meeting when they passed this,” Fenwick said.
Fenwick is a signatory of the online change.org petition condemning the fee hike.
“I don’t want the executive to be able to influence the opinion of students based on their role in UMSU,” he said, adding that their role as executives gives them disproportionate influence over such issues.
Fenwick is also strongly opposed to the money being counted as a donation to the Front and Centre fundraising campaign.
Opposing the process, not the substance
The other UMSU executive slates all support the fee increase and would not seek a referendum on the matter. However, they all said that they are against the process by which it was passed in November.
Tanjit Nagra, the current president of the Arts Student Body Council (ASBC), is running for UMSU president as part of the UMSU For You slate.
Given that the ASBC passed two motions condemning the process by which the fee increase was approved, Nagra maintains that she has shown leadership on the issue. Moreover, she vowed not to increase fees without a referendum going forward.
“The way in which the motion was passed I don’t agree with, and I think there should have been more consultation, however our whole team believes in the initiatives that the motion supports,” Nagra said.
“We’re not planning on any fee raises at all in the upcoming term if elected, but if there are going to be any we’re going to make sure it goes to referendum so that students are aware and can vote on it.”
Two candidates running on the UMSU For You slate, Harrison Katz and Wilfred Sam-King, are in favour of the fee hike. Although Katz currently agrees with the position of his slate on the need for a referendum on future fee hikes, he previously defended the process by which the fee was passed.
“I believe that we, as UMSU councillors, were voted in to do a specific job, and that is to vote on motions that are brought to UMSU council,” Katz said in November. “I think that gives UMSU councillors, not necessarily the right, but definitely the courage to represent their students.”
Niall Harney, the treasurer for the Canadian Federation of Students’ Manitoba branch and candidate for president as part of the UMSU Forward slate, told the Manitoban that he will ultimately respect the wishes of students on the issue.
“I definitely agree with the initiatives that the fee increase was put towards,” Harney said, adding that he is bound by the motion to increase fees and spend the money on designated projects.
When it comes to whether his slate would seek to repeal the motion or go to a referendum on it, Harney said that he “would let students bring that forward and have council talk about it.”
Astitwa Thapa, current UMSU vice-president external and a candidate for president under the Strong UMSU slate, defends the fee hike as a necessary initiative, adding that he would not increase fees without a referendum going forward.
“Voting in favour of this motion was undoubtedly one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make as a student leader,” he said.
“But we desperately need child care, we desperately need undergraduate research, and my colleagues for UMSU For You, Harrison Katz and Wilfred Sam-King, wholeheartedly voted in favour of this particular motion.”
Zach LeClerc, current vice-president internal and independent candidate for president, told the Manitoban that he favoured the fee hike largely because of the child care component. He added that he will seek to do more with the money, including laying the groundwork for the union to eventually acquire its own building separate from University Centre.