With all the controversy surrounding the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) lately, people are starting to wonder what exactly the student union’s role should be. With the U-Pass and health plan being the two biggest budget lines under the purview of the SFUO, it’s worth asking: should the university administration step in and clean up the mess that their students have made?
The university should step in
We have all heard the rhetoric before: “Students should be the centre of the U-Pass” or “Students should represent themselves in U-Pass negotiations and not have to deal for the university administration.”
We’ve also read recent headlines about how members of the SFUO executive, depending on how alternative your facts are, either allegedly stole U-Passes for their own use or had “access” to them through a “grey zone” in the contract with OC Transpo.
Either way, this opens a discussion of whether the U-Pass—and by extension, the health plan—is best left in the hands of students, or is best handled by the university administration. But before we can get to that question, we have to ask ourselves, when it comes to the U-Pass, are we getting a good deal?
Short answer: no.
Let us begin by examining other U-Pass plans. At the University of British Columbia the U-Pass is $38 a term, or $76 a school year. We don’t even have the option to choose one semester, let alone a similar price for a major city.
In Montreal, the Société de Transport de Montréal, McGill, and Concordia University all partnered to provide a 40 per cent discount on an OPUS pass for the Metro. This reduced Montreal’s fare from $83 to $49.50 a month, and students have the option of buying a convenient $197 semester-long pass.
By contrast, the U of O’s U-Pass will set you back around $200, with limited flexibility in sight. And let’s not forget the disorganized U-Pass distribution this past fall on the U of O campus, which left students in line for hours. This situation should not be repeated, especially considering the number of students living outside of Sandy Hill that need to take transit into campus to pick up a U-Pass.
There’s also the problem of the health plan, which continues to cost the SFUO more than anticipated. And according to the current SFUO budget, we aren’t yet in the clear from future financial problems.
What I’m trying to say is that the U-Pass and the health plan are too important to be run by an organization in danger of bankruptcy.
But what can we do about it? Well, by allowing the university administration the rights to U-Pass distribution, they will undoubtedly be able to work out a better system where the passes are handed out through a machine like that of Flex Dollars—no ugly photos required. These machines could be across campus, meaning no long lines through the University Centre.
University administration might not be the best negotiator in the world, but it can at least offer the average student a better service than the SFUO.
Worried about how we can hold the university accountable? Our student representatives at the Board of Governors and the Senate can advocate for our rights. They are better able to negotiate than the Board of Administration representatives who discuss the running of the SFUO.
If the only reason we keep the U-Pass and the health plan with the SFUO is for accountability, then let’s look for a better deal with the administration.
The university should not step in
The university administration intervening in SFUO affairs would be a significant blow to the autonomy of our student movement, and would likely limit our potential for advocacy success.
Don’t believe me? Well, this school’s history paints a pretty vivid picture of what a student experience run by administrators would look like.
Until 1970, the university had extensive control over our student federation, with a Department of Student Affairs (DSA) to oversee student operations and the allocation of funds to student activities. Instead of a higher quality of extracurricular structure, this oversight only served to hinder student life and prevent any kind of substantial advocacy.
In the first half of the 20th century, a number of students who publicly dissented to the administration’s views, which at that time coincided with Catholic and British Imperial doctrines, were expelled.
The student federation executive was dominated by unelected, non-student supervisors from the DSA and had little power beyond planning social activities.
To make matters worse, any changes made to the student union constitution could be vetoed by the administration in direct contravention of the student voice. It became so bad that in a 1964 letter to the student union president, a student described the then-named Student Union of the University of Ottawa (SUUO) as “only a puppet of the administration.”
This problem started to escalate in the early 1960s when student union president David Casey and his executive pleaded with the administration to let them add another executive position, since they were swamped with work, yet all constitutional amendments the students passed were denied.
By 1964, student union president Robert Campbell became so frustrated after the administration continuously denied student requests and took months to respond to the union’s proposals that he sent a very strongly worded letter to BOG. This letter caused so much turmoil that he was impeached by the Grand Council (now the BOA), whereupon his entire executive resigned with him in solidarity.
This crisis made it clear that the student union needed to be autonomous, and there was talk of dissolving it entirely.
After this, students worked tirelessly to increase their autonomy and pave the way toward incorporation.
With all it took to get this far, we cannot afford to go back.
History tells us that the administration is more concerned about the bottom line than students, and its total control would suppress our voice and further exploit us. Just look at what they’ve been trying to do recently with mandatory meal plans and student codes of conduct.
We are here at university to find truth and purpose through education, not to spend ourselves broke conforming to a conventional mould.