Vital services, campus activities at risk as Mac students choose what fees to pay

McMaster University students are navigating student life as the provincial government's 'student choice initiative' comes into play. The student union and clubs won't know how much money they have until halfway through the semester.

The McMaster Students Union won't know how much money it has until November

Since students can opt out of paying for non-essential fees, the McMaster Students Union doesn't know how much funding it has for services and clubs this year. (McMaster Students Union)

The fate of many of McMaster University's clubs hangs in the balance over the next week as students decide whether to fund the clubs and other student activities.

Student leaders say the process endangers important student services and could fundamentally change the nature of student life.

From Sept. 12 to 20, students will be able to opt out of fees that have been deemed "non-essential" under new provincial rules

And there's not much clubs can do if others feel their passion isn't worth funding. 

In a video statement posted to the student union Facebook page, McMaster Students Union president Josh Marando said that while the initiative presents itself as a way to save money, it also puts "many of [their] vital services at risk from being completely defunded." 

Vice president of the MSU Alex Johnston said that this change could be "harmful to [the] student experience overall."

The student choice initiative was announced by the Ford government in January 2019 and will come into effect for the first time this fall semester.

The non-essential fees fund student groups and several services from the McMaster Students Union, which in turn gives money to clubs across the campus. 

Cultural clubs are 'non-essential'

There are around 350 clubs at the university, but only recreational clubs — who were deemed essential — will retain their funding. 

This leaves the money for religious/spiritual, cultural, academic, and social issue clubs in jeopardy. 

This is important because students say these clubs make their university experience richer. It's where they meet friends and get to do the things they love. 

Co-president of the Middle Eastern Students' Association, Muna Sabouny said that this change could negatively impact the lives of students. 

"Cultural clubs in general are made to educate the McMaster community...as well as give people the sense of community and home," she said. "The fact that those cuts are potentially going to happen is very, very unfortunate."

She said that the club doesn't usually charge students to participate in its events. But club executives might have to explore that option, since they don't know how much money is coming. 

Sabouny said that she worries charging for events will discourage people from getting involved. 

"People are going to have a lot of 'question marks' regarding why prices went up...it's really not for the students any more," she said. "I don't see how any of this is really benefiting any of the clubs." 

Student leaders will opt in

Student leaders who ran booths at last week's club festival told us that clubs were too important to them to consider opting out. 

"I think I'll definitely be opting in," said Marcel Jansen, a fourth year student and improv team member. "These non-essential clubs can make a huge difference in people's lives and I know they have in mine." 

The intention, leaders agreed, was for students to save money. And while all the students were passionate about their clubs and willing to continue paying, they acknowledged that not everyone sees the benefit. 

"For a lot of low-income students, they can't afford to pay for a lot of these services, so opting out for them is great," said Sufal Deb, a second-year student. "But for people who can afford it...it's not that much money. It helps out all the clubs and services." 

The students also worried that those just starting their university degrees would jump at the chance to save money without the knowledge of what they were cutting out. 

Third year student Haleigh Wallace pointed out that going to university for the first time means encountering expenses you might not have had before, like rent, tuition, and groceries. 

She said that first year students might not have a thorough understanding about what services are available. 

"[It's important that] every single student who is paying their tuition in the fall is aware of the choices they are going to be making," she said. "If you opt out thinking that it won't affect you, you might be wrong." 

Johnston said that due to the lack of time for planning, the union doesn't have an easy way to identify who opts in or opts out.  Right now, services can be accessed by every student, regardless of whether they paid or not. 

Campus media prepares for hit

The Silhouette might have to make some changes in the future, says the editor-in-chief, which could include moving away from print and cutting back on staff. (Maxine Gravina)

The Silhouette, the student-run newspaper, heavily relies on student fees for its operations. Their editor-in-chief, Hannah Walters-Vida, said that the lack of funding would jeopardize the paper's capacity. 

"I think it says a lot about our current government's priorities that campus media, services, and clubs are designated as non-essential." she said. "We're essential because we're a watchdog. We hold this institution accountable — that is what student journalism is." 

Walters-Vida said that it's hard to tell how much money they might lose out on. She said that the paper might have to consider moving more online and reducing staff. 

She added that having students keep a close eye on their school is not only important for the university, but also for Hamilton.

"McMaster is one of the largest employers in the city, and we are an important part of Hamilton more broadly," she said. "There is no other outlet that holds the university as accountable as we do." 

All services will still run

Normally, around 24,000 students pay a single fee to the MSU. But now, just under $80 of that fee is optional.

Johnston said that the MSU has still committed to running all of its services for the year no matter how much money it receives.

And while students may choose to opt-out, it doesn't mean that they'll end up saving money. The union has already had to raise prices in their on-campus market, which aims to sell its wares at low cost, to make up the difference.

Other hypothetical changes for the future include having fewer events, increasing event prices, and shifting to a pay-per-service model, where those who opt-in get different pricing than those who opt-out. 

Johnston said the MSU will find out how much money it gets in November. 

Find out more information

The McMaster website says that McMaster University worked alongside the MSU, MAPS, GSA and student societies to review their student fees "to determine which fees [were] essential and non-essential as per the provincial government's classification guidelines."

Students can access a list showing the breakdown between essential and non-essential fees online. 

The MSU has also launched a website to explain the initiative and encourage students to "choose student life." 

Students starting their studies in the winter, spring and summer will also have to make the choice to opt in or out when their semester begins.