More Pay, More Say? Private Member's Bill Calls for More Student Power on University Board

Over the last 2 years, tuition fees have increased dramatically across Canada. Although student groups are fighting these increases, one Member of Parliament is looking at the situation in a different way. David Caplan, a Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament, has brought forward a private member's bill that will hopefully force universities to think things through a little more before increasing tuition, and make them more accountable to students.

The private member's bill, tabled yesterday and titled the University of Ottawa Amendment Act, 1999, proposes to legislatively require the inclusion of six student representatives on of the University of Ottawa's 32-member Board of Governors. Currently, there are only two students on this board, both of which are "invited" members rather than representatives required by law. The Board of Governors is responsible for making decisions at the University of Ottawa, such as tuition increases, must be approved before they take effect.

"One message that I have heard in my discussions with postsecondary students is that of 'more pay, more say,' " explains Caplan. "Mike Harris [the premier of Ontario] has students paying a larger and larger share of the cost of their education and yet traditionally they do not have a relatively large share of the votes on the boards and councils that make these decisions. It just doesn't seem fair."

Student leaders seemed pleased with the bill: "As government funding for postsecondary education recedes and tuition levels rise, universities should become more accountable to students through greater emphasis on client consultation and student representation," explains University of Ottawa Student Federation President Patrick Pichette. But, though they feel positive about the bill itself, students were quick to reiterate that their approval does not mean they agree with the increases in tuition that caused its parturition: "We don't want higher tuition fees, it's going to prevent people from coming to university. But if students are footing half of the bill, we want more of a say in how that money is spent. We want more seats on our Boards of Governors," says Colleen Holder, vice president of university affairs at the Brock University Students' Union in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Although the University is not specifically against the idea of more student representation, they do not agree with the details of the Private Member's Bill. "It does create a number of problems," says Jean-Michel Beillard, the vice rector of university relations and development at the University of Ottawa. He explains that "in order to increase student participation to six, which is what the bill proposes, then you'd have to shuffle other members, because there are two students presently, and to get to six you have to find four seats from elsewhere. What is a little difficult is this: We have support staff represented on our board, and in the bill they vanish. We also have a total of four professors, in the bill there only remains two. So we end up with a bill that would guarantee a fairly large number of students--a number that would be larger than the number of professors, larger than the support staff (because they're not there), and that would decrease as well the number of members appointed by the lieutenant governor in council, i.e., the government." Beillard also raised a concern with the transient nature of students (other board members are appointed for a full 3 years, allowing for more consistency in decision-making).

Although it is rare that a Private Member's Bill, such as this proposed amendment to the University of Ottawa Act, makes it through the many stages required before becoming law, putting the question on the floor of the legislature forces an open debate on the issue, in full view of the public and the press. "As with many Private Member's Bills, this will be a starting point for discussion on this issue," notes Caplan.

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