Students' Council: Off to a running start!

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Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 16:30

This past Sunday, January 19, the Students’ Council met for its first regular meeting of the new calendar year to consider a jam-packed agenda. It seems the winter recess had Councillors chomping at the bit to get back to representing and advocating for their constituents needs, so just as a triple-crown winner, Council has taken off in a gallop. Key points are summarized below, but for a complete look inside Council’s debate check out the livestream recordings. 

Progress on Student Mental Health at Waterloo 

Following formalities, Council began with a guest presentation from John Hirdes and Grace Chong, respectively the Chair and Project Coordinator for the Presidents’ Committee on Student Mental Health (CoSMH), which overviewed the progress to date of CoSMH in implementing the 2018 President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health (PAC-SMH) consolidated recommendations. Students’ Council received reports that of the prioritized recommendations, 42% were completed, 44% in progress, and 14% still pending. Of the recommendations completed and in-progress, discussion on impacts for co-op students, exam scheduling relief, and expansion of service levels at UW Counselling Services stood out as key items to the student representatives present.  

Councillors also raised tough questions on many other topics, including:  

  • The policy objectives of the University in seeing through these recommendations 

  • Academic autonomy of professors and the role of faculty in fostering a campus culture supportive of mental health 

  • Whether costs for improvements should continue to be borne by students or whether the University should step-up to increase funding 

  • Despite CoSMH wrapping-up some of its work in the coming year, there have been systems put in place to continuously monitor the implementation of PAC-SMH recommendations 

  • What efforts are being made to reduce wait times and how the new Student Assistant Program (EmpowerMe) may alleviate this concern 

  • Reducing administrative burden by implementing an electronic records management system 

  • The University’s leadership across Canada in the sector of mental health for students, and the relatively greater breadth and depth of services available to students than to those outside of the University community

Students' Council in MPR

Concluding the discussion, Council was pleased with the substantial progress made but identified areas where there was still room for significant improvement to benefit students. Michael Beauchemin, undergraduate student President, summarized the view of the Students’ Council stating that, “...the Committee on Student Mental Health has done some thorough work so far, and the questions asked at Council demonstrate a high level of student engagement with the outcomes. However, they also demonstrated that the work can't begin and end with CoSMH – there remains much to be done and the rest of campus needs to adopt and reflect this work as well.”

Review of Opt-out Data and Financial Planning 

During executive reports, the Vice President, Operations & Finance, Seneca Velling, provided an update to Council on the status of winter 2020 term opt-out rates and the changes since fall 2019 (pages 15-22, Report of the Vice President, Operations & Finance). It was noted that the number of students opting to pay all fees declined from 67% to 60%, and those opting-out of all fees also declined from 0.2% to 0.1% of students. Overall the opt-out experience is still below estimates prepared by Council’s Budget & Appropriations Committee that anticipated an approximately 30% average opt-out for the fiscal year. “Presented data,” noted Vice President Velling, “indicates that students are making value-based decisions … [and] the dollar amount of an optional fee has less immediate impact on a choice to pay that fee than initially anticipated.”  

Efforts to create a Societies Fluctuation Reserve whereby WUSA would invest in the constituency Societies to buffer their term-by-term experienced opt-out were met with mixed reception, but ultimately supported in principle. The proposed reserve structure will be presented to the Societies’ presidents at the Committee of Presidents, the executive committee of Council, for approval in the coming weeks.  

On a similar note, Council accepted the first reading of an overhaul to the Policy 29: Ancillary Fees and Member Dues, which would more strictly regulate new and existing undergraduate fees through more accountable means. Proposed changes would allow undergraduates to appeal fees to the Students’ Council, establish improved review criteria, and better regulate how fees are introduced, adjusted, and removed. As part of the discussion on the revised policy, Council reviewed the Budget & Appropriations Committee’s principles for the ongoing fee review. These principles will guide the Committee in determining which ancillary fees will be compulsory or optional going forward.  

Fee Adjustments 

Seneca Velling, Students' Council presentationOn behalf of the Board of Directors, the VP Operations & Finance presented the Board-approved increases to the “Federation of Students’ Fee” (now a suite of nine fees split into compulsory and optional components) which were recommended to the Students’ Council for ratification. Following the presentation, a point of order was raised on the powers of Council to ratify the fee adjustments under the Bylaws (WUSA’s Constitution). In interpreting the Constitution (Article 4: Member Dues) the President noted that Council had explicit authority to ratify increases that were less than the value of the annual adjustment for Consumer Price Index of Canada or those related to staff remuneration. 

With procedural uncertainty resolved, the formal question period began. Councillors debated the merits of the proposed increases, highlighted mandatory spending, and scrutinized the necessity of non-mandatory spending adjustments. Personal liability of Directors for staff salary and benefits under Section 81(1) of the Ontario Corporations Act, contractual obligations imposed under agreements with UW and UW Human Resources Policies, and alternative options in cutting budgets and reducing service levels were identified by the Students’ Council. However, after considerable debate and splitting the question to consider each fee increase separately, Council ratified the Board’s recommended fee levels. 

A summary of the increases adopted to begin in Spring 2020 is highlighted below, for more details check out the presentation given to Council

  • Adjustments of $11.18 for re-grading of staff roles by HR and Board of Governors' approved compensation adjustments were approved unanimously 

  • Inflationary adjustments for the Executive salaries totaling $0.11 were approved unanimously 

  • Increases to fees to support increased advocacy at the Federal level and adjust commissioner part-time staff pay to match the cost of living were also adopted 

  • In total, 31% of the approved increases are anticipated to be optional (totaling $4.56) and 69% of them compulsory (totaling $10.14).

Student Government Administration 

Council voted overwhelmingly to remove a Councillor from the Math Caucus for truancy. Now former Councillor Mehta had failed to attend five Council meetings, of which only one absence was excused by the President or Deputy Speaker (click here to view public attendance records). With the General Election about to be underway, the Mathematics Society is empowered to fill the vacancy on a temporary basis.  

Separately, Council accepted changes to the structure of its Education Advisory Council, a committee dealing with external and university advocacy and educational affairs, which would see a tiered quorum structure that allows the committee to carry-on business despite its numerous ex officio members from the undergraduate senate caucus. Related to this change, Council agreed to overhaul the current external political lobbying organization review process to shift the schedule to a five-year review cycle, up from two. This change would improve efficiency of existing reviews and ensure duplication of efforts were avoided. Read more on last year's review of membership in OUSA.   

Student Services 

Council accepted a report to shift management of the Off-Campus Community service to the Orientation & Member Transition Department, rather than the Services Department. This shift was motivated by the overlap with first year Orientation and the service and is expected to increase communication and effective operation of the services’ offerings. Council exempted the services funding model from the shift, allowing the Budget & Appropriations Committee to determine the effective cost-sharing, if any, between the general operating fund and the orientation fund. 

With the roll-out of the new WUSA brand, it was time to revitalize the “Feds Food Bank.” Council approved the recommendation of the VP Student Life to rebrand the Food Bank as a “Food Support Service” as this better encapsulates its current and planned functions. 

Confidential Committee-of-the-Whole 

The last motion of business at Council was to strike a confidential committee-of-the-whole immediately following the adjournment of the regular meeting. This confidential committee sought feedback on Councillors’ position on local transit as an essential service and student values in the approval of budgets for the Student Services Advisory Committee (SSAC) which would determine UW Student Services Fees for undergraduates in the coming years. This feedback will inform the advocacy work of the executives to the Region of Waterloo and GRT, as well as be reflected on in making decisions at SSAC for future funding of university operated student services. 

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Interested in finding out more about Council? Check out the Students’ Council webpage or follow us on Twitter. Want to be a Councillor? Run for election by getting 25 nominations for your candidacy at vote.wusa.ca by 4 p.m. on January 23, to stand for election.