by Laura Fraser
Although opting out of a student union has never been a serious issue on campus, Ryerson students who may not want to pay the annual Ryerson Students’ Union membership fee have no other choice, according to current union by-laws.
In Australia, organizations such as the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation want to get rid of mandatory student unionism — along with membership dues. Australian Prime Minister John Howard introduced the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill on March 16, 2005. Students will be able to opt-out of their union once the bill is passed.
The Australian movement for voluntary student unionism is not driven by the students, said Ram Sivapalan, RSU vice-president Finance and Services. “This is a way for the government to intervene and weaken the student unions there.”
If students at Ryerson were able to opt out, the union would be “ineffective” because time would be wasted trying to get students to join, Sivapalan said.
“Are we supposed to be spending time convincing them to join up, or out there representing them to the government?”
Sivapalan compared the $102 in RSU annual membership dues each student pays to federal and provincial taxes. He said students should pay the union fee whether or not they use all of RSU’s services.
“Just because you don’t use the health system, should you have to pay taxes? Of course.”
According to Shirley Lewchuk, secretary of Ryerson’s Board of Governors, the students’ union must submit a proposal to the Board before increasing mandatory membership dues. Once approved, students vote on the proposal in a referendum.
The last time the 24-member board approved an increase in membership dues was in March 2000. The board only has three student representatives, including RSU President Rebecca Rose and Vice President Education Nora Loreto. Last year, former student union president Dave MacLean, and vice-president student life and events Cristina Ribeiro were two of those student representatives.
“I guess it’s fair that (RSU executives) are on the board,” said Melissa Ghosal, a third-year business management student. “(But) maybe they shouldn’t vote (for the approval of a student union fee increase). You need to get a balance.”
Lewchuk said the student body is represented by the elected students on the board, but that only about seven per cent of students voted in last spring’s election.
Keith Alnwick said that in his 15 years as Ryerson’s registrar, opting out of the student union has never been an issue for students. If a student did want to opt-out, however, Alnwick suggested that they talk to RSU representatives.
Sivapalan said he has never heard of a student trying to opt-out.
“All the money in our budget is from membership dues,” Sivapalan said.
Services such as The Used Book Room, CopyRite and the tax clinic are subsidized using these membership fees. “Whether people realize it or not, these services are offered by the student union.”
Third-year architecture student Katherine Gudov said there are other options available. She has never participated in a Ryerson event. The Used Book Room is the only RSU service she uses.
“I would definitely opt-out,” said Gudov. “I’d have an extra $102 for spending money.”
Second-year fashion communications student Rachel Simpson was not even aware of the RSU membership fee and had no idea how much it was costing her. She said, if given a choice, she would only stay in the union because of The Used Book Room and discounted Metropasses.
Jenilee Forgie, on the other hand, is taking full advantage of her RSU membership. The third-year economics and management sciences student works at the Used Book Room, is the president of the economics and management sciences course union and is a member of the Poker Society.
“I know there are people that complain about fees because they don’t go to events or whatever,” said Forgie. “I choose to take advantage of (the membership).”
Ghosal said being part of the student union fosters a sense of community and helps her meet new people. She has attended RSU events such as the Indo-Canadian pub nights and the Parade and Picnic.
Supporters of voluntary student unionism, such as the Australian Liberal Students Federation, claim that making membership voluntary forces student unions to improve services. Forgie doesn’t agree.
“I don’t know if that would increase the quality (of a student union). I think RSU would just increase advertising,” she said.
Ryerson President Sheldon Levy said voluntary student unionism would make student events more difficult to run.
“How would you ever police (events and services)?” he said, adding that the university relies on the student union to be the voice of the student body.
That’s exactly what Sivapalan wants.
“Everything the Ryerson Students’ Union does is geared to making sure its members are aware of the representation… that the union provides,” he said.