By Thea Gribilas
The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) announced it would be partnering with scholarship service FundQi for a free trial of its platform at a Board of Directors’ (BoD) meeting in July. However, controversy surrounded the company for months at Carleton University in the winter.
During the July meeting, RSU vice-president operations Vaishali Vinayak said 200 undergraduate students would be included in the trial, but did not specify how these students would be chosen.
“We hope to ease the burden placed on the students now being referred to as the ‘lockdown generation’ and restore their sense of confidence and focus on their studies,” Vinayak said in an email to The Eyeopener.
According to Vinayak, the response from students has been positive so far with the RSU receiving over 2,000 applicants within a few days of the announcement of the trial.
FundQi previously partnered with the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA). However, CUSA councillors brought forth a referendum that passed on Dec. 8, 2020, giving students the ability to choose to opt-in to the $9.99 per semester fee rather than opt-out of the $9.99 per semester fee.
FundQi representatives subsequently expressed concerns that they wouldn’t be able to sustain their business on an opt-out model and attempted to amend the referendum in order to make the service a $105 per semester opt-in fee.
This amendment failed and ultimately CUSA councillors brought forth a second referendum question to remove FundQi as an ancillary fee entirely.
In March, Carleton University students voted 91.8 per cent in favour to remove the $9.99 per semester FundQi ancillary fee, The Charlatan, Carleton’s independent student newspaper, previously reported.
“There are controversies around many things when it comes to student governments. We wanted to genuinely test drive the services, with no strings attached if it doesn’t work,” said Vinayak
Cameron Davis, a CUSA councillor for Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design, was involved in the referendum process. He said many CUSA councillors and Carleton students felt like they were funding FundQi.
The proposal of the ancillary fee increase is what led to “Dragons’ Den sentiments” where, according to Davis, students and CUSA councillors felt they were bearing the brunt of funding the initative.
Zuberi Attard is the national director and founder of FundQi. When asked why FundQi looked to increase the ancillary fee for their service at Carleton—a 90 per cent increase on the initial fee—he said that the $105 fee was necessary if the service was going to be an opt-in service, as FundQi “couldn’t afford…to do that. So the fee would have to change.”
According to Attard, the company’s largest user base comes from individual subscribers who can either pay $120 per year or $40 plus tax for every three months, although he added that FundQi is actively working with schools to pursue trial periods.
“Right now we’re busy reaching out to schools to give them free trials…just to let their students use [FundQi],” said Attard. “Students just go to our website and try to get the service on their own typically.”
Vinayak said that by pursuing this trial period, students are able to get access to financial aid quickly, while the RSU can simultaneously gather their own data on the most effective approach to assisting students in the long run.
Carleton students felt FundQi failed them
While according to Attard, FundQi has well over $16 million in scholarships on its database, Davis said many Carleton students felt as if they weren’t getting what they were expecting and paying for.
“[Students] felt like…the service at its core was trying to offer something that a lot of students felt could be accessed for free online,” said Davis.
Emily Sowa, a CUSA councillor for Carleton’s Faculty of Public Affairs, was also involved in the referendum and the referendum debate. She said students were asking her to abolish the service because they were unhappy with what FundQi was delivering to students.
“A lot of [what I did] wasn’t because it was my…goal to get rid of the service, it was because dozens and dozens of people have come to me personally and told me that that’s what they want,” said Sowa.
“I definitely believe there was no reason for students to pay $20 a year for a social service,” she said.
Attard disputed this and said that “we did meet our promise…[we’ve matched] students to scholarships, bursaries, internships, startup grants [and] conference tickets.”
Attard added that FundQi tried to meet with students who felt unsatisfied with the company, but those students never wanted to meet with the company or show them what was wrong with the platform.
He also claimed FundQi got Carleton students around $600,000 worth of Grammarly premium accounts and hired students from the university to work with FundQi.
“We went above and beyond our call of duty,” said Attard.
During the FundQi referendum at Carleton, it was also alleged that FundQi failed to be transparent with financial data and wasn’t forthcoming with information regarding how effective the company had been with connecting students to scholarships and funding.
“A lot of students felt the team was failing to be transparent,” said Davis. “We were kind of just told the data or it took a long time for us to get any of the data.”
Sowa said that FundQi wasn’t obligated to do anything about requests for financial information until June 2021 due to an agreement CUSA and FundQi had originally reached.
However, Sowa said many people were questioning why FundQi didn’t try to prove its effectiveness as a new service at Carleton.
“Why would you not want to be open and transparent to the students when you’re one of our highest fees for the entirety of our tuition?” she said.
Sowa added that people were concerned about where the funds were going and questioned why FundQi was “not as functional as [they] claim it should be.”
She also said that to this day FundQi “never…rationalized their financial choices or [gave CUSA] any indication on what those financial choices were.”
Attard said that although “private corporations and organizations are never obligated to release their financials…we decided to do it anyway in good faith.”
Throughout the referendum process, he felt students were never asked why FundQi might be necessary keep as an ancillary fee.
“[What’s] really frustrating is the critics don’t tend to keep the people who actually need the service in mind,” said Attard.
Davis said that before the RSU proceeds with a partnership with FundQi it should independently consider any data that FundQi provides them.
“Maybe FundQi improved from Carleton, but if the data is showing you something else, then maybe FundQi isn’t something you want to keep around,” said Davis. “I would genuinely ask Ryerson students to take a hard look at this, take a hard look at FundQi, take a hard look at what happened to Carleton.”
“If anyone wants to research, pretty much everything is publicly available.”
Vinayak said the RSU hasn’t committed to FundQi just yet.
“FundQi hasn’t been chosen yet for any specific campaigns as we’re in the process of evaluating various services over time,” she said. “We’re seeking to understand which services will be most beneficial to students in terms of managing during these difficult times.”
Vinayak said the RSU will keep students informed as to whether or not they decide to proceed with any particular service or company.