Schools take on U Pass issue

STUDENT VOTE:  Beth Johnson, a first-year student in Durham College’s Special Event Planning program, asking students to vote in the U Pass referendum. Students could vote online and volunteers like Johnson carried tablets to help them to do so.
STUDENT VOTE: Beth Johnson, a first-year student in Durham College’s Special Event Planning program, asking students to vote in the U Pass referendum. Students could vote online and volunteers like Johnson carried tablets to help them to do so.

Reporter: Brad Andrews

The fate of the U Pass has been put in the hands of students as a referendum asks whether they want to keep the transit pass. Both Durham College and UOIT organized the votes, which began Monday, March 10 and ended Friday, March 14, in response to Durham Region Transit’s decision to increase the cost of the U Pass 16 per cent a year for the next three years.
Students are being asked whether they want to keep the U Pass or not and normally the Student Association would organize a referendum like tis but has no role in the current vote. Both schools have fee protocols, agreements mandated by the provincial government outlining conditions for how they can increase ancillary fees, like the U Pass, beyond a set amount.
According to Meri Kim Oliver, vice-president of Student Affairs at Durham College, the conflict with the SA and the nature of the U Pass increase made this referendum a special case. If a proposed increase to the ancillary fees is more than 20 per cent it must automatically go to a referendum, usually organized by the SA.
“The U Pass isn’t increasing by 20 per cent and it doesn’t increase the overall fees by 20 per cent but because it’s so unusual, 16 per cent a year for three years, we felt that the question had to go back to the students,” said Oliver. “We felt students should A) be aware of it and B) have an opportunity for input.”
Following roundtables the college conducted with students Oliver said some who commute or pay for parking passes had issues with being forced to pay for the U Pass. For those reasons and the overall 48 per cent increase over three years, Oliver said the school decided to hold a vote.
To hold the referendum without the SA, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities had to grant the college permission to operate under a special protocol for 2014 only. UOIT operates under a different protocol so didn’t require any special arrangement to hold this referendum.
Baker Baha, vice-chair of the SA board of directors, criticized the referendum for limiting how students could represent their views. According to him the schools were giving legitimacy to the increases rather than trying to stop them for the sake of the students.
“When the SA would do a referendum it would be geared more towards what the students wanted,” said Baha.
Baha said if the SA had organized the referendum, rather than simple yes or no questions regarding the future of the U Pass, the students would be given the option of saying they want the U Pass while saying the increase was too much. The lack of notice prior to the votes, one business day according to Baha, was also a problem. An email announcing the vote was only sent out Wednesday, three days into the referendum.
“I think this is a lazy process, when you just hand out the information to students and think they’re going to make up their minds within a day instead of actively putting the information out there and having the students debate on it for a week or two,” said Baha.
“That’s how a referendum works.”
Jeff Zukowski, a second-year student in Durham’s marketing program and one of the two student leaders hired to organize the referendum, disagreed. He said they looked at previous student votes and felt announcing the referendum a week in advance might help get the information out but it didn’t translate into people actually voting.
Zukowski prefers having volunteers walking about the campus, providing students with the information and being able to offer tablets for them to vote right away or direct them to voting stations around campus.
“I want to get people angry and fired up, I want to make them want to vote,” said Zukowski. He also pointed to the simple yes or no question being asked of students as a strength of this referendum, as of Wednesday night more than 1300 votes had been cast on the college side.
“If we did eight questions rather than one we probably wouldn’t be able to do it in a day,” said Zukowski.
According to Lokendra Ramotar, a fourth-year grad student in UOIT’s Mechanical Engineering program and a student organizer of the university’s referendum, the lack of notice on the university’s part was due to trying to co-ordinate with the college. The first email to UOIT students about the referendum was sent the Friday before the election but Ramotar didn’t think the short notice hurt the process.
“I have a feeling if the email went out earlier the information put out there it would have become skewed,” said Ramotar.
As of Thursday morning around the university had recorded 2300 votes in the referendum and Ramotar said a turnout like that was far from the norm.
“I’ve never seen student turnout in these numbers,” said Ramotar.
“I think that over the years the students are becoming more involved.”
Although Baha took issue with the lack of input the SA was allowed to have on these referendums Brad MacIsaac, assistant-vice president, planning and analysis, and registrar at UOIT, said they were given that chance. MacIsaac, chair of the ancillary fees committee for UOIT and the main administrative contact for the referendum at the university, said the SA was invited to attend two meetings on the issue in February but no representative attended.
“They could come in some advisory capacity since the schools do not recognize them as the representatives of the students,” said MacIsaac.
Samantha Brown, the SA’s communications officer, said the person invited to those meetings would have been SA president Peter Chinweuba. MacIsaac confirmed they contacted Chinweuba who told them someone would attend the Feb. 5 meeting yet no one from the SA did, nor did any one reply regarding a second meeting on Feb. 26. Chinweuba, in a recent statement, claimed the SA had taken the U Pass matter away from him and handed it to vice-president of college affairs, Ashley Bennett.
DRT proposed the increase and Durham Regional Council approved it within a two-week period late last year against strong opposition from the SA. Currently students pay $77 per semester for the U Pass with no option to opt out of the fee. That cost will increase to $89 for the new fall term and will continue to rise over the next two years to $120 by September 2016, an increase of almost 64 per cent over the current rate.