The thorny question of WPIRG’s opt-out fee

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At the Feds March General Meeting March 23, students will debate whether or not to hold a referendum on the &ldquo;opt-out&rdquo; status of the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG) fee. If called, the referendum will ask students whether they wish to keep the refundable fee or remove it from Quest completely, requiring students to independently seek membership in WPIRG. The motion&rsquo;s proponents are a campus movement called Opt-In UWaterloo that claims WPIRG has failed to fulfill its mission of serving the public interest by pursuing campaigns that a majority of students on this campus don&rsquo;t support. In response, supporters of WPIRG insist that the organization does good work raising awareness and serving as a voice for some of society&rsquo;s most marginalized groups.</p>

Unfortunately, both sides are missing the opportunity to have a much more critical debate about our fees.

Whether it’s mandatory or opt-out, every incidental (i.e. non-tuition) fee exists for one purpose: the creation of student public goods — that is to say, something which the entire student body can potentially benefit from that doesn’t get used up no matter how many times the benefits are reaped. Some of these goods are more obvious than others. The mandatory Feds fee pays for access to a wide range of complimentary services and big events, as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes advocacy with government ministers and local policy makers. The opt-out Imprint fee pays for a weekly newspaper that anybody can read. The mandatory UPASS fee grants every student unlimited free access to Kitchener-Waterloo’s bus network. In all of these cases, the collective buy-in means that students can access benefits at a value exceeding what they paid on Quest.

The question we must ask on the March 23 is simple: does WPIRG create a student public good, and if so, what? It is insufficient for WPIRG to talk to attendees about their noble cause; they must demonstrate how all students benefit from their actions — in other words, how their funded existence makes the campus uniformly better. Since this is simply a motion for a referendum and not the decision itself, Opt-In Waterloo need only to convince attendees of the General Meeting that WPIRG might not be creating a public good, either by revealing that much of the student public may not be benefiting from their work, or by showcasing how the work itself may be causing harm. But they will need to overcome the effective counterargument that WPIRG is a member-driven organization, whose decisions are made by consensus, at regular meetings that any student can attend.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I authored a similar motion, and over two hundred students voted my proposal down in spectacular fashion at a meeting that I’ll never forget. Today, I am resolutely undecided. However, I am certain that if we move away from discussing WPIRG’s specific campaigns and start examining the broader issue of student public goods, it may be possible to avoid having this debate again in another three years.

Sacha Forstner

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Undergraduate Senator-Elect, At-Large