The means of funding the AMS has come up a few times this election season, particularly in the VP Finance race. The AMS currently generates its revenue through three streams: student fees (93.3 per cent of revenue), food & beverage outlets (5.9 per cent of revenue) and interest generated on its investment portfolio (0.8 per cent of revenue).
VP Finance Candidate Jon Tomalty is pushing to move towards financing the AMS through business revenues as opposed to student fees, arguing in the first debate that “funding an organization through a flat fee is incredibly regressive.” Current VP Finance Kuol Akuechbeny shared similar sentiments in a Ubyssey article earlier this year, claiming that “the long term goal for the AMS is to make the Nest sustainable and make this society run by itself without collecting student fees.”
I absolutely agree with Tomalty that flat taxes are regressive, and I also agree that students experiencing financial insecurity should be able to receive subsidies to cover their fees. However, the alternative model of funding being proposed is not progressive in any way. Relying on business revenues to fund services for the public good is always dangerous, as profit motives will inevitably contradict the public interest. How will the AMS be able to focus on serving student needs if we need to generate profits by exploiting students in order for the society to function?
When generating a surplus becomes necessary to keeping an institution alive, decisions start to be made with profit as the first priority. I see this impacting the AMS in two ways: first, in the operation of its food & beverage outlets and second, in how space is allocated in the Nest.
The AMS owns eight food outlets, along with a catering service. As an organization dedicated to “improv[ing] the quality of the educational, social, and personal lives of the students of UBC,” the primary purpose of AMS food outlets should to be to provide students with affordable, healthy and sustainable food, as well as to offer good part-time jobs for students. But, these priorities typically contradict with what is most profitable. Healthier ingredients, cheaper food for students, sustainability initiatives and better pay for workers all increase costs.
We should be maximizing our 250,000 square foot space Nest to support student initiatives and meet student needs as much as possible. This means giving permanent spaces, room bookings and booth spots to student groups for free. But when our student union relies on continued revenue generation just to keep running, the AMS cannot afford to give its spaces away for free and instead will need to rent it out to business like Qoola.
The AMS justifies generating revenue through running businesses, because business contributions go “straight back into AMS Student Services,” like Safewalk and the Food Bank. Governments have often used a similar logic by deeming revenue-generating projects in the national interest, regardless of their environmental and social consequences. We should not support something just because it makes money; we must consider the means by which that money is generated. Prioritizing revenue-generation is not justified if the means don’t align with the AMS’s mission of serving students, just like governments’ revenues are not justified if they rely on the exploitation of people and the land.
Yes, a flat fee across all students is not necessarily progressive but collecting student fees is the only ethical way to fund our society because it does not tie the AMS’s existence to ongoing extraction of profit from those same students.
Instead of reducing student fees altogether, we should continue to provide relief for students who need it and focus on other areas that make up the bulk of student expenses like tuition and housing, as opposed to the $41 AMS fee. Along with this, the AMS should be amplifying student-led advocacy towards these goals and providing services and spaces to keep students healthy and supported.
Across Canada and around the world, public services and non-profit institutions have increasingly started relying on profit-driven funding models and acting more and more like corporations. Rather than following these trends of corporatization, we as students should be actively preserving the remaining spaces that have not been overtaken by profit motives. This starts with our student union. We need to resist corporatization of the AMS and bring back a commitment to always serving student needs.
I encourage students to consider these issues this election season, and throughout the upcoming year, in holding the AMS executive accountable to student interests.
Michelle Marcus is a fourth-year environmental sciences major. Marcus is also a volunteer for the Spencer Latu President campaign and the Associate Vice-President Sustainability at the AMS. The opinions expressed are solely her own.