We’ve heard some students asking questions about the PIRG fee recently, so we wanted to provide some information that will hopefully clarify any questions you may have.
The short story:
The PIRG fee, which had been collected to support public interest research on campus, is no longer being collected, as a result of a decision of the UVSS Board in April 2021. The board was repeatedly questioned by students as to why they were paying a fee to a group that no longer existed, and the existence of an accruing sum of trust money has historically given rise to disputes over its use. To mitigate that risk, and after seeking a democratic mandate, the board exercised its ability to manage the affairs of the Society, keeping students’ best interests and the intention behind the collection of this fee in mind.
The money that was held in trust is still going back into students, in three different ways:
- Supporting the establishment of a student award for public interest research (administered by UVic);
- UVSS advocacy groups, to support the public interest research and advocacy efforts they conduct;
- And the UVSS operating budget, which helps support the research and advocacy of the UVSS and its groups.
The longer explanation:
In 1983, students at UVic voted to establish a fee to support public interest research services on campus. This provided the basis to establish BCPIRG, a research group within the UVSS, whose name was later changed to VIPIRG (Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group), a UVic-based PIRG. A society was incorporated using the name VIPIRG and it agreed to fill the role of service provider accomplishing PIRG purposes for UVSS. Its relationship to the UVSS was as a Separately Incorporated Fee Levy Group that receives funding through UVSS and is subject to UVSS oversight and controls. The fee was increased by $0.50 by referenda in October 1993, which set it at the rate it had been operating at until 2021: $3 per semester for full time students and $1.50 for part time students to fund public interest research. This PIRG operated for 36 years.
Issues arose alleging accountability concerns with VIPIRG in relation to its use and management of student fees, and in the summer of 2019, VIPIRG chose to leave the UVSS, released all claims to student fees and SUB space, and renamed its society. UVic students continued to pay a fee for a service that no longer existed.
Our first attempt to address this situation was to establish a new PIRG body, to fulfill the purpose of public interest research for which this fee had been designated.
We released a call for proposals to establish a new PIRG in Jan 2020. However, the UVSS only received one application but it was a completely unsuitable replacement to fulfill the mandate.
It was not reasonable to collect a fee for a service that no longer existed. We also heard from students and groups on campus that insisted this was not in the best interests of students. Therefore, the UVSS Board sought to end the PIRG fee. We put out referendum questions in both the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 to attempt to end the collection of the PIRG fee.
One of the spring referendum questions about PIRG fees had been:
“Are you in favour of reallocating the fees currently held in trust for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), to be split evenly between a UVic student award established with preference for BIPOC students, and the UVSS Operating Fund? You are voting for this question under the following circumstances:
The fees held in trust are $192,623 as of January 15, 2021; and,
If a majority of students vote no or this question doesn’t reach quorum, the UVSS Board of Directors will administer all current and future fees collected for PIRG purposes in the best interests of undergraduate students at the University of Victoria, to be determined via a vote of the Board of Directors.”
The results of both referenda were that students consistently voted strongly in favour of ending the collection of the PIRG fee, and allocating the fees held in trust. Of the 1156 students who voted, 79% voted in favour. The democratic mandate to end the fee was present.
The fees accumulating without a service provider were not serving their purpose, and were a liability. Consistent with past practices, the board determined that other means of supplying a PIRG service would be a valid use of those monies.
Thus, in Spring 2021, after the second referendum, the UVSS Board of Directors voted to cease the collection of the PIRG fee. Because the monies collected through the PIRG fee were was intended to go towards public interest research, the UVSS wanted to ensure it honoured that purpose and benefitted students.
The UVSS worked to create an award, administered through UVic, to support students and research: the UVSS BIPOC Public Interest Research Award. We worked with the UVic Development Office to create this award, and once the details were worked out, half of the funds held in trust ($126,071) were transferred to UVic.
This is a really exciting opportunity to support student public interest research at UVic! You can find more info and apply for the award here. Please note that all students can apply for the award, and the first disbursement will happen in September 2022. Here is the summary:
UVSS BIPOC Public Interest Research Award
One or more awards, of at least $1,000 each, are given to continuing or transferring undergraduate students with demonstrated research-based contributions to community programs or agencies that address social justice and/or environmental issues.
The remainder of the fee was split between UVSS Advocacy groups and the UVSS operating fund to support campaigns, advocacy and new events ($63,036 each), as these groups and initiatives also support research and advocacy in the public interest – consistent with the original intention of collecting the fee.