Why not use tuition to fix potholes? - Macleans.ca

Why not use tuition to fix potholes?

A U-Pass compels students who don’t use transit to subsidize not just other students, but everybody


A student running to be mayor of Ottawa is opposing a U-Pass program set to launch in the fall. Charlie Taylor, a Carleton University journalism student, says the mandatory buss pass approved at his school and the University of Ottawa earlier this year, should have an opt out option. And so it should. U-Pass programs, that affix the cost of a bus pass to tuition, punish students for living in close proximity to their university, or for cycling, or for carpooling, or for living too far away for transit to be a prudent choice. Student transit users on the other hand will see their fares reduced. City council approved the program in February and there were referenda subsequently held at both universities, a prerequisite for bringing in new fees.

As an internal subsidy funded through tuition U-Pass programs see money flow from students who don’t use the bus towards those that do. But it is not just the fact that students will have no choice but to pay for transit that should raise suspicions, it is the nature of the subsidy–the fact that transit is not a service directly related to education. Student fees are used for all sorts of on campus services that are not universally used (unfortunately, libraries fall into this category), but the difference is that most such services are part of running a university. Transit is a municipal, and sometimes provincial, responsibility.

Any improvements  made to transit systems as a result of U-Pass schemes like this, that have been popping all over the country in recent years, will not only benefit students but all bus riders. So students who don’t take the bus are not just subsidizing other students, they are subsidizing everybody. Why does that make any sense?

And, no, the fact that the U-Pass was a brought in after a student poll doesn’t legitimize it. The university population turns over every few years, and, so, the legitimacy of a student vote quickly vanishes.

Taking money from tuition to fund municipal infrastructure projects, or to promote a “transit culture,” or to support environmentally sensible choices, is, I suppose, one way for city governments to accomplish their goals. Another way would be to, uh, fund it through the regular taxation system. Of course that would require using property taxes or expending political capital to lobby other levels of government for funding, or for new taxation powers. Extracting money through tuition, from students who will only be in school for a few years, is much easier. I imagine students who walk or bike to school encounter potholes, so why couldn’t we use student fees to fix that problem?

Of course student unions  are the ones who actively lobby the government for U-Pass programs. But isn’t it odd that when tuition is being raised for purposes weakly related, if at all, to a university education that student unions are so supportive, but when tuition increases are proposed for more direct educational services, they fly off the handle?

I doubt Taylor has much of a shot at the mayor’s office, but if he helps to raise the U-Pass as a municipal issue, which it is, as opposed to an educational issue (students are broke!) then good for him.


Why not use tuition to fix potholes?

  1. Hey Carson,
    Thanks for publishing this article. Aside from whatever the politics are on this issue, I’m faced with a pretty crap-situation heading back to tuition this year… the U-Pass fee is just a slap in the face. I’d like to share with you my story:
    My tuition payment two years ago was approximately $5500, fees included. It is now $6070. I had to take a year off in 2009 to pay it off–which I finally did in May. Now, heading back to school in the fall, the only way I am able to afford going back to school is by working 18-25 hours per week. Fortunately, I have wonderful employers who understand my situation and are incredibly flexible around my schedule–which was ridiculous trying to secure: I went online the day of my allotted “registration” date, only to find all of my prerequisite classes full. With the schedule I was able to make, I would ony work 10 hours per week–half of what I needed.
    So, I visited the Academic Advisor’s office– to no avail. I spent a total of two sessions and three hours (plus an additional 2 or so on the phone) attempting to come up with a schedule that would allow me to graduate on time, with the degree I wanted. I will be suffering by about $100 per month–which I’m hoping OSAP will give me, regardless of the fact that I worked all last year (since May 2009) nearly full-time. Oh wait, OSAP will probably JUUUUST cover my tution– like they did the last time i had to take a year off in order to save up for school.
    So, now I’m faced with an additional $300 charge. I have had to purchase a car– a little shitbox for $1500– in order to get me between school and my job so that I am able to afford living. I have to take a few hours off of work 3 days a week to drive to school, then drive back to work and finish the rest of the day. This was the only schedule I could get. I also have to pay $700 for parking– on top of the $300 I’ll have to pay for a bus pass that a)I don’t need and b) I couldn’t use based on the demands of my time.
    Is this going to be worth it? Will I have a secure job when I’m finished my degree?
    Nope. I’ll be out there like the rest of them, trying to find something.
    There are thousands of jobs out there–if you have a University education. Receptionists and Administrative personell are now preffered to have “an undergradute degree or college diploma”… for that $15/hr job. Minimum wage is $10.

    …something is seriously wrong here. How can you call this normal?

    I’d like to opt out of the $290 U-Pass, as well as the $100 dental insurance and $80 health insurance, since I will be covered under my parents’ plan while I’m in school. I’d also like to opt out of the $133 incidental fee, because whatever that is I’m sure it’s useless, as well as the $92 Student Association – Federation fee, because I feel they aren’t doing a thing for me in protecting my interests.
    It would be great if the students–who are paying for University–had a say in any of this.

  2. I agree. Thanks for keeping this issue in the spotlight, Carson.
    Student governments and the CFS are always screaming about lower tuition and then saddle students with $400 to $600 in fees for services that should be completely optional.

    By the way, Dionne, if it’s a CFS health plan, I believe you can opt out if you have pre-existing extended health coverage. I was able to. You need to scan or photograph a copy of your current health card and send it to them on-line with a form. Stupidly complicated, yes, but at least you can do it.

  3. I think more municipalities, if they want to promote a transit culture, should maybe look at further discounting transit fares for everyone. Or perhaps even going to zero-fare and funding the whole thing through taxation.

    But the one thing here is that in this article Carson is talking about governments “extracting” money from students. Yet, in this other article (linked below), they are saying that the U-Pass will cost the city of Ottawa $3 million. It seems to me that if it is costing the government to implement it instead of the government making money off the deal, then students as a whole are extracting money from the city by getting these deals, not the other way around.


  4. As a University of Ottawa Graduate student, who resides in Quebec, I find it unfair that while my tuition fees will also contribute to the U-pass ‘fund’, unfortunately the University was ‘unable’ to secure a comparable negotiation adn U-Pass with the STO for Quebec students. So what does this all mean? Well, Quebec students are unable to opt-out of the U-pass by choice, nor are they able to obtain one and forced to buy an STO pass, or pay for other transportation fees on top of it all.

  5. It is immoral to charge someone for something they won’t be using. The u-pass must be optional. Since most students seem to use transit anyway it is unnecessary to make it mandatory.

  6. I think we can critique U-passes on whether they are mandatory or optional, if things can be done for “special cases” as many commenters have noted. That’s a valid critique, and I think is one of the factors (along with the amount of savings) that goes into whether or not a U-Pass is a good idea.

    But saying U-passes are simply a way for governments to extract money from students as Carson does in the article just doesn’t make sense, when these U-passes are costing municipalities, not making profit for them. If anything, when you average it out, in a half-decent U-pass deal, students are extracting money from the government.

  7. So, students who don’t use the bus aren’t be compelled to fund these projects? Whether municipal funding exists or not (and I am well aware that in many cases it does) the fact remains that tuition is being used as a funding source for municipal initiatives. Because it is not the ONLY source doesn’t alter my point.

  8. I for one am a fan of the “U-Pass” system and all its benefits to students and the communities they call home during the academic year.

    If you were to take out the common financial complaint from today’s post-secondary student, there is much greater environmental and social benefits being offered here.

    Post secondary students need to look at the big picture being presented. They need to forget the immediate financial Burdon to the “entertainment” line of the personal budgets and start finding solutions to society’s changes.

    We are of a generation that has no choice but to suffer the environmental effects of generations before us. We need to shift our way of thinking, living and commuting.

    Students are being offered the opportunity to explore a new communities to their fullest by means a sustainable, active transportation.

    Regardless of municipal funding possibilities, the funding is coming from your pockets through taxes. Let the money be spent where it is better needed.

  9. Alan, how is forcing students who walk to school to contribute to a polution-spewing transit system doing anything for the environment?

    Moreover, why is it that some of the poorest in society–students–should be forced to make sacrifices “for the environment” while wealthy oil companies continue to make a giant mess of the tar sands with impunity?

    And thirdly, I have to say that your comment that this is a financial burden to the “entertainment budget” is offensive. You clearly have no idea what it’s like to have to make every $10 count. Low-income students cannot afford to let $150 financial burden slide like it’s no big deal. It’s a huge deal. It’s enough for food for a month!

  10. Those students who are walking to school now have the freedom to travel anywhere in the city at anytime for one very low subsided rate. Think outside the 9-5 school day and see the added benefit for those who “don’t” need the pass.

    I highly doubt the rate of poverty amongst today’s average post secondary student, as a recent graduate of post secondary myself, I know firsthand that students has excess money to spend on “entertainment” rather than necessity.

    I’m not telling students to make sacrifices for the “oil giant”! I’m asking students to lead the shift in the way we do everyday business. If every student in the country chose to abandon the single occupant motor vehicle for short in town trips to places like the mall, grocery shopping, pubs and casual hangouts with friends. Wouldn’t that alone be enough of a hit back to the “oil giant” you are so upset with?

    Were getting away from the main point here, Universal Highly Subsided Public Transit! at the equal value of 10 taxi rides, tell me you havent taken at least 10 taxi rides with in your city limits in one years time.

  11. Agreed with “mature student” – in no way is forcing students to pay for a bus pass enviromentally friendly. Walking and biking is probably the best for the environment, and they are basically being told to take a bus instead?! And for someone having the freedom to travel anywhere in the city… really?? Is that worth every student paying $300 so others have freedom to use the bus to go to the mall or sit on some patio?? I don’t think I should have to pay for other student’s lifestyles. Those who choose to drive, walk or bike – all pay for any resources themself not with the help of everyone being charged so their costs can be subsidized.

    As for 10 taxi rides – I have lived in this city for over a year now, and not once have I ever used a taxi. So no it doesn’t equal the same thing.

    One thing that benefits everyone involved is simply having an opt-out option, plain and simple. It will still get people on board that want to be environmentally friendly and provides students that need it with a discounted bus pass, for those who don’t need one – they no longer have to subsidize those who choose transit, and for those who just dont care and dont bother to opt out or use the pass, its money in the city’s pocket.

    The only reasons I am hearing from anyone that is for it – it should honestly be something paid through every taxpayer and every resident of the city made to do it. I don’t see how it is fair for student’s to carry the burden.

    And to Alan, maybe you have seen firsthand that SOME students have extra money for entertainment – but you can’t generalize. As a student, I do absolutely nothing for entertainment – all my money goes to rent, school, food and bills. Some students come from wealthy families, some live off OSAP and dont care until they are done school what they have spent, and others put themselves through school with no loans or help from others and need to be financially responsible – so having fees that dont benefit the whole are making students worse off then better off.

  12. I’m a Carleton student and am “required” to pay for a U-Pass this year. Here’s my problem: I live in another community 115 km from Ottawa. I’m a mature student – married with children. Living in the city is not an option for me. I cannot use the U-Pass, but I have been told that I don’t qualify for an exemption. So it seems that I will have to pay for U-Pass and for a parking permit. If you are registered for 1.5 or more credits at Carleton, the U-Pass is mandatory, regardless of how far away the nearest OCTranspo stop is (unless you are a resident of Quebec). Welcome to Carleton.

  13. So Alan, first you were advocating the U-pass as a great environmental solution. Now you’re advocating that we get everybody off their bicycles and into buses for unnecessary trips around town.

    Which is it? Do you care about the environment or not? And if you care, then why are you advocating that people who walk and bike to school start taking buses?

    As far as taxi rides go, if you honestly believe that low-income students can afford $10 taxi rides, then university has clearly taught you nothing so far. That fact that you assume that this is the case for all, based on your own personal experience, suggests that you come from a place of privilege.

    As someone who comes from a place of privilege, you are the last person on earth who deserves to be getting a discounted bus pass on the backs of your fellow students.

    If you can afford taxis, you can afford your own full-price bus pass. Stop being selfish and expecting poorer people to subsidize it for you.

  14. For every $7-latte student out there, there is another $20-a-week-food-budget student. You can certainly find irresponsible students who don’t need a subsidized bus pass. Just go to the coffee shop. The other ones are at the Salvation Army, the food bank…

    I’ve only taken taxis a handful of times ever, because where I live they take an hour and a half to arrive, if at all.

    The whole point of UPasses is that they are not easy to opt-out of. Your student health plan is cheaper than ordinary extended coverage because a ton of people pay in to it without any expectation of using it. It’s unfortunate, but it helps spread the cost around for the people who do need it, and couldn’t otherwise afford it. If that isn’t acceptable to you, you should talk to your student union. They generally have the option to levy less than the full H&D amount and negotiate less coverage, or you can try to initiate a referendum to end the plan. That’s about it. Tyranny of the majority sucks sometimes.

    Speaking from a western student union preparing to offer a U-pass referendum in the fall, these are all the same points we’re struggling with. Our campuses straddle the edge between high-service and low-service areas. Many of our students at smaller campuses simply cannot use public transit, while many of the students at central campuses have no other choice for financial reasons. There are three primary areas we’re working on in advance:

    1. Transit improvements. Our transit authority says they will increase service when there are more riders to justify it. We point out that there won’t be any riders *until there are buses to ride*. So maybe step up a little bit. We talk about the academy as an ivory tower, clear of the mundane concerns of the world it sits in. No one questions students and schools dealing with provincial & federal bodies to resolve the issues facing them in those realms. Transportation is a regional & municipal responsibility, and the same people need to address the issues facing the school there. A UPass is an option to address those issues: not the only one, not always the best… but one arrow in the quiver.

    2. Opt-outs. Ideally, we’d like people who live more than a certain distance from bus routes to opt out. I know students who drive an hour in from another transit jurisdiction. It would take at least 2 hours either way for them to commute by bus, assuming it’s even possible. I know others who live a 30 minute walk from a shuttle bus that only runs once an hour during the day. Why would they want to pay $30 a month for the opportunity to take the SeaBus whenever they want? It’s an hour and a half away! The default UPass system screws them.

    3. Ancillary services. If your UPass also gets you taxi vouchers, gym memberships, bike discounts, lockers & repair stations, car-sharing discounts, it may become worth it for otherwise underserved students.

    We’re pretty comitted to pulling this off, but I think that if there are not opt-outs for student in underserved areas or more service from the transit authority, we will basically not be campaigning for students to choose the plan we’ve built. Unfortunately, our quorum for the referendum is fixed in our bylaws. If a few hundred students come out and vote 52% in favour of this, I will cry. There are much higher targets of turnout and approval before we will have considered this a success. A UPass is a *vast* undertaking, and hopefully the schools and student unions undertaking them are treating them responsibly. If they aren’t… well, your school is broken, and I feel sorry for you.

    Dionne: Mature Student is right…ish. You should be able to opt out of *any* student health plan if you have existing coverage. If you show them proof and they say no, you need to go to your student union offices and kick every ass you see until they say yes.

  15. My family lives outside of the City of Ottawa-Carleton and we do NOT have access to OC Transpo. I have two children attending university, so this added “mandatory” fee will cost us $600.00 for a service they CANNOT use. I understand that 7% of the student population voted for this. With such a low voter turn-out, I doubt everyone was aware that this fee would be part of tuition and mandatory. My eldest daughter was not aware it was mandatory, and since she CANNOT use the service, she did not think it affected her. It is ridiculous that the university and the City expects people who do not have access to this service, to have to pay for it.

  16. “the fact remains that tuition is being used as a funding source for municipal initiatives”

    It’s not really a funding source if it is a program that the municipality is losing money on.

    I think with U-Passes, whether there is an opt-out or not is just one factor into whether an individual deal is good.

    Hypothetically, if 95% of students at a university use transit regularly, and they get a 95% discount by going for the U-Pass, wouldn’t you agree that this is a good deal for students as a whole, even if it doesn’t have an opt-out? Or would you complain that students are being forced to pay for municipal services (because it’s not like they had to pay anything for bus passes before…)?

    But, if 10% of students use transit and they get 10% discounts, there better be an opt-out!

  17. Bill, how does it make a different whether the UPass disadvantages 5% of the student population or 50%? (In reality, from the numbers I’ve seen, it would appear that the percentage of students who are disadvantaged by it is actually about 25-30%)

    How many people are you ok with starving so that you can get a better deal on a bus pass? 100? 1000? 10?

    The UPass places a substantial financial burden on low income students who don’t use transit…and for absolutely no good reason. A bus pass is not a student service any more than the sale of gasoline for cars is a student service. Allowing students to vote by majority rule to force everyone to buy a bus pass so that they can get a cheaper rate makes no more sense than allowing students to force everyone into bulk discount arrangments for yoga memberships, concert tickets and organic produce delivery.

    At what point do we insist that students grow up and take responsibiliy for their own budgets–which includes paying the going rate for the services they require?

  18. It does make a difference as to whether or not it is a good deal. Hypothetically, say a U-Pass costed a penny, and everyone but one student on campus takes transit, which would otherwise cost $60 a month. Is that still morally wrong? Isn’t forcing all those other students to pay higher prices for bus fare still “starving people” so that this one student can save a penny?

    My opinion on U-Passes is that an opt-out is just one factor into whether or not it’s a good deal. It depends on the details of the plan – it can be a good deal for students overall as my above hypothetical example is. It all depends on the degree of the discount and the flexibility of the program, and part of that flexibility is whether it is possible and how easy it is to opt out. The opt-out on the other hand could reduce the social goals of a U-Pass – trying to increase ridership – unless it is made available only to students who have poor or no transit service based on their address. I would prefer an opt-out over no opt-out, but it’s not the only criteria to analyzing whether a U-Pass is a good deal or not. And my main point regarding this article is that if the municipality is getting less cash from students than how much they used to pay for bus passes, then it’s not a funding source.

    Also, as transportation is much more of a necessity, I think bus passes are different from frivolities like yoga memberships and concert tickets.

    What about municipalities whose transportation systems don’t recover costs (which I think would be most of them) and are subsidized by general revenue? Do we ask people who take the bus to work in these cities how many people they are willing to starve because of the tax revenue which supports the transit system?

    Also, part of taking responsibility for your own budgets often includes finding good deals. If adults are members of organizations which give them group discounts or coupons, do we tell them to “grow up and take responsibility”? Do we tell my grandparents to “grow up” because they use a senior’s discount? Do we tell anyone using a coupon for 50 cents off to “grow up” because they’re paying 50 cents less than the going rate?

  19. Well Bill, if ever you come up with a UPass program that costs a penny, let me know. In the real world, however, we’re talking about imposing a financial burden of about $150 to $300 on people. That’s quite a bit more than a penny.

    You say that bus passes are different from yoga memberships because transportation is a necessity but yoga is not. Actually, food and exercise are just as necessary as transportation. Food is even more of a basic necessity. If schools can vote to charge students for unwanted bus passes on the grounds that it is transportation and transportation is necessary, surely they can also vote to levy students for gym memberships, produce delivery, and anything else that meets a basic need–regardless of whether or not individual students would choose to meet their needs in these ways. Better hope you don’t end up at a university with a high percentage of yoga devotees!!

    As far as transit systems funded by general revenue go, these systems do not starve anybody because the tax systems that fund them are graded in such a way that the poor pay nothing and the wealthy pay the most. The UPass is completely different from a government tax system in that there is no means-based test. Under the UPass program, extremely poor students are forced to subsidize bus passes for wealthy students who live at home and whose tuition is paid by their parents. This is completely inappropriate.

    Finally, while taking responsibility for your own budget does include looking for deals when you need them, it does not mean helping yourself on the backs of other people. When you use a coupon or join a voluntary organization to get member benefits, you are harming nobody. Coupons are paid for by the companies that create them. Member benefits are paid for by voluntary memberships.

    The Upass, however, is paid for by many people who cannot afford to pay for it, who cannot benefit from it, and for whome, in some cases, that $150 truly is the difference between eating properly for a term or not. Students who come out ahead because of the UPass program are doing so by harming others. That’s just a fact, and I’m sorry, but I’m not ok with harming even one person, let alone several hundred or thousands.

  20. I personaly think it’s a good idea. If let’s say 70 people payed 400 for a bus pass all year and things changed now instead 100 people pay 150 their is a saving for those 70 people. They need to eat also just like those 30 other people. Another example of this bus pass is the health care. It’s in place to keep every one healthy. Every one pays into it who benefits? Sick people. This means that if your not sick your paying for nothing. So if we cut that then all your friends and family who are sick have to pay rediculously high bill for treatment when they are sick. The thing is by having this health care/bus pass it evens things out for those who can’t pay for it. Sacrificing the need of the few for the needs of the many, it’s how society is build in socialist countries. It’s kind of imature to think only of your needs when those 70 people need to save just as much as you do and by doing this it helps more people. Grow up!!!

  21. TVGG, there is a big difference between health care and the Upass.

    Health care is funded by the tax system. The tax system is means-based. That means that low income people pay little or nothing in tax, while the wealthy pay lots and subsidize the programs for the rest of us. Thus, only people who can afford to pay for health care pay for health care. Everyone else gets it for free.

    There is no similar means-based test for the UPass. In fact, under the UPass program, low-income students who live on $25/week food budgets are being forced to buy bus passes for spoiled brats who live at home and have their parents paying their tuition.

    If you want to structure the UPass the way health care is structured, levy a $1000 fee on students with household incomes over $50,000 a year and then give free Upasses to everyone.

    Until then, don’t expect someone who may be just as poor as you are to buy half your bus pass for you. Be a grown-up, take responsibility for your own budget, and buy your own bus pass just like people who drive to school have to buy their own parking passes.