On Campus

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.