What happened to the PIRG funds?

Campus Investigations News

The UVSS allocated student funds after failing to reach referendum quorum

Photo by Sie Douglas-Fish.

The UVSS has come under scrutiny after the Jan. 24 board meeting renewed interest in the previous year’s Board of Directors’ decision to reallocate funds collected for the student-financed Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

Following inquiries and allegations from students, the UVSS posted an informational statement on their website about the $252 143 of PIRG student fees that were formerly held in trust. 

The statement explains that in spring of 2021, the UVSS held a referendum to determine what to do with the accumulated PIRG student fees. The referendum asked if the student body was in favour of splitting the funds between a BIPOC student bursary and the UVSS Operations Fund. The students present voted in favour.

The statement, however, does not mention that this referendum failed to meet the 15 per cent quorum of the student body required to pass.

Despite this, the Board moved the funds. Dipayan Nag, the recently resigned UVSS director of finance and operations, maintains that this decision was within the Board’s power to make.

The history of the PIRG funds

The former Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) was a non-profit committed to research, education, and advocacy. The organisation aided student research and also offered financial support through community grants, as well as scholarship opportunities for UVic students.

In 1983, a PIRG fee was created to fund such on-campus groups. The fee was increased in 1993 by a UVSS referendum, amounting to $3.00 per semester for full-time students, and $1.50 per semester for part-time students. 

VIPIRG and the UVSS have a long and contentious history together, involving accusations of fiscal irresponsibility and threats of legal action

In August 2019, VIPIRG announced that they were severing ties with the UVSS, citing disappointment with the Board. VIPIRG later rebranded themselves as the Coastal Research, Education, and Advocacy Network (CREAN), and moved to a location on 5th Street. 

Despite VIPIRG parting ways with the UVSS, the PIRG fee continued to be levied from UVic students. At first, the UVSS attempted to find a suitable replacement provider to fill the vacancy left by VIPIRG, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Even while there had been no PIRG on campus since 2019, the fees were still being collected from students as late as 2021. 

The failed PIRG referenda

In fall 2020, the UVSS tried to end the collection of the PIRG fee and move the funds held in trust to a UVic bursary and their operations fund. Although the votes were in favour for both referendum questions, they failed due to quorum not being met.

According to UVSS electoral policy, 15 per cent of undergraduate students must vote in a referendum for it to pass. *

At the Jan. 25, 2021 Board of Directors meeting, the following referendum question was put forth again, with the then Director of Finance Caleb Burd as its official proponent: 

“Are you in favour of ending the collection of the fee, which is $3.00 for full time students per semester and $1.50 for part time students per semester, that goes towards a Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), as there is not currently an active service provider operating a UVic PIRG?”

Of the 1 156 votes cast, 900 were for, and 256 were against ending the fee collection.

The second referendum question again asked students if they were in favour of the existing funds being split evenly between a student award which gives preference to BIPOC students, and the UVSS Operating Fund. 

Of the 1 176 votes cast, 987 were for, and 189 were against the reallocation of the fees. 

Despite the strong support, quorum again was not reached in either case. There was, however, a conditional clause in the second referendum question:

“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.”

A UVic student, who requested anonymity for concern of repercussions from the UVSS, spoke to the Martlet about their involvement in a small boycott of the spring 2021 referenda. 

“We were boycotting the system and the way things were being managed by the UVSS and the lack of transparency,” she said. “We weren’t against the referendum, we were trying to send a message.”

Although the Martlet was unable to verify exactly how many students participated in this boycott, we heard from a couple sources that there was a decentralised effort by some students.

“I personally don’t think us boycotting was the reason they didn’t meet quorum, the numbers had already been dropping. But boycotting did get the attention of the UVSS,” she said.

Nag said that he wasn’t aware of any boycott that happened at that time.

The Board votes to move the funds

Despite both the fall 2020 and spring 2021 referenda failing to meet quorum, the UVSS voted in-camera to stop the collection of the PIRG fees and to move the funds in trust in April 2021. At that point, the trust had accumulated $252 143.

According to the BC Universities Act, any “rate of change” to student fees requires a passed referendum vote. It does not, however, stipulate whether the collection of fees for an abandoned purpose, or a non-existent group, can be stopped without a referendum.

“There is no provision in any provincial legislature or UVSS bylaw which requires a referendum on fees which were abandoned and reverted back to the UVSS, provided the purpose of the funds is maintained,” said Nag. 

Although Nag maintains that moving the funds for these purposes was within the Board’s power, he said he was legally unable to comment on the Board’s ability to stop the collection of the PIRG fees from students without a passed referendum.

“There’s a few different structures to it, but the interpretation is that by giving money back to the Board, which VIPIRG essentially did, it released the Board of the cause of which the money was collected for,” said Nag.  

According to Nag, it was possible for the Board to reallocate the funds held in trust because the funds had been rolled back to the UVSS. He also pointed to the BC Societies Act section 53.1 and 53.2 to further his point. This section lays out the duties of the directors, one being to “act with a view to the purposes of the society.”

“The Board of Directors has the ability and the responsibility to manage the affairs of the Board,” said Nag. “Because of that power given to the Board by the Societies Act, we had the authority to move those funds.”

This raises the question as to why the UVSS proposed the referendum questions in the first place. Especially since the unorthodox wording of the referendum question in spring 2021 stated that even in the event of a majority no-vote, the Board would decide what happened with the funds regardless.

According to Nag, the Board did not need to pass a referendum at all, but had held them in good faith. 

“I strongly believe that if it didn’t meet quorum and the majority would have been no, the Board would have looked at it again and seen that oh, this is not the will right now,” said Nag. “But the results were quite opposite, it did not meet quorum but there was a heavy lenience on yes.”

According to the UVSS PIRG statement, half of the money held in trust, $126 071, was transferred to UVic to fund the UVSS BIPOC Public Interest Research Award. The award gives preference to undergraduate BIPOC students to support research for social justice and/or environmental issues. The award will start in September 2022. 

The other $63 036 went to the Constituency Control Fund and was available to all five UVSS advocacy groups: the Native Students Union, the Gender Empowerment Centre, UVic Pride, Students of Colour Collective, and the Society for Students with a Disability.

The final $63 036 went to the UVSS Operating Fund, which is used for student jobs, maintenance, repair, and advertisements. The fund had a closing balance of $213 576 in 2021. 

Nag reminded the Martlet that he was the director of international student relations at the time, and wasn’t directly involved in any executive decisions. Burd, who was the director of finance and operations at that time, declined to be interviewed for this article. 

*In the print edition of this article, we calculated that around 3 300 students would be needed to pass a UVSS referendum. This calculation erroneously included graduate students. The true number would be closer to 2 850 based on the UVSS’ claim they represent 19 000 students. We sincerely regret this error.