At the Dec. 2003 University of Calgary Board of Governors meeting, the Students' Union and Graduate Students' Association successfully proposed they be given $1 million in 'quality enhancement' money so students would see benefits in the face of continued tuition increases. In 2004, the initiative continued and the SU and GSA were given $1,645,880. The GSA, having 17 per cent of the total students, were allocated that percentage of the money, with the SU getting the rest.
The SU held a plebiscite during last year's general election to canvas student opinion on how the money should be spent. Students were asked to prioritize options on a three-point scale based on importance. A joint committee representing the Students' Academic Assembly and the Students' Legislative Council made the final decision. The following is an update on how that money is being spent.
Student Commons: $344,400
The Student Commons project aims to transform the open air courtyard adjoining the MacEwan Student Centre into an indoor student space, allowing year-round use and providing study areas and a potential for retail space.
The project is currently still in the design stage, as Joel Lockwood, SU vice-president operations and finance openly acknowledges.
"We still hope to break ground by April before we leave office," said Lockwood. "We are having difficulties getting this thing going, but nothing we didn't expect. I have made this project my priority for the next few weeks. Gaining consensus with so many stakeholders involved is slow going."
Lockwood noted the SU will meet with architects and designers soon to form a number of plans and ideas for the upcoming commons. These will be posted in MSC.
According to the plebiscite results, the Student Commons scored the lowest number of high-priority votes, giving it the least support among students. However, it was given full approval by the committee and 25 per cent of the funds.
Lockwood took time to point out that despite the initial lack of enthusiasm, the university is now undertaking its 40th Anniversary project to provide a larger number of student spaces on campus.
"Student space is a recurring request," he said, "and the Student Commons helps address that."
Students' Union Undergraduate Research Endowment: $344,400
Many of the quality money initiatives are existing projects. The Undergraduate Student Research Program in Health and Wellness, the beneficiary of a further 25 per cent of the SU funds, was originally the brainchild of Dr. Aaron Tubman, who modeled it on a program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"The program was formerly known as the USRP in Bone and Joint Health," said Dr. Tubman. "I started the program in 2002. It provides both studentships and research grants. Its purpose is to allow undergraduate students to find a mentor in their faculty and for the two of them to propose a project for funding. The studentships provide a stipend, money for the student to live on, while the research grants are for the purchase of equipment for the project."
The SU funding has helped the growth of the USRP which will provide 20 studentships/grants in 2006, growing to 30 the following year. The funds allocated by the quality money account for two-thirds of the total.
Dr. Tubman acknowledged the support of SU president Bryan West, who was instrumental in pushing the initiative forward, but said the completion of the process took longer, as West needed to finalize support within his committee.
"It's pretty much like giving a student a pay check and allowing them to improve the research they do here at the U of C," said West.
Campus Improvement Fund: $206,640
The Campus Improvement Fund is a pool of money designed to pursue smaller projects, according to SU VP academic Paige Forsyth. It accounts for 15 per cent of the money.
"We allocated this in response to work done by previous members of the Students' Academic Assembly in determining issues within their respective departments," said Forsyth. "To gain approval a project must have a sponsor within the SAA who submits an application to the committee."
Medicine representative Renee Lee, the only current recipient of money from this pool, used the money to found scholarships.
"I presented an application for student scholarships for the health sciences department," said Lee. "As a new department there was a gap in provision of scholarships which weren't due to be provided until next year. The SU agreed to provide $10,000 which the university matched equally. This allowed the creation of 10 scholarships of $2,000 each."
Lee stressed gaining the money wasn't an easy process.
"Initiating the application was hard," she said. "We were unaware of the fund or how to go about using it. Bryan West and Paige Forsyth did sit down with me and explain the process."
Lee stressed any student seeking improvements on campus would need to go through their rep to gain a sponsor.
Class Size Reduction Program: $206,640
Class size reduction was the number one priority for students who voted in the plebiscite. It also attracted the attention of the SU who approached the U of C administration for a joint solution.
VP academic Paige Forsyth said addressing class sizes is a complex issue.
"I worked closely on this issue with the provost Dr. Ron Bond, and with the registrar who provided details on class sizes, numbers of subscribers and details of other available facilities," said Forsyth. "The university also added $125,000 to the scheme. We looked at certain key features: reducing large classes, breaking down some of the senior classes to improve their quality and space and adding new classes in oversubscribed subjects."
The results were 33 new sections or classes for 2005/06. Forsyth acknowledged that money wasn't the primary focus in achieving results in this area.
"We put on as many classes as we could but then simply ran out of space," she said. "Between the prime times of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. there are simply no available classrooms to add anything more. The U of C would need new facilities before we could do anything further."
Student Awards (Dr. Peggy Patterson Awards): $110,208
Eight per cent of the quality money went to increasing the number of awards available to students in the name of former associate VP of student affairs Dr. Peggy Patterson.
Forsyth stressed the importance of creating awards rather than scholarships.
"We wanted to make these awards, because scholarships are far more about academic merit and usually require a grade-point-average of 3.2 or better. These awards will be available to students in their second-, third- or fourth-year, with a GPA of 2.7 or more who demonstrate a financial need."
The money given by the SU has gone into a pool from which two awards per year of $3,000 will be given out.
Teaching Excellence Awards Program: $110,208
Many existing students will have heard of the Teaching Excellence Awards. The SU decided to expand the program in an attempt to encourage higher standards of teaching, to train better teachers and to reward good faculties.
"Teachers given awards benefit from their standards but we also place emphasis on the faculty to encourage improvements in teaching," said Forsyth. "Teachers can be sent to the Learning Commons for more training and the money we provide the faculty can be used for this. Alternatively the faculty can give the money to the library to improve student resources. Either way, we felt this program was something positive that helped raise standards of teaching on campus."
The extra money helped raise the awards' total value to $20,000 per year. Each winner receives $500, and $1,000 goes to their faculty. Those given honourable mention receive $250 and $500 for their faculty.
Library Improvement Grant: $55,104
The SU provided four per cent of the money to the library to provide improvements. Librarian Ada-Marie Atkins Nechka said the library decided to spend the money on a new online E-brary program.
"We presented a proposal to the SU for funding our E-brary," said Nechka. "This online program allows our users to access over 30,000 titles online, and includes search and note taking facilities. We pay a subscription of $50,000 a year for this program and the SU has effectively paid for that this year, which has allowed us to use our money to expand that subscription. We hope to keep adding to the number of titles we can access."
Nechka was keen to stress the value of the relationship with the SU.
"We already receive around $100,000 from the SU via the Library Fee Levy," she said. "We hope to maintain this and to expand our resources to provide a better student experience and quality of learning."
Students will have another chance to rate their choices for spending this year's quality money. The question will be on the SU General Election ballot.
Both the SU and U of C administration feel the initiatives have been a success.
"We feel the whole thing has gone extremely well," said U of C VP external Roman Cooney. "No other university in Canada has given money directly to students in this way. The results speak for themselves, and the Board of Governors just voted in December to not only continue the project but to increase the level of funding this year to around $1.6 million. We don't agree on everything, and nor will we ever, but we have found this SU remarkably focused and action-oriented."
SU president Bryan West also expressed his surprise at how well the quality money initiative has gone.
"When we first asked the university for the quality money, it was because we wanted to give students a tuition rebate," he said. "We expected the Alberta government would increase their level of funding to the university, but didn't expect that the university would pass any of this on to the students. In the end though, students highlighted to us through the plebiscite that their concerns weren't in getting a rebate but in reducing class sizes and providing for improvements in other ways. All of this has come from that."