SFU Recreation and Athletics fee: a ballgame of inconsistency

Our athletic and recreational culture is important, but either let students opt out of it, or enforce other fees just as strictly

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Last week, the tuition deadline fell upon our necks like the sword that snuffed out Anne Boleyn. Luckily, unlike the late queen, we have many long years to go. Unluckily, that means quite a few more sword-swings for us. Well, as they say: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Of course, this narrative is an awfully melodramatic way of putting things. If we want higher education, then — at least under the economy we have going — we’d better be ready to pay our tributes.

However, to me, certain aspects of our payment scheme look a little inconsistent. Something that not all SFU students realize is that the university offers a breakdown of roughly where your money goes (and, recently, The Peak featured a comprehensive breakdown of our own.)

More to the point, it gives you the option to opt out of some of those expenses. This makes complete sense: if, for instance, you can prove that you’re already covered for health under a family Medical Services Plan, why pay for one from SFU?

Of course, some fees already see regular discussion. The U-Pass fee is often hotly contested by those who exclusively drive to campus, particularly as the circumstances you’ve got to have to get out of paying it are so convoluted that you’d be better off just switching schools.

However, I’d like to look at the Recreation and Athletics fee, $75.42 per semester for full-time students and $37.71 for part-time. Unlike the Simon Fraser Student Society Health and Dental Plan, the U-Pass, and the various fees paid to our student societies through the student activity fee, there’s no immediately clear way to opt out of this one, no matter how much you insist that you’ve never so much as glimpsed an elliptical or a lacrosse stick.

The SFU Recreation policies mention that you can only get out of a purchased membership with documentation “such as (but not limited to)” the following: “written medical recommendation from a [d]octor,” or an “appeal that outlines the condition or set of circumstances that would prevent you from participating in SFU Recreation activities.”

Furthermore, as a footnote, it’s clarified that these exceptions apply only to people who separately bought the memberships from the Recreation Office. Anyone who paid the rec. fee through their tuition is “not subject to refunds.” (So, if I’m an SFU student with one leg in a cast for the three or four months I’m enrolled for that semester, am I just 100% screwed?)

The conclusion seems to be that there’s no getting out of the rec. fee. Why exactly is that? Why does SFU force us into that particular expense, when they seem OK with letting us opt out of other aspects of student life? No matter how you slice it, that’s an inconsistency.

Aside from injured students, it’s entirely possible that, even if you’re an active athletic student, you have a gym membership and external commitments that render the SFU services superfluous. In the same way that offering proof of health coverage gets you out of the Medical and Dental, proving that you don’t have any use for the Recreation services should be able to get you out of the cost.

Even if you just hate sports, there’s precedent for “I just don’t want this service” to be a valid way of getting out of costs, too. That’s how, for instance, you can opt out of paying fees to several student-run organizations.

Many American universities already face criticism for forcing athletic fees onto the whole of the student body, as Washington Post reported in 2015. Clemson University’s athletic director looked to charge $350 per year per student to add to his department’s budget, to “keep up with competition”; the University of Kansas saw some protest against the $50 athletics fee expected from its students.

The logistics obviously differ, given the clear financial differences between Canadian and American post-secondary students, but the fundamental logic outlives the scale: as one executive director of Student Debt Crisis, Natalia Abrams, told Washington Post, “these students are being forced to pay for something that they may or may not take advantage of.”

When students can get out of some activities and services and not others, it unfairly scales the importance of certain facets of the school over others, without really explicating how the school determines that scale. Is it about how much interest that activity gets? How expensive it gets? How much it gives back to the school? How much the student body collectively benefits from it? To summarize, which variables decide whether or not a service or activity is important enough to SFU to enforce its funding?

But, regardless: none of this is to suggest that the parts of the school that benefit from that Recreation and Athletics fee don’t deserve your money. I actually would say that they do. SFU Athletics has done great things, our student athletes and coaches are fantastic people, and I’m happy that the school offers services that help its membership stay healthy, should they take advantage of it.

Furthermore, I don’t want to advocate for anything that will make it actually impossible for SFU Athletics to do its thing. I can understand why the situation is what it is if they need every bit of that money; if there’s concrete reason to think that providing students with the option to opt out will cause the Athletics department to lose too much money to reasonably continue; and if it’s not realistic to increase the fee for those who do use the Recreation and Athletics services.

If there’s evidence to suggest that SFU’s current strategy really is the best and the fairest, under the circumstances, I’m open to that possibility as well. As a non-athlete, I can only try to empathize — I don’t have the experience to presume to understand the whole situation. But in that case, SFU should be making information about why things need to be this way more accessible.

No, that doesn’t mean just putting it on their website somewhere: I’m sure that even now anyone could find the raw numbers on where the rec. fee money goes if they put in enough time and effort. What I mean by accessible is that somewhere on the website that’s easy to find and intuitive to check, it explains why the cost breakdown works the way it does. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should be available. You might say that SFU doesn’t owe us that explanation, but we should always be looking for more transparency where possible.

What I’m advocating for is, simply, consistency. If people have the right to get out of one cost that isn’t fundamental to the basics of running the school, then they should be able to get out of similarly extraneous fees. Or, they should have to pay all of the fees, whether or not they personally need them, since one way or another we’re all getting something out of SFU. But we need to pick a philosophy and stick to it.

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