Grad students grapple with lack of U-Pass as labs reopen

The Graduate Student Society is in conversation with SFU about financial burden on grad students due to the extra transportation costs

Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

Written by: Zach Siddiqui, Humour Editor

With labs reopening and the suspension of the U-Pass program, many grad students are facing additional costs on account of transportation, according to Matt McDonald, Director of External Relations at SFU’s Graduate Student Society (GSS). 

TransLink first announced they were suspending the U-Pass in early April, a decision purportedly made in concert with its participating colleges, universities, and student unions. SFU’s GSS was the last student union in Metro Vancouver to vote on the matter.

“Due to the collective participation nature of the U-Pass, we did not effectively have a real choice,” said McDonald, in an email interview with The Peak.

The U-Pass program is currently on hold until the end of August. With classes likely staying online for Fall 2020, McDonald expects a “split in opinion” between graduate and undergraduate students on whether to reactivate the program in September. He explained that graduate students need to travel to campus more, as their research often must be done in-person.

Students would normally pay $41 per month for the U-Pass, paid semesterly as a part of their tuition. Without the U-Pass, McDonald estimates that the average grad student would lose about $500 per term, based on the cost of a monthly 3-zone pass — a cost he stresses is “not easy to absorb.” 

“Our hope [ . . . ] is that some solution is worked out that allows graduate student access to the U-Pass program at least from September, as an earlier reactivation appears unlikely at this point,” he said.

McDonald reported that many grad students have emailed the society to protest the U-Pass suspension, while a “smaller number” have written in support of pausing it, “typically those who have their own vehicle or will not need to be on campus for the foreseeable future.” 

The GSS is in continuing communication with SFU and the U-Pass Advisory Committee. McDonald holds that the society is “actively and productively” working with the university on solutions to minimize future costs for grad students. 

“SFU has a role to play here either financially and in terms of advocacy – after all, the primary transportation need is connected to the academic progress of its graduate students,” he said. “Conversations are ongoing but we believe the administration understands this is an important problem that may get worse, and we have been encouraged by recent meetings discussing how they can tangibly help lift the burden on graduate students. 

“We also hope TransLink and the provincial government will realize the different needs and circumstances of graduate students in Metro Vancouver and help tailor a solution for us in the coming months.”

The GSS is currently offering a transit subsidy for grad students needing aid to cover travel costs, available via online application. SFU’s Student Services and Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies departments have also committed to contributing funds to the subsidy, according to a statement relayed by administration from Tracey Mason-Innes, the university’s acting Vice Provost, Students & International.

Osob Mohamed, president of the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), says that there has “not been substantial demand for the reinstating of U-Pass for the summer” from undergraduate students. However, according to Mohamed, the SFSS is aware that students will likely be in greater need of public transit as the province reopens. 

“There are definitely still students who need financial support for transportation during the Summer semester, and we are exploring ways to potentially reimburse or financially support students who need transit passes,” says Mohamed. 

“Myself and Samad Raza (our VP External Relations) have also been working with other student societies in the Metro Vancouver area to develop a plan for the Fall and subsequent semesters, to ensure that we can come to an agreement with TransLink that is fair and affordable for our students.”