On Nov. 10, Carleton University’s undergraduate and graduate student associations jointly filed a court application to force the university to fulfill its legal obligation and remit the fees it holds “in trust” for each association. The outcome of this precedent-setting legal case has serious implications for student activism not only at Carleton, but throughout Canada.

The university claims it’s simply trying to please its auditors, but the university’s real motivation is to put each student association on a shorter leash, making it less desirable for students to speak out in ways that could potentially cause embarrassment to the university.

Across Canada, student associations provide both services and representation to their members. When students register for a term, membership fees are automatically collected by the university’s business office, much like an employer automatically collects union dues in a unionized workplace. The university’s business office temporarily holds student membership fees “in trust,” and then remits them to each respective student organization after they’re collected. All fees collected for the student associations are democratically determined through referenda.

Student associations use the fees to provide services to their members, including health and dental plans, financial assistance and awards, guest speakers, social events and club funding — often including funding specifically targeted to support marginalized and underrepresented groups. They also use the fees to provide representation to their members, for example, in advocating for lower tuition fees and in advocating for more student services on campus.

Recently, Carleton University has done something unprecedented — it has refused to remit the fees it has been holding for student associations. The university claims it’s merely trying to ensure more financial transparency, but this is not the whole story.

It’s the job of a student association to advocate for its members. At Carleton, each student association has disagreed both publicly and loudly with the university on its refusal to support a sexual assault centre, attempts to take over undergraduate orientation and annual increases in tuition fees. Such vocal, public opposition has been embarrassing for the university’s senior administration, and this brings us to the recent conflict over the release of each respective student association’s membership fees.

In 2009, Carleton’s auditor advised the university that it should seek additional assurance that fees collected on behalf of student associations are indeed being passed on to the groups for which they are intended, for example, the campus radio station, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group and a student newspaper.

Since that time, Carleton has (understandably) asked each student association for more financial information, but with one enormous catch — rather than simply ask for more information on how specific fees are transferred or expensed (as requested by their auditor), it has used this request by the auditor as an excuse to propose brand new agreements governing the relationship between the university and student associations. Unlike existing agreements, the new agreements would give Carleton’s senior administration far-reaching powers over each student association, and the university has threatened to stop dispensing membership fees to student associations altogether unless these new agreements are signed.

The student associations have offered to provide statements from their auditors attesting that fees intended for other groups were indeed passed on. The associations have also published their audited financial statements in the campus newspaper. The fact that the university still refuses to remit the fees it owes the student associations confirms that financial transparency is not their true motivation.

Carleton’s auditor asked for something small, namely a bit more financial transparency. Carleton’s senior administration, in turn, has used this request as an excuse to ask for something much bigger, namely the power to take over each student association at will — something that was never requested by their auditor.

Measures proposed by the university in the new proposals would, at least indirectly, make it so that any student organization that helps organize a boisterous rally against tuition fee increases would face the veiled — or not so veiled — threat of takeover by Carleton’s senior administration. The same would hold for any future rally supporting a sexual assault centre.

Carleton is holding student membership fees in trust. The fees are intended for the student associations, whose members paid them on the understanding that their student associations would receive them.

Carleton University has plenty of reasons to avoid an expensive court battle, not the least of which is the bad publicity resulting from its blatant disregard for its obligations to its students.

Nick Falvo is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. He is also Vice-President Finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).

A version of this article first appeared in The Charlatan.