Story | Xie Yihui, Staff Editor
On Sept. 10, 2020, the Yale-NUS College student body was informed that the previous StuGov President and Vice Presidents had received a semesterly-stipend through a post on the Yale-NUS College Community Facebook page made by the current StuGov Vice President of Internal Administration (VPIA), Chan Shawn Kit’ 23.
The Dean of Students, Dave Stanfield, commended last year’s Executive Board (hereafter referred to as “ExCo”, which includes the President, Vice Presidents, Speakers of Senate and Secretary) for “[going] above and beyond to support this community through multiple crises, including COVID-19. They worked countless hours and took on many difficult matters in advocating for students”, he said in his email sent to the student body on Sep. 12.
Another rationale he gave is to “cover the opportunity cost of being involved in Student Government and not being able to pursue other work opportunities”.
The event developed further. Nur Hazeem Abdul Nasser ’22, the current StuGov President, apologized under the Facebook post for not disclosing that he received stipends for his previous term as VPIA. Then, the current Speaker of the Senate was notified on Sept. 10 by Mr. Stanfield that the previous Speakers will be paid at the end of the term for the previous academic year.
Mr. Stanfield said he has placed a hold on the payment of stipend to this year’s ExCo in a college-wide email.
In this article, I will explain that while compensation is necessary and a stipend is useful, it should not be given by the administration.
Should Student Government be compensated?
The most crucial rationale for the stipend is that the previous Student Government went extra miles to support the students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing this unprecedented situation, they stepped up with initiatives such as the summer storage program and the COVID-19 Alumni Urgent Cash Fund where they facilitated financial support from alumni to students facing difficulties.
The problem lies in whether the differences in the nature and scope of the positions within Student Government warrant different merits.
Bernard Boey ’22, the current StuGov Secretary, said that the ExCo’s workload is heavy as they have regular meetings with staff, oversee event planning and advocacy works done by the directors, and do works not covered by the existing directors.
However, he said, “A large part of the work is ad-hoc, and it depends on how much effort you decide to put in.”
Chan, the current VPIA, speaking from experience as the Director of Student Organizations in the previous Student Government, agreed that their work is usually ad-hoc. “I would say that it’s extremely difficult to quantify the workload that the different members of the executive board does,” he added.
However, it seems unfair for other members of the previous Student Government, who also devoted countless hours of work, to not receive any stipend at all. It is almost a message from the administration that they value the work of the high-ranking members of the executive branch more than others. Within a student government as small as ours—consisting only of 26 members for this term—elevating the prestige of the ExCo over the rest of the members only serves to introduce unnecessary hierarchy.
As Boey said, “All StuGov members are pivotal and have important responsibilities and the stipend should reflect that.”
We then have another question at hand: should all upcoming StuGov members be compensated?
A compensation creates incentives that lead to genuine commitment and passion in representing students’ collective interest. Some might argue that the outcomes of genuine commitment is in itself the best compensation: students benefiting from a competent, efficient, and dedicated Student Government with their rights advocated, grievances communicated with the administration.
However, we do not expect them to perform their obligation round the clock, compromising their other priorities. Because we are in an educational institution, our main duty to each other is not to serve each other’s interest, but to contribute to a conducive learning environment.
Given that students voluntarily take up positions in Student Government to serve the community, it is virtuous to compensate their initiative and dedication; it is also useful because compensations can act as rewards that may drive more students to take up Student Government leadership, thus engendering a shared responsibility and ownership of the community that we call home.
Thus, we should give them some kind of compensation based on virtues and utility. These are not rationales given by the Dean of Student. Instead, their bases of compensation are: first, to compensate for Student Government working beyond one’s call of duties; second, to compensate for loss of opportunity cost.
Here is why neither basis justify compensating the existing and upcoming Student Government.
Compensation for working beyond expectation
As I mentioned before, the previous batch was paid because its members went “above and beyond”, meaning they had done more work than they anticipated and were expected to, and had done it well.
The issue of expectation is crucial here because the amount of work borne by Student Government fluctuates from year to year, only when the workload clearly goes beyond the norm (which is to be determined) should we consider extra compensation. Most of us can safely say that the COVID-19 situation posed extraordinary logistical and governing challenges, so much so that the previous members did not expect to carry this much of a workload when they ran for their positions and were elected by the students.
Thus, we should not give the existing and upcoming Student Government a compensation if they do not go beyond their call of duties. Thus it is crucial to frame the previous stipend as a one-off offer, because we do not want future Student Governments to expect financial compensation because they have done extra work or were required by the external circumstances to do so.
Compensation for opportunity cost – a stipend
There are many kinds of opportunity costs incurred by participating in Student Government. For example, there is less time spent on one’s school work, leisure and other priorities, among others. However, the type of opportunity cost in the Administration’s mind when they give out the stipend is the chance to earn money in other work opportunities.
This is also why the compensation is given in a monetary form – a stipend.
Monetary compensation can lower the barrier to entry for low-income students who may otherwise have to do extra paid work alongside their duties in Student Government.
Some self-identified low-income students find it “disrespectful” because it assumes that the low-income students will only participate in Student Government given the additional financial incentive. I do not find this argument convincing. As Mr. Stanfield has said to Student Government members, the policy is meant to reduce the possible opportunity cost of any student, high- or low-income, for their involvement in Student Government.
It does rightly assume that students from a less privileged background have a greater need to find paid work to support themselves, and if they wish to participate in Student Government, they will no longer feel compelled to take up other jobs, on top of their already high workload from Student Government. Thus, the rationale does not have to assume that the sole motivations of low-income students participating in Student Government is financial incentive.
Even then, we should question whether we should give Student Government compensation for greater financial inclusivity. The burden of financial inclusivity should be on the Financial Aid team’s shoulders, as they are supposed to provide sufficient financial aid to make sure that the full demonstrated financial need of the student is addressed.
Besides, every student role on campus incurs trade-offs which create barriers for low-income students to participate. Similarly, we should not give compensation based on opportunity cost because many other extracurricular work also requires a very high level of commitment. That doesn’t mean that we should compensate any kind of student work with money.
Stipend paid by the administration?
As I mentioned in the first section, monetary compensation is useful because I recognize that the community is better off when we have a union of students to consolidate and represent our concerns. Thus, a small amount of stipend, symbolic of the students’ recognition, can be a healthy level of incentives that will still not compromise the integrity of the members: they will not work just for the money.
However, a functioning and uncorrupted system of monetary compensation is premised on the condition of a system of checks and balances. There is no stipulated working hours for any position in Student Government, just as Chan and Boey have shared. Regardless of the hours they work, the executive board receives the stipend anyway. The burden to hold Student Government accountable will lie on the shoulders of the student body.
If Student Government is being paid by the institution, can it still remain an independent student organization that, as the core principles of Student Government says, “addresses all feedback received, and vigorously represents student concerns to all administrative arms”?
Having the Dean of Students Office pay the stipend constitutes a clear conflict of interest. As Article VII, Section 2, Clause 6 of the constitution stipulates: “Government members … shall not accept ostentatious or expensive gifts in their capacity as a Government member or as an entire Government.” While the stipend is first and foremost framed as a “compensation,” it is given by the administration, whose interests and motives do not always align with those of the students. This is why we want student representation to be independent of the administration in the first place.
Mr. Stanfield acknowledged that “[the Dean of Students Office] recognizes that a conflict of interest could exist as a result of working with the administration and is designing a process to mitigate such risks or conflicts.”
If we decide that Student Government should be paid and the payment should not come from the administration, it should be paid by the students. The full financial statement should also be disclosed semesterly for full accountability. It should also be made compulsory to prevent free riders, as there is nothing to stop one student from enjoying the benefits of Student Government without paying for it.
Chan has other concerns regarding the stipend, “it adds a lot of confusion, expectations, competition, and comparison to the whole of Student Government.”
“A stipend raises many questions such as whether the work that one member does is more important than others (my answer is no) and whether the work we do is so important that the college will collapse without it (I hope not!). I wouldn’t want these undue stresses to burden our members, who are already investing significant time and effort into their roles,” he said in our conversation over WhatsApp.
On this issue, Student Government is considering holding a referendum after the elections of the new Senate and Judiciary. It will be discussed further during Student Government Retreat over recess week.
*This article does not seek to survey the whole Student Government’s opinion on this matter. Therefore, only some perspectives from Student Government were sought to contextualize the discussion. Chan and Boey’s opinions do not represent the stance of Student Government as a whole.