Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities Glen Murray met Wednesday with student leaders from U of T to hear their input on the Ministry’s June discussion paper on post-secondary educational reform.
The St. George Round Table (SGRT), a group made up of presidents from college councils and professional faculties, attended the meeting at Queen’s Park, as did representatives from the undergraduate, graduate, part-time, Mississauga, and Scarborough student unions, who were invited as guests.
The meeting, which has been in the works for several weeks, was convened because of “the lack of the Minister’s presence at the town hall,” according to Scott Dallen, chair of the SGRT.
“There is nothing political about this move,” insisted Dallen in opening the meeting. But the meeting was unmistakably the first foray of the Round Table into provincial advocacy and lobbying, traditionally the realm of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). Wednesday’s meeting was the first-ever between a sitting Minister and the Round Table, which was formed in 2009 (see left).
“The SGRT is by far the most democratically representative group at U of T,” suggested Jonathan Scott, president of the University of Toronto Liberals, who was closely involved in coordinating the meeting. Scott added that SGRT members “are chosen in elections with the highest voter turnout on campus.”
“I hope you find this group useful and can consult with it in future, Minister, because no group at U of T better speaks for U of T students,” Scott said.
At the close of the meeting, the Minister agreed to meet monthly with the SGRT.
“Maybe it’s the case that the UTSU has a formal mandate to lobby on behalf of students, but what they’re actually doing is lobbying on behalf of special interests,” said Sam Greene, head of college at Trinity and a member of the SGRT.
“The UTSU’s rigid allegiance to the ideological line taken by the CFS [Canadian Federation of Students] makes them inflexible and near-incapable of compromise,” Greene added.
Students in attendance had mixed feelings about the outcome of the meeting.
“This was my first chance to speak with the Minister one-on-one, which I really appreciated,” said Chris Thompson, president of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union. Thompson said he was generally happy with the meeting, having taken the opportunity to discuss rising tuition costs with the Minister.
Others saw the meeting as a political ploy. “I am going to go ahead and call this an SGRT-Minister get-together to bash the CFS,” remarked Katherine Ball, president of the Arts & Science Student Union.
UTSU president Shaun Shepherd was more pointed, commenting: “This wasn’t a meeting. It was a waste of time.”
“There are only a few organizations who, throughout the year, have done work on this issue,” said Shepherd, implying that the SGRT was not among them. The UTSU, along with student unions from Mississauga, Scarborough and the Graduate Students’ Union, submitted formal written responses about the paper to the Ministry by the September 30 deadline.
No group on the SGRT appears to have submitted a formal response, although some did attend the town hall held in late September.
The report submitted by the UTSU to the Ministry was the result of “a number of all-nighters” after the town hall on September 25 to meet the deadline, and the union tried to “compile all of the feedback we heard from students at the town hall … which was the largest student consultation held in the province.”
Student leaders have been jostling for the opportunity to weigh in on the broad reforms proposed within the discussion paper since a dispute over speaking time three weeks ago prevented the Minister from attending the UTSU-organized town hall.
The union and the Minister had a falling out over his absence at the town hall that escalated into a near-flame war on Twitter. Tense exchanges online continued during the event itself, with the UTSU tweeting mid-meeting, “Minister wants to protect the ‘elite’ positions of is [sic] U of T students. what about #UofT students who don’t fall under that? #UofT @Glen4TC”.
The tweet, which allegedly misrepresented a comment about preserving elite research institutions like U of T, drew the ire of the representatives from St. Michael’s College, University College, and the Faculty of Engineering.
The tweet was “obviously misquoting” the Minister, said Mike Cowan, president of Saint Michael’s College Student Union. Reached by phone after the exchange, Cowan remarked that the presence of invited guests including the UTSU was “pretty counterproductive.”
“The UTSU is an incredibly unrepresentative institution of the student body,” Cowan added, “to the point that their elections should not be even considered legitimate.”
Murray himself reflected in a later tweet that “clearly we did not move towards a working relationship with your org [UTSU] yesterday. However I am forever an optimist.”
Angelo Veloso, president of New College, had a different view. “I think we’ve had a friendly relationship with the UTSU, and not been as confrontational with them as other colleges.”
Subsequent meetings between the SGRT and the Ministry will focus on specific topics. Murray suggested reducing tuition and looking at ways to maximize spending on student experiences as potential subjects.
Scott suggested that the “invited guests” of Wednesday’s meeting would not be asked to attend future gatherings.
Although Murray made clear that he would continue to meet separately with the union, and whomever else wished to speak with him, the agreement on a standing meeting with the SGRT was billed by Greene as “laying the groundwork for working with Minister Murray.”
What is the St. George Roundtable?
While the University of Toronto Students’ Union was founded in 1905, there have been several attempts to create parallel institutions in student governance.
Iterations of the group today known as the St. George Round Table have existed for decades, initially as the Council of Presidents of U of T and more recently, the Presidents’ Roundtable.
The SGRT’s inaugural meeting was held on November 26, 2009. The Round Table today is composed of the elected student council presidents of the seven college councils, as well as representatives from the faculties of engineering, physical health, and education.
Although Wednesday’s meeting was the first between the SGRT and a sitting Minister, the roundtable’s constitution empowers the body to “take the lead in co-ordinating directives and policy on mutual issues of concern for students.”