Yelize Beygo knew that her Governing Council nomination would be rejected instantly. Nonetheless, the second-year student filled in the required form and went through the process to protest the fact that those without Canadian citizenship are barred from serving on the University of Toronto’s highest decision-making body.
“I think the question is, why should I not be able to serve on the Governing Council?” says Beygo, who has Swiss and Turkish citizenship and is a vice president of the International Students Association (iNSA).
“I pay my fees as any other student in the university, and the duties of the Governing Council are not things I cannot do,” she explains.
The U of T Governing Council manages most of the university’s affairs from budgets and academic programs to student life and tuition fees. However, it is the Ontario government, not the university, which sets the rules that prevent Beygo and other non-citizens from serving.
The Varsity spoke with the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which provided information on how any changes to the governance structure could be made, but did not say whether they would make such changes.
“The administration agrees with the merits of pursuing this important issue, and has begun to consult with legal counsel and with relevant staff within the Ontario Government to do so,” says Louis Charpentier, secretary of the Governing Council. “The question of such restrictions — not just for international students but for all governors — is a complex one and the University is actively engaged in exploring options to respond to it.”
Beygo met the rule with surprise. “I just found it unreal that in a country like Canada (regarded as a leader in human rights) and an institution like the University of Toronto (claiming to have the biggest international student body of the country), students were still excepted from running at the university’s highest democratic decision-making body based on their citizenship,” she says.
She describes her past experience in Turkey going to a school where students had no say, adding, “I think taking part in the decision-making process of any institution is one of the greatest chance people have here.”
There are 50 voting members of the Governing Council, with eight seats reserved for students. Nazar says that this figure represents one of the highest proportions of students on a governing council among Ontario’s publicly assisted universities.
While the 50 voting members comprise the highest decision-making body at the university, much of the day-to-day policymaking is handled by the various Governing Council boards and committees, for which non-citizens are eligible. Charpentier says that these can be an alternative avenue for non-citizens to participate in U of T governance.
“It is also essential to note that there are more than 70 seats on the Governing Council’s boards and committees for students. None of these requires that the member be a Canadian citizen,” he says.
There are over 10,000 international students at U of T and their undergraduate tuition can range from over $32,000 to nearly $36,000 per year. The Governing Council sets the Tuition Fee Policy, which covers advocacy, fee revenue, fee differentiation, fee level commitment, and monitoring. Permanent residents, who pay domestic tuition, are also barred from serving on the Governing Council.
International tuition fees are not specifically addressed in the policy. Instead, the fee differentiation section pertains to variations between programmes and faculties.
Cameron Wathey, vice-president, internal and services with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), names tuition fees as a key reason why non-Canadian citizens should be given space on Governing Council. “[We] are also students at U of T and are not able to run for the highest decision making body which regulates our tuition fees,” Wathey says. “As of right now they are unregulated, so they could increase every single year, and we would just like to have a say in that body.”
Though Wathey is confident that the university administration is doing what they can to get the law changed, he also thinks students should continue to take action. “[I]t will only help if we as students ourselves take a stand and do what we can to pressure the government to make a change,” says Wathey.
He adds that there will be a motion for the UTSU to take an official position on the issue at a board of directors meeting at the end of this month.
Ujwal Ganguly, a second-year U of T international student from India, says that he would not run for a Governing Council position himself, but would like the option to do so. “I’m a bit perturbed that they do make decisions that affect us, and I’d like to know that I can run if I want to,” Ganguly says. “I honestly think there should be at least one person representing international students on Governing Council.”
Eleanor Laffling, a third-year U of T student and permanent resident, finds it odd that permanent residents cannot serve on the Governing Council, even though they pay domestic tuition fees.
“I just don’t understand how I can be considered a domestic student like a Canadian citizen, but then when it comes to [the Governing Council], I am no longer treated like a citizen,” she says.
Mary Githumbi, president and founder of iNSA, says that changing this rule is an important step toward making the university accountable to the international students it works so hard to recruit.
“We’d want to bring up the topic of healthcare and de-regulated school fees [at Governing Council] because these are the main issues that affect international students,” says Githumbi, continuing, “[T]herefore, the International Student’s Association is backing Yeliz.”
The Governing Council is regulated by the University of Toronto Act of 1971, a piece of Ontario Government legislation. Section 2, part 4 of the Act states that “[n]o person shall serve as a member of the Governing Council unless he is a Canadian citizen.”
According to May Nazar, a spokesperson with Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, a change to the act would require that a bill be proposed by a member of the provincial legislature and be voted on.
While private entities like U of T can typically propose legislation, in this case the university administration can do no more than lobby the government on the issue. Susan Froom, vice-president of the Association of Part Time Undergraduate Students and a member of the Governing Council, says that any changes to the law could involve a very lengthy process.
“International students, understandably wishing to hasten this change, have applied to run for Governing Council,” says Froom, adding that their nominations being declined is simply the university following the law.
According to Susan Froom, U of T is one of only five post-secondary institutions in the province which is prohibited by law from having non-Canadian citizens sit on its governing body. (The others are Western, Ryerson, Wilfred Laurier, and McMaster.)
Nazar states that the various university acts, which determine students’ eligibility for Governing Council positions, were passed at different times. Therefore, Nazar says, the act in question is a product of the time in which it was passed and reflects the political concerns of that time.
“The last major changes to the University of Toronto Act occurred in the early seventies, when Canadian nationalism was prominent,” Nazar says.