Fed budget’s in: For most students, no change

Months before its tenth birthday, the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation has received its death notice. Unveiled by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last Tuesday, the federal government’s Budget 2008 will scrap the CMSF, which gave need-based bursaries and merit-based scholarships. Its $350-million annual allowance, combined with the annual $138 million currently doled out in grants, will go towards the new Canada Student Grant Program.

While the creation of the national grant program has drawn cautious praise from student groups, critics panned the lack of major student financial aid reforms hinted at last year by Monte Solberg, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development.

Though the grant system will reach more students—an estimated 100,000 more, for a total of 245,000 recipients—it has no new funding sources, so individual beneficiaries will see less cash. However, the funding for grants is set to increase each year, hitting $430 million by 2012-13.

“Although there wasn’t new money allotted, we were quite happy to see the student grant program,” said Amanda Aziz, national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students. The CFS had campaigned for a merged grant program and the demise of the CMSF.

“We don’t want to see money spread more thinly, but the new framework they’ve announced is a good start,” Aziz said.

The new system, to kick off in fall 2009, will be income- rather than need-based, where recipients classified “middle-income” or “low-income” will get monthly grants of $250 or $100 respectively. In a departure from the CMSF, its successor will give money to students up-front and guarantee funding through every year of the student’s program.

After a year-long review, the Canada Student Loan Program will receive $123 million over four years, of which $74 million is to help students with loan repayment, though the report gave no details on how the assistance will be carried out. The money will also go towards an improved web site and more aid for married and part-time students.

Some student loan advocates were unimpressed. “The budget is a good thing for everyone except student loan borrowers,” said Julian Benedict, founder of the Coalition for Student Loan Fairness. “The grant program is going to be a help to reducing the debts of new borrowers in the system, but right now, the government has done nothing to address the sky-high interest rates on student loans.”

Small increases in research and development funding come with conditions. An increase of $80 million, or five per cent, allotted to three federal research granting councils has been earmarked for specific industries: automotive, manufacturing, and forestry and fishing.

Another $21 million will woo the world’s top scientists, creating up to 20 Canada Global Excellence Research Chairs, also in predetermined areas: health, the environment, natural resources and energy, and IT.

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, criticized the stipulations. “We appreciate the new research funding, but we’re extremely concerned that the federal government is increasingly targeting research funding rather than allowing the priorities to be established by the research community,” he said.

The government also has its eye on brilliant students: $25 million will go towards Canada Graduate Scholarships for the top 500 doctoral students at Canadian universities. The new scholarships, designed to lure international geniuses and hold on to domestic ones, have been compared to the U.S. Fulbright awards. Canadian recipients can also apply for an additional $6,000 stipend for studying abroad.

Varsity Centre is an invaluable resource to students, one that’s worth our investment

In another great stride towards improving the student experience, the University of Toronto spent $25 million to rebuild the historic Varsity Stadium, equip it with the best all-weather turf in the world, and enclose it in winter with an air-supported, heated dome, scheduled primarily for student use. The new facilities were built at students’ requests, and planned with student input every step of the way. When the doors were opened, students came in throngs to cheer on their sports teams, participate in intramurals, to hit golf balls, to run, and to compete against other schools as the Varsity Blues.

Unfortunately, there are some students opposed to the notion of paying for the operating costs of the Varsity Centre. Most of these students base their opinions on inaccurate hearsay. Currently, we foot the bill for the Varsity Centre’s operational costs. The purpose of the plebiscite is to estimate whether students wish to continue paying for operating costs through ancillary fees. Regardless of the outcome, athletic fees will increase by about two per cent per full-time St. George campus student, due to inflation. In case you are wondering, we cannot vote on inflation.

UTSU VP university affairs Michal Hay’s recent comments regarding the Varsity Centre are incredibly misleading. First, the 2002 referendum differs from this year’s plebiscite. In 2002, students voted No to a Varsity Centre proposal that asked students to fund both the capital and operational costs of the Varsity Centre. Since 2002, the Faculty of Physical Education and Health has worked to raise the funds to cover all capital costs. Students benefit from a world-class athletic facility only having to contribute to the operational costs.

I find it duplicitous that Hay is currently a member of the No Levy campaign. Remember the plebiscite for the student commons? It asked students to contribute both capital and operational costs through a student levy. Michal was a supporter of the Yes campaign at that time. Considering his position as VP university affairs on UTSU, Hay’s public support of the No Levy campaign impairs UTSU’s ability to run a fair and unbiased plebiscite. It also undermines the integrity of the upcoming vote.

The obvious facts are still apparent: these athletic facilities are used by over 10,000 intramural participants, tens of thousands of students, and over 800 varsity athletes. Unquestionably, the facility is not used by everyone, but neither is Hart House, U of T Health Services, or Student Affairs. The funding of these services is based on the democratic principle that services are more equitably accessible when the costs are shared amongst the population. Students lobbies for reductions to the cost of education are created through taxpayer-funded government subsidies. I hope that I am not the only one who sees the hypocrisy of some of the Varsity Centre naysayers. Support your fellow students, and vote Yes to keep the Varsity Centre an equally accessible space for all.

Steven Greening is the Equity Officer and C.A.R. Representative on the Physical Education and Health Undergraduate Association

‘Apartheid’ ban causes ruckus, little action

While student groups at Ryerson and York and U of T’s OPIRG were all prepared to send busloads of students to a rally on Friday against McMaster’s ban on the phrase “Israeli Apartheid,” few actually showed up.

Joey Coleman, a McMaster student and writer for Maclean’s magazine, said that the buses that drove students in from nearby universities were mostly empty. And many thought that was as it should be.

“I think this was a McMaster matter, I don’t think it was necessary to involve students from outside,” said David Levine, the president of Israel on Campus at McMaster.

McMaster Student Union’s president Ryan Moran spoke briefly at the rally, stating the union was in favour of calm, respectful debate but not actions that would incite anger.

The controversy began when the university’s copy centre refused to photocopy a poster with the words “Israeli Apartheid Week” on it. The poster was was changed and resubmitted, still with the offending phrase, and the copy center passed it on to the university’s Human Rights and Equity Services Office.

The HRO banned the phrase “Israeli Apartheid,” citing concerns that it would make students feel uncomfortable. Both the MSU and McMaster University decided to support that decision.

The ban did not prevent Israeli Apartheid events from taking place, nor did it mean that club funding would be taken away from the McMaster chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights.

While the York Federation of Students may have sent buses to support free speech, on the Thursday before they had decided to shut down a student debate on abortion.

In a press release published by Students for Bioethical Awareness, student group president Margaret Fung stated, “I was told in a meeting by members of the York Federation of Students that debating abortion is comparable to debating whether a man should be allowed to beat his wife. They said that there is freedom of speech to a limit, and that abortion is not an issue to debate.”

According to the SBA’s press release, this meeting included YFS executive director Jeremy Salter, VP operations and secretary of the executive committee Fuad Abdi, and president of the York Debating Society Amir Mohareb. The document also notes Salter making statements echoing those recently published regarding the Canadian Federation of Student’s views on pro-life groups as comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan. YFS is currently a member of CFS, Local 68.

With files from Allison Martell and Joey Coleman

Varsity Centre belongs to students, but we shouldn’t have to carry more of its costs

In 2002, 78 per cent of full-time undergraduates voted “No” to paying a levy for the Varsity Centre. This week we will vote “No” again. Athletics already has the highest non-refundable incidental fee, which has increased by 40 per cent since 2003.

The Varsity Centre belongs to students, and we should be able to use it without being continually threatened to pay more. Through substantial increases to our previous fees, students are already paying more than enough.

In fact, our fees have already increased to fund the Varsity Centre. The proposed $18 per year asked of us is in addition to the $23.36 increase athletics will receive next year. Likewise, our fees permanently increased almost $20 this year, plus an additional $18.

The $18 fee was rushed through U of T governance last year for a one-year temporary increase with the understanding that students would vote. This is a new levy.

If we say “No,” student use will not suffer. Our current fees cover the costs of the Varsity Centre, including intramurals, the tri-campus league and many other programs. If we vote “No” to this increase, students will still contribute $252.40 for the 2008-2009 academic year, and $126.20 for the 2008 summer session—and this does not even include fees paid to Hart House.

If the elite $53-million Centre for High Performance Sport is built (another phase of the Varsity Centre Complex), the Faculty of Physical Education and Health says students will be asked again for a levy increase to cover up to 75 per cent of the estimated $2.8 million in operating costs. This is likely to be an increase of upwards of $50 per student.

It is unfortunate that the Faculty of Physical Education and Health threatens to decrease student access to our own facility, unless we shell out even more than the increases of 40 per cent, paid in the last few years.

It is even more unfortunate that some students feel pressured to succumb to these threats, especially when it is not necessary.

Although some of these students, including the current co-chair of the Council on Athletics and Recreation, formally apologized last year for what they called “misleading students” over the proposed fee increase, this behaviour seems to be repeating. Students are only told about fee increases that could result from this plebiscite, uninformed of the additional $23.36 indexed fee increase scheduled for next year.

U of T students deserve an excellent athletics facility, but the costs should not fall to students. We’re already paying too much. It is imperative that we vote No to this levy to stop the trend of asking students to shoulder more and more of the costs of this university. The University of Toronto, as well as provincial and federal governments, must be held accountable to their obligation to fund post-secondary education. This includes cocurricular activities.

Michal Hay is the UTSU VP University Affairs. Ryan Hayes is the ASSU Vice-President. Both are members of the “NO Levy” Committee.

Liberals, quit your dithering

Last Tuesday, Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty outlined the 2008 budget in the House of Commons. Included in the proposed financial document was the introduction of a tax-free savings account for individuals over the age of 18, changes to the student grant program in post-secondary education, as well as funding for seniors, Aboriginal Canadians, and immigrants.

In actuality, this year’s budget does not benefit many Canadians, paling in comparison to the huge spending and tax-cuts of this Conservative government’s previous budgets. The savings account allows citizens to save up to $5,000 per year tax-free. However, the average family typically spends more than they make in a year, and so this account only benefits the wealthy. Of course, the Conservatives couldn’t care less. This budget suits both their short and long-term goals perfectly.

You would think the Liberals would take advantage of such a lazy and inefficient budget from Harper’s government. After all, like many Commons votes this year, both the NDP and Bloc Québécois will vote against the government. The Liberals could easily vote against this budget, triggering a spring election. So why don’t they? Liberal leader Stéphane Dion claims that the Conservative budget doesn’t challenge the current government. Dion fails to see that this is exactly why the Conservatives provided such a lacklustre budget to begin with.

What about the recently passed crime bill, which secures a minimum sentence for gun-related crimes, and the debate over the mission in Afghanistan? Both are excellent reasons to challenge the Conservative government. The Liberal party, also known as the official opposition, is failing at its most important task. Maybe they have forgotten the responsibilities that the position entails.

The Liberals should be ashamed of themselves. In refusing to oppose this budget, they have forfeited their reputation as a financially responsible and authoritative government. They have lost the respect of many Canadians for accepting a Conservative budget that fails to significantly increase funding for environmental projects—something the Liberals have claimed as a high priority.

Allegations that the Conservatives attempted to bribe independent British Columbia MP Chuck Cadman in 2005, and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was aware of it, has prompted demands that the RCMP investigate the matter. The Liberals are once again discussing the possibility of a spring election.

We’ve heard this posturing before. More and more, Dion appears to be all talk and no action. It all depends on whether the Liberal leader sees bribery of a politician (an offence under the Criminal Code) as worthy enough to oppose the current government. The Liberals should consider finding a new leader if they ever hope to sustain the support of Canadians.

When sub-atomic worlds collide

The final portion of the ATLAS particle detector was put in place in the ground beneath the Swiss-French border this past Friday. The detector is expected to measure muons from particle collisions in the Large Haron Collider. The collisions studied are supposed to recreate the conditions that existed shortly after the Big Bang. The underground particle path of the LHC is 17 miles in diameter. Construction began in 1994 and the project involves over 10,000 scientists from all around the world. The LHC is expected to begin operating in mid-2008.

Making good use of that sunny Arizona weather

Renewable energy is becoming more desirable than ever. Solar power plants are now used worldwide as a means to generate clean, “green” electricity. In an effort to increase these resources, the Arizona Public Service Company has partnered with Abengoa Solar to build one of the largest solar power plants in the world.

“APS is committed to making Arizona the solar capital of the world, bringing affordable renewable energy to all our customers,” said APS president Don Brandt. “The Arizona Corporation Commission has challenged Arizona utilities to be leaders in renewable energy, and we are responding aggressively.”

Aptly named after the Spanish word for “sunny place,” the Solana Generating Station will be a 280- megawatt concentrating solar power plant when completed. However, concentrating solar power works differently from the more widely known method of photovoltaic cells to trap the sun’s energy. Photovoltaic cells, better known as solar panels, use the sun’s light to create electricity. Concentrating solar power, by contrast, employs the sun’s heat. In CSP, parabolic trough reflectors are attached to computer-controlled motors to track the sun’s path throughout the day. The reflectors are made of mirrors that focus the sunlight onto receiving tubes located along the trough’s focal line. These contain a heat transfer fluid that reaches approximately 400 degrees Celsius when heated by the sun’s rays. The heated fluid converts water into steam, which then creates electricity by turning the power plant’s turbines.

A downside to solar panels: they can only produce electricity when directly hit by the sun’s rays. Through resourceful technology, Solana will be able to generate electricity even when the sun is not shining. Molten salt will be stored in large ‘thermoslike’ containers standing beside a series of steam generators. Periodically, the heat transfer fluid will heat the molten salt instead of creating steam that turns the turbines. Electricity could be generated for hours after the sun has set, by heating fluid using the molten salt in place of the trough reflectors.

Solana will be located in Gila Bend, Arizona, approximately 112 kilometres southwest of Phoenix. Arizona is perfectly suited for solar power concentration, as the Grand Canyon state receives plenty of heat from the sun all-year round. The generating station will have 2,700 parabolic trough reflectors, spanning approximately five square kilometres. Solana anticipates being fully operational in 2011. However, this is contingent on a number of factors, such as whether Congress renews the clean energy tax credit, scheduled to expire at the end of this year. When operating at full capacity, Solana will be able to generate electricity for 70,000 APS customers without any greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a major milestone for Arizona in our efforts to increase the amount of renewable energy available in the United States,” said Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. “Arizona is leading the way in protecting our world for future generations through combatting climate change, fighting for air quality and much more. This plant will offer Arizonans a clean and efficient source of energy.”

Meditation as medication

Focus on my breathing patterns— simple, right? Breathing is something I do unconsciously everyday, a key process to my very existence, so how difficult could this be? I’m sitting cross-legged, comfortably leaning my back against a sturdy wall. I place my timer in front of me. Today’s goal: one 10-minute session. I close my eyes and imagine each breath as I inhale, traveling through my nasal cavity, filling my lungs, feeling my chest expand and contract when I exhale. I’m surrounded by complete stillness, peace; this is nice—except for the deafening “tick-tock” of my clock breaking the silence only 45 seconds into my first meditation session (and yes, I peeked). Focus, I remind myself. Breathe. I let it pass, and attempt to concentrate. Two minutes later my thoughts have already travelled back into my past, glimpsed my future, and struggled against my present condition: the strong urge to nap. I didn’t know breathing could be so exhausting. Disappointed with my inability to concentrate, I re-evaluate my goal and adjust it accordingly: 5 minutes, max.

Frustrated with my own progress, and curious about meditation’s true benefits, I seek the expertise of Dr. Tony Toneatto, a senior scientist in the Clinical Research Department at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Dr. Toneatto suggests that “to feel the complete benefits of meditation you should practice 20- minute sessions daily.” He reveals that mindfulness of meditation is an issue close to his heart. As an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and public health sciences at U of T, Toneatto is director of a new minor program: Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health.

“This program is an integrative approach to the psychology of Buddhism. Its focus is not the religious aspect of Buddhism, rather it explores the theories and applications of Buddhism to physical and mental health,” said Toneatto.

Defining the mindfulness of meditation can be elusive. “It is a state of mind that requires you to remain psychologically present. It is important to remain non-judgemental, accepting,” Toneatto said, “whatever happens in your mind, you’re not holding onto it, you’re not rejecting it, you let it come and go. There are many forms of meditation—eating, walking, yoga. When meditating, sit comfortably, concentrate on the rhythm of your breath, and permit mental events to naturally arise and subside without interference—do not avoid them, but do not hold onto them,” he instructed.

Dr. Toneatto distinguishes between mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, while mindfulness meditation includes direct, experiential insight into the nature of mental activity and events.” He explains that there are two main stages of meditation: tranquility and insight meditation. “Tranquility meditation involves calming the mind, usually by maintaining awareness of breathing and resisting the urge to focus on internal chatter, while insight meditation involves understanding the nature of our thoughts. Both are equally challenging to achieve, but if you can, you will not only develop peace of mind, but learn to understand it”.

It is evident that the current fascination with meditation is just as much scientific as it is religious. Toneatto, also a registered clinical psychologist in Ontario, said, “Meditation is comparable to medication. Research suggests that it has significantly benefited individuals who suffer from chronic pain, anxiety disorders, stress, addiction, and depression. It has both physiological and psychological benefits.”

An eight-week study led by Toneatto evaluated the effects of daily 20- minute sessions of mindfulness meditation among 17 undergraduates. After a pre- and post-assessment of depression, somatic stress, and anxiety, findings concluded that these participants reported lower rates of anxiety, depression, and somatic stress, especially among those with greater than 11 hours of meditation, over an eight-week experimental period. “Those that suffer from depression and anxiety are convinced that their negative beliefs about themselves are self-fulfilling prophecies. With meditation as a form of cognitive- behavioural treatment the goal is to realize that just because you have these beliefs doesn’t mean they are true—the same can be applied to problem gamblers,” Toneatto explained.

Interested in the role of meditation as a part of a cognitive behavioural treatment for problem gamblers, Toneatto will evaluate how effective such practice is at controlling distorted thinking patterns. “Problem gamblers have illusions of control and irrational superstitious beliefs— like talismanic superstitions where they think an object will increase the probability that they will win,” said Toneatto. “We will research whether mindfulness meditation, if practiced by problem gamblers, will reduce their rate of relapse by teaching them to have more control over their thoughts, like how to proactively respond to gambling-related urges rather than satisfy them,” he added.

Buddhism is the fourth-largest religious tradition in the world with approximately 365 million followers (about 6 per cent of the world’s population). Historically stemming from India, Buddhism spread throughout Asia—Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Korea, to name a few— and quickly emerged as a popular and promising religion in the West. In a nutshell, Buddhism possesses the solution to eliminate suffering and discover true happiness in the form of enlightenment.

The many forms of Buddhism include Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Tibetan, and Zen. However, they all share the same core principles of the “Four Noble Truths:” (1) suffering exists, (2) suffering exists because of our attachment to our desires, (3) suffering will cease to exist when we detach ourselves from our desires, and (4) freedom from suffering is possible if we practice the “Eightfold Path.“ So, what is the Eightfold Path? It is composed of eight behaviours (right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation) that are characteristic of three qualities (wisdom, morality, and meditation). Meditation allows you to improve the behaviours of the Eightfold Path, thus bringing you closer to enlightenment. Toneatto emphasizes the view that “meditation allows you to reach your highest human potential. It teaches you about your own thoughts and develops your best human qualities whether you meditate for religious or therapeutic purposes.”

Meditation also enhances awareness. “In today’s society, we are constantly bombarded with opportunities for pleasure that we mistake for true happiness. Pleasure is a form of misdirected attempts at quests for enlightenment. Through meditation we awaken from the illusions of conditioning and see our essential self, not our conditioned self,” Toneatto said.

Is it true that meditation can be the next antidote to stress, and other psychological and physiological illnesses? It definitely sounds like it. Going forward, I’ve fine-tuned my tactics and thrown away the timer—today’s goal: no limits, no restrictions, no boundaries— to transcend reality by accepting it (easier said than done).