Advocacy group petitioning province to eliminate high school streaming

People for Education report details negative affects on access to post-secondary education

Advocacy group petitioning province to eliminate high school streaming

People for Education, an independent organisation working to support public education in Ontario, have released a report urging the province to scrap streaming in Ontario high schools  at least for the first year of high school. Although the streaming system was officially eliminated in 1999, the report alleges that it was eliminated in name only, and that the practice continues.

Source: People for Education. Design: Lisa Wong/THE VARSITY

Source: People for Education. Design: Lisa Wong/THE VARSITY

Ability Grouping vs. Streaming 

Streaming, also known as “tracking”, involves the formal separation of students into different groups according to academic ability. Grade 8 students are currently asked to choose between taking either “applied” or “academic” courses in their core subjects, which commence in Grade 9. These decisions, the report says, not only affect students’ options throughout the rest of their high school careers, but also have a negative affect on their long-term, higher education prospects.

The report states that over half of students who take Grade 9 applied math also take at least three other subjects in the applied stream, and that very few students transfer from the applied to the academic. Just three per cent of schools report students moving from the applied stream to the academic, and 43 per cent responded “never” or “not very often” when asked how often students transfer from applied to academic courses.

“In almost all cases, students in applied courses are in different classrooms, receive instruction from different teachers, and study a different curriculum than those in academic courses,” reads a portion of the report.

Ability grouping, on the other hand, sees students being informally grouped within classes for short periods of time, arguably allowing them more mobility. Streaming is different from ability grouping, therefore, by formality.

“I think that such an early separation is actually detrimental to students because it forces them to make decisions before they really know enough to do so” comments Angela Sun, a fifth-year political science major at the University of Toronto. “I know so many students who either transferred out of university or decided to do a college program after completing their degree. I think all students should receive the same stream of education so they won’t feel boxed in by their course selection when it comes to deciding on their post-secondary path.”

Effects on access to post-secondary education

The same report suggests that forcing decision-making in Grade 8 influences students’ access to universities.
It goes on to detail a negative socioeconomic association with students who take applied courses, specifically that students who come from low-income families are more likely to be enrolled in applied courses.

“At my school, it was believed that the applied stream was for lazy people who didn’t want to take university courses.” explains Roxanne Mosu, a Speech Language Pathology student at U of T. “I also believed that the people who took those courses had no intention to pursue an education in university.”

Virginia Cardinal, a U of T graduate, adds that she too “thought that those students weren’t as smart or had a different kind of smart compared to those in the University stream.”

“It is time for Ontario to consider adopting OECD recommendations and move these important decisions to later in high school,” concludes the report. “In the meantime, students as young as 13 years old and their families are forced to make choices that may have long-term implications on their chances for success in school and beyond.”

“Boundless” U of T campaign misrepresents the realities of university life

University advertisements misrepresent the constraints on student life

“Boundless” U of T campaign misrepresents the realities of university life

I own this shirt. It is navy blue with a white trim, a nice looking shirt. Perhaps you’ve seen this shirt. I wear it to the gym sometimes, especially the one back home where I show it off as if to say: why yes, I do attend university. Maybe you even own it too, I got mine for free and I know I’m not the only one. What really draws attention to the shirt is the message written across the chest: “I am Boundless.”

Now I’ll admit it’s a great slogan. The first thing you can say about “Boundless” is that it fits all the criteria you would expect from a university slogan. Ambiguity? Check. Opportunity? Check. Infinite horizons? Check.

From a marketing standpoint, the obscurity of this term is what makes it so effective. It carries the idea that school is what you make of it, putting you in the driver’s seat. What’s boundless? Is it the diverse mix of research programs, exchanges, clubs, teams and all manner of opportunities that are readily available at U of T? No. It is you. You are boundless.

“Boundless,” perhaps more than anything else, denotes freedom. One could argue that this is exactly what potential students are looking for. The meaning of the slogan is twofold. It first posits that the university will help provide the necessary environment for you to explore your freedom, while at the same time, the slogan suggests that this environment will not restrict or bind you in any way.

On an academic level, this slogan seems to fit well with U of T’s culture. After all, this school offers some outstanding opportunities. Ironically — perhaps intentionally — this motto runs contrary to some of the popular beliefs about this university. Barring any outside criticism, many students at this school report that the academic demands on their time are too strenuous, and that they invade too deeply into their social lives. This is of course merely the price one pays for attending a top school. Still, the fact that our slogan seems to run contrary to what many of us believe about this university is somewhat troublesome.

If this slogan only meant that we are boundless in the academic sphere then perhaps there would be no issue. However, the various ways in which this slogan is delivered play up both the academic and social advantages of the school.

In one sense, this is a must for the university’s advertising. In an age where the value of any given university degree has shrunk, social networks are becoming increasingly important for many prospective students.

Accordingly, university ads seem to be advancing the social merits of their schools more than ever. In these ads, the message that the social value of the degree is tantamount to academics is not only promoted, it’s unequivocal. After all, how do you think alumni get to the top? When you play Frisbee in the shade of the campus quad with women in sundresses and men in Oxford shirts, yes there is great fun, but there is also an opportunity to make profitable connections.

The reality for many students is that the academic rigors of this school overshadow the social benefits of university. In this sense, our slogan is contradictory. We are not boundless, but heavily bound. We can only hope, then, that this hindrance to social freedom will be worth it in the long run.

 

Breen Wilkinson is a second-year student studying English, history, and American studies.

Controversial residence plans continue to spark debate

Knightstone residence would benefit students as living costs in Toronto rise

Controversial residence plans continue to spark debate

A new student residence is being proposed near College and Spadina. Knightstone Capital, a private firm, is planning to build a 24-storey tower, which could house 759 U of T students on property leased  from the university. However, some members the local community, including City Councillor Adam Vaughan, oppose the project.

Many U of T students welcome the proposal. Housing costs in downtown Toronto are soaring. A decent bedroom in a Bay Street condominium often costs $1,000 per month, and many students are more than happy to pay $600 just to find a living room to sleep in. On the other hand, commuting carries implicit costs. In addition to paying $106 a month for a TTC pass, commuters also tend to enjoy fewer of the auxiliary U of T services that they pay for. After all, few would be willing to commute back to campus after dark just for an intramural soccer game at 10:00 pm.

The project also appeals to the university. The university administration has some responsibility to offer accommodation to its substantial international and out-of-province student body. For years,  however, it has been unable to expand its aging residence buildings due to ever-decreasing public funding. As the Knightstone project is privately financed, the university can better serve its students while only taking on minimal financial risks. Besides, more student residences will always foster a sense of community on campus that big universities like U of T often lack.

Opponents to the project protest that a glass-and-steel tower would be incongruous in the otherwise low-rise area, and that students would cause a disturbance in an otherwise quiet residential neighbourhood. These are genuine concerns; however, they should serve as signs to proceed with caution, rather than as roadblocks to the entire project. Indeed, some measures have already been taken to address these problems. For instance, the university stipulated as part of its lease that the operator of the new residence must obtain its approval. It is therefore to be expected that student life in the new tower will be held to the same standard as any other U of T residences.

In their stern opposition to the proposed tower, community members also seem to have willfully ignored the enormous economic and social benefits that those 759 students will bring to the neighbourhood. Existing business owners will see an influx of customers, and residents will benefit from the opening of many new businesses.

The university owns many other underdeveloped properties, such as the three blocks bounded by Harbord, Spadina, and Huron and Bloor. U of T owns all but 11 houses in the area. Building a mixture of new student residences and classrooms in the area will benefit the residents as well as students. However, if the Knightstone residence project is rejected, it will serve as a negative precedent for other future development projects in the area.

 

Li Pan is a second-year student majoring in economics and mathematics. 

U of T building beyond its means

University lacks infrastructure roadmap

U of T building beyond its means

New University of Toronto president Meric Gertler wasted little time expressing the university’s dissatisfaction with provincial levels of funding for post-secondary education, citing funding pressures as a key challenge for the university in his installation address. The Varsity has recently highlighted the alarming growth of deferred maintenance at U of T, as well as the interaction of provincial funding structures and donor priorities with what gets built and fixed at the university. Despite the constant talk of funding levels and priorities, questions around deferred maintenance are still rarely discussed.

For many students, the first of these questions will be: What is deferred maintenance? Deferred maintenance occurs when the university spends less on maintaining its buildings in a given year than it thinks it should. The Facilities & Services department monitors how much upkeep has been delayed until future years in this manner, and their reports make alarming reading.

As of 2012, the university has some $484 million in deferred maintenance. If U of T were to decide to do all that work today, it would cost them one quarter of the university’s endowment. Amazingly, that’s not the alarming part of the problem; even if U of T were to spend that money catching up on maintenance this year, we would still have significant levels of maintenance necessary next year.

It is not difficult to see how the university has arrived at this point, and U of T’s administration is not doing anything that other large Canadian institutions have not done. Every year, U of T has to spend more than it earns — something that it cannot do. Many public institutions — including the ttc, school boards, and the provincial government itself — face this yearly dilemma. The province makes ends meet primarily by incurring debt, but other institutions often make up the funding gap by deferring spending on maintenance. If U of T were to defer other expenses — such as salaries, heating, or financial aid — people would notice. However, the university can easily get by unnoticed without spending millions on removing the asbestos from Sidney Smith, or other projects that are advisable in the long term but not immediately necessary.

It is important to note that deferred maintenance does not pose any immediate danger to the people using these buildings. Facilities & Services monitors the university’s infrastructure, and urgent repairs are carried out before they become a hazard. The problem, however, is that while the asbestos in Sid Smith can be safely contained for now, it will eventually have to go. The same is true for every job that can, for the time being, be safely put off until next year. Deferring maintenance also provides short-term savings at the expense of long-term costs, since labour, material, and evaluation costs increase every year.

Until 2008, U of T was slowly improving the situation; from 2005–2008, the amount of deferred maintenance decreased from about $300 million to less than $200 million, as U of T actually spent more on maintenance than the annual requirement. Since 2008, however, the trend has reversed. Both the rate of increase and the amount of deferred maintenance are now growing every year. Even though U of T’s contribution to maintenance has actually increased steadily since 2008, provincial funding has been declining, and total funding is not keeping pace with need.

This problem of ever-increasing deferred maintenance is compounded by the fact that donors and politicians alike want to fund exciting new projects, particularly innovative or glamorous new buildings. By going along with these plans U of T maximizes the total amount of grant and donation money it receives, and continues to grow its infrastructure and enhance its reputation. All of these are positive developments, and they often lead to tangible benefits for students. The downside is that the university can’t quite afford to maintain the buildings it already has. While some donations fund renovations, which include maintenance or revival funding, new building is almost always part of the deal, leading to even more maintenance cost as those buildings age.

Administrators have argued that U of T can neither tell donors what to fund nor change the government’s mind, and that it has to take advantage of these opportunities or risk falling behind its global competitors. This argument ignores the reality that, eventually, deferred maintenance will catch up with us. The university can devote more money to innovation and growth today by deferring maintenance spending. By doing so, however, administrators ensure that at some point in the future, U of T will have less to spend less on these goals as it is forced to divert funds to urgent up-keep spending.

Allowing donors and capricious provincial grants to set the university’s agenda for growth also puts decision-making in the wrong hands. The university certainly benefits from exciting new buildings, but it needs money for maintenance, as well as more classrooms, residences, and student space. We expect that the provincial government will spend money where it is needed, whether it is glamorous or not. The university and its students — who donors always express a willingness to listen to — must ask that donors provide money for what faculty and students are really asking for, rather than what benefits their reputations or desires for legacy projects. Gertler is a world-renowed urban geographer, and we hope that his academic background will inform a more comprehensive and thoughtful plan for the university’s development.

The Goldring family’s support for the Goldring Student Centre is an excellent example of donor funding for student space. This kind of support is very rare, and has been totally absent from the Student Commons fundraising process, which places the whole burden of funding on students.

The question of deferred maintenance is a question of leadership. The university is sabotaging its long-term growth to further its short-term growth. By incurring an enormous and growing amount of deferred maintenance, and by allowing donors and grants to set a haphazard course for growth, we are undermining the university’s future. University and provincial leaders are taking credit for the university’s current strength and growth, while ensuring a weaker future.

Change to flat-fees policy coming

A letter to University of Toronto students

As president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, I am compelled to write to you about an important issue we have been tackling with our colleagues in the Arts & Science Students’ Union and many of you over the years.

At the University of Toronto, the implementation of a flat-fee tuition system has made worse the already serious financial barriers to our education. With flat fees, students in the Faculty of Arts & Science are forced to pay for a full course load no matter how many courses they are taking. If one student takes 3.0 full-time equivalent credits, they will be forced to pay for a full five credits.

During the market crash in 2009, this University of Toronto policy lost the university over $1 billion in investments. The academic community rose up, and students, teaching assistants, workers, and faculty spoke out against the extreme measure. Five years later, the undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts & Science are still waiting for justice. In 2011, after much student pressure, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities of the Ontario government announced a moratorium prohibiting other post-secondary institutions from instituting a similar policy. After years of discussion and protest, I am relieved that the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Brad Duguid, listened to students and will implement a policy announcement on the reform of the controversial flat-fee program.

We want to make sure that the minister knows what an impact this will have on students and how much we truly need it. As students, we shoulder the burden of working one, two, or even more jobs to support families, our dependents, and ourselves. While enrolled in fewer courses, the additional pressure to take on the financial responsibilities of the full five credits has a serious impact on our finances and our mental health. We need to encourage the minister by telling him stories. Join our campaign and send a message to the government at utsu.ca/flatfees.

 

Munib Sajjad is president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Undergraduate research opportunities take learning beyond classroom

Research opportunities abound for U of T’s undergraduates

Undergraduate research opportunities take learning beyond classroom

As a science student, it can be easy to forget where all of the theories and equations encountered in class come from. The long days of trial-and-error, of running experiments, and of chance discoveries can be hidden by the passage of lecture slides. Going behind the curtain and participating in the actual research process can be extremely rewarding for an undergraduate student; thankfully, a research-intensive university provides many opportunities to do so.

WILLIAM AHN/THE VARSITY

WILLIAM AHN/THE VARSITY

Participating in an undergraduate research project is an early opportunity to be exposed to the inner workings of your chosen field. An “early opportunity where an undergrad can be exposed to research in the lab, outside the classroom, would be a good experience to understand more what [the field] is,” said Armando Marquez, undergraduate counsellor of the Department of Chemistry, “and possibly develop that interest so that … students would continue and do research, go to graduate studies, do a lot more research down the line.”

It can be hard to know if a research career is right for you unless you try it, and the wide range of opportunities at the University of Toronto make undergraduate years the perfect time to give it a whirl.

The experience can certainly boost a resume. “When students get involved with this, it gives them a better opportunity as an experience, that when they go out, when they finish their education here, it makes them a very competitive person when they do apply to graduate studies or work,” said Marquez.

Research InfoYet even if you decide to apply to work in industry, professional school, or change fields entirely, a summer or semester spent doing research provides benefits that will stay with you for years to come.

Some of these wide-ranging benefits are detailed in a document by the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP) department, and include gaining important lab skills, learning how to design an experiment, critically analyzing data, and communicating results. Students gain a deeper understanding of course material and will also have a wide-range of work opportunities after graduation. These important skills can also be taken back to the classroom.

Not only can research enhance scientific knowledge, it can also contribute to one’s personal development. “One of the opportunities for the students who get involved in research is that they are able to network with the grad students [and] with the faculty, and are given the opportunity to do presentations,” said Marquez, adding that, “students who go through this develop a more critical way of thinking instead of just what is fed to you in the classroom.”

Ishita Aggarwal, campus ambassador for the pan-discipline Undergraduate Awards program, pointed out that doing research can affect your world view. “When you participate in research, even at the undergraduate level, you really are able to better interpret claims that are made, not only in the academic setting, but also in popular media and everyday life,” she said. “I think it’s really important not only to be a producer of research, but also to be a better consumer of research.”

U of T offers a wide variety of opportunities for undergraduates to do research, including the second-year Research Opportunity Program (ROP) courses and summer research positions aimed at second- and third-year students. Each department awards positions differently:some require an application to the department as a first step, whiles others require the interested student to email potential supervisors before applying.

In the Department of Chemistry, students submit a résumé, cover letter, and application to the department before the supervisor selection process. “The competition is so fierce that we could probably have between 150 to 200 applications for an average of 25 positions,” said Marquez, who then insisted that he encourages all students to apply, as even the application process is beneficial to them. By applying, he says, students learn how to present themselves professionally on paper, an important post-graduation skill.

If one application is not successful, students should remain positive and keep looking, even if that means investigating opportunities outside of U of T ­— Toronto’s hospital system is a great place to start, for example.

According to Aggarwal, persistence is key: “One of the things that really prevents undergrads from getting involved in research is that they don’t know how and they’re just too scared … the key is not to get discouraged … if you keep attempting to contact the people whose research you’re genuinely interested in, eventually you’ll hear an affirmative answer. But you need to keep trying.”

SAUIS seeks changes to unpaid internship framework

New campaign advocates for government intervention over unpaid internships in Ontario

On Tuesday, Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams (SAUIS), an advocacy group, launched a campaign that urges provincial government reform on unpaid internships. Unpaid interns are currently not covered under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), Ontario’s cornerstone legislation overseeing employment.

At the press conference announcing the new campaign, SAUIS listed three recommendations for Ontario’s Ministry of Labour — include proactive enforcement of existing employment regulations, a public education campaign on unpaid internships, and a comprehensive government review of the laws governing unpaid internships.

“There is a growing push to address unpaid internships in Ontario,” according to Josh Mandryk, a spokesperson for SAUIS and third-year student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law In Canada, unpaid internships are a murky field with little government oversight. Although an estimated 200,000 postsecondary students undertake in unpaid internships each year, no provincial or federal agency keeps data on interns.

At the University of Toronto, decisions concerning proposed unpaid internships are made at the department or faculty level. According to Michael Kurts, associate vice-president of strategic communications, this makes the prevalence of unpaid internships “difficult to determine, due both to the decentralized nature of the University and to the various ways that internships are defined.”

“The university supports educational opportunities for students that prepare them well for the careers they plan to follow,” Kurts said. “That might include a service learning component, an international placement, a co-op opportunity, a paid internship or an unpaid internship.”

A number of campus organizations have expressed concern over Ontario’s unpaid internship framework. “Unpaid internships exploit students and young graduates,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). “For-profit companies benefit from free labour, while young people contend with the highest unemployment rate we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”

In an email to The Varsity, Sajjad stated that the UTSU is currently working on a campaign that calls on the federal government to create a “National Youth Unemployment Strategy.” He also stated that UTSU is working on initiatives to enhance regulation of the existing ESA.

Shawn Tian, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union, also expressed concerns over unpaid internships. “Wasted hours running petty errands which [do] nothing to bolster our resumes is about as bad as it gets,” Tian noted. Tian believes that shorter, more intensive internships would allow students to get valuable experience while not putting a large financial burden on employers.

“It’s important for [students] to realize our own worth as potential interns,” Tian asserted. “There are plenty of internships that offer solid learning opportunities and [students] should not settle if it means wasted hours with little experiential learning.”

Some U of T students, like third-year molecular genetics and microbiology major Monica, have had positive experiences with unpaid internships. Monica works as a student researcher in a campus lab. She claims her internship has been instrumental in kindling her interest in scientific research. “I never really had much ambition before I worked in this lab,” she explained, “but now that I’ve found something I love doing, I feel much more motivated to do well in my classes.”

Monica does see problems with the current system for unpaid internships. Most importantly, she believes that unpaid internships exclude disadvantaged students. “I understand the argument that experience gained is worth more than a salary, but I think the obvious problem is that most people can’t afford to work for free,” she acknowledged. “This means that entire fields where unpaid internships are the expected entry point become almost entirely inaccessible to people who don’t have enough money.”

“I’d like to see it become easier to get a research position in the context of a paying job,” Monica sad. “I’d like to see more official job postings, with stipends listed. Instead of having to email professors with interesting research at random, why not make it more obvious who’s looking for students and who isn’t?”

U of T’s Career Centre does list some paid and unpaid research opportunities, but the majority of positions go unlisted. A recent search for “research positions” on the U of T Career Centre’s website yielded no results.

“It’s time for action on unpaid internships,” Mandryk said. “We hope to see to all three parties coming together to protect young workers from abuse.” SAUIS plans to advance the group’s message to every Member of Provincial Parliament in the coming weeks.

A tale of two presidents

U of T's presidential transition provides opportunity for further growth

A tale of two presidents

David Naylor stepped down as U of T president on Friday, ending eight years in the university’s most important office. For almost a decade, Naylor has filled the president’s office with remarkable energy and has often been in the public eye. It is hard to assess Naylor’s personal legacy, but the university has certainly benefitted from his efforts.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

At the time of his appointment, Naylor’s successor, Meric Gertler, emphasized Naylor’s achievements in raising U of T’s international reputation: “I am following in the footsteps of President Naylor — a leader who has combined vision, hard work, and dedication to propel the University to compete with the best institutions in the world.” Under Naylor, U of T has placed among the world’s top 20 universities in both the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Although Naylor himself has questioned the accuracy and significance of university rankings, they are just one indication of U of T’s growing international standing. Naylor can claim a great deal of credit for this achievement. The “Boundless” fundraising campaign, launched in Naylor’s second term, is the largest in Canadian academic history and has bolstered the university’s global connections. Again, Naylor’s personal involvement has been substantial.

Although Naylor has been good for U of T’s public image abroad, he has been less successful closer to home. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the proposed student residence that was to be built by Knightstone Capital Management Inc. on College Street. The university’s negotiations with Toronto City Council and with community groups opposed to the proposals were less than cordial. The university released an unsigned statement accusing city councillor Adam Vaughan of “uncharacteristically threaten[ing] to use his office to damage the University’s interests in various ways,” while Harbord Village Residents’ president Rory (Gus) Sinclair threatened to “[go] to war” with the university. The incendiary back-and-forth over the residence contributed to Toronto City Council’s rejection of the proposal. It would be unfair to lay the blame for this fiasco on Naylor alone, but as president, community and public relations were part of his responsibility.

It seems fortunate, then, that incoming president Gertler’s academic background is in urban geography and economics. Gertler seems well-suited to ameliorate the often-strained relationship between the university and surrounding communities. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Gertler stated that he sees “a real opportunity for the U of T to play an expanded role in city-building, and working with civic leaders.” If U of T is to continue to expand, particularly if it is to finally build new residences, effective communication and compromise with its neighbours must be a priority. This is one promising area where Gertler has the opportunity to make his mark.

There are also areas where Gertler seems poised to build on Naylor’s successes. Gertler has already helped raise $175 million towards the Boundless campaign. He seems eager to pick up where Naylor left off in the university’s fundraising efforts, saying in one interview that he enjoys fundraising. Private donations have met or exceeded expectations for several years, but this is not the only funding question that the new president will have to manage. As president, Naylor repeatedly stated that government funding is unsustainably low. In addition to expanding and improving community relations, Gertler should focus on continuing to persuade governmental bodies to invest in the university. One of Naylor’s approaches to this issue has been to emphasize entrepreneurship at the university. Gertler may well continue this, but should be cautious to prevent excessive commercialization of research and ideas.

Gertler’s history as dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science means he does not assume the presidency with an entirely clean slate. The controversial 2010 review of the faculty, which proposed major budget cuts that included the termination of the university’s Centre for Comparative Literature, drew outcry from students and faculty alike. Gertler also played a major role in implementing the university’s unpopular flat fee policy, which has been a major student grievance since it was introduced. Some tension between the university’s students and its president seems inevitable. Yet these high-profile and unpopular decisions mean Gertler could have an uphill battle to convince skeptical students of his good intentions. This should not, however, preclude constructive dialogue between the new president and student leaders.

The impact of the president on the university is difficult to measure. Like any leader, the tone a president strikes and the example they offer can be as important as specific policies and initiatives. Gertler should model transparency and willingness to consult and compromise in the many challenging situations he will undoubtedly face. The university has, on the whole, been well-served by Naylor, but there is always more work to be done.