$484 million needed in building repairs

Maintenance deferral could cost U of T much more in long term

$484 million needed in building repairs

Brad Evoy stepped out of the office to get lunch on August 1, 2012. When he got back, he found that part of the ceiling in the main lobby of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) building on Bancroft Avenue had fallen in.

“We weren’t expecting it — no one had noticed there was an issue with the ceiling at the time, from our side or the university’s,” explained Evoy, the internal commissioner for the GSU.

There are over a hundred buildings on U of T’s three campuses, and many are in need of significant maintenance and renovation work. The 2012 Deferred Maintenance report estimated the university’s total deferred maintenance liability at $484 million. The report also estimated that U of T must spend $19 million a year to maintain the current conditions of its buildings. Last year, the Ontario government provided $3.2 million through its Facilities Renewal Program (FRP).


Deferring maintenance is simply not a good idea, said Tamer El-Diraby, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Civil Engineering. “This is maintenance that is needed. If you do it early, that means it’s going to be a small job. If you do it late, it’s going to be a bigger job and it will cost more.”

Evoy said the university’s Facilities & Services responded to the problem swiftly. “They jumped on it quite quickly; they checked it for asbestos, sealed off the area, and dealt with it.”

Deferred maintenance involves postponing maintenance activities because of a shortage of funds, and several organizations in the post-secondary education sector believe that funding pressures on universities are causing that gap to grow. “There’s been an endless cat-and-mouse game about deferred maintenance; the cat-and-mouse game is universities and colleges trying to get across to the government that if we don’t pay to keep these buildings up, it costs more for the taxpayers and the students and families in the long run,” said U of T president David Naylor in a recent interview with The Varsity.

Brad Duguid, minister of training, colleges, and universities, said that the province has funded universities at record levels since the Liberals took power in 2003. “Nobody can suggest for a second that this government hasn’t been there for the post-secondary education system when it comes to capital funding. I think we’ve got very significant results out of the investments that we’re making in post-secondary education.”


Why defer maintenance?


Ron Swail, U of T’s assistant vice-president of facilities services, said that there are a number of factors that determine whether a maintenance job is performed immediately or put off until later. “Immediate repairs would routinely be conducted if there is a risk to occupant or staff members’ health and safety,” said Swail, citing building accessibility and usability for teaching as other important factors.

U of T’s total assessed deferred maintenance and score on the Facilities Condition Index, a measure of building condition, have both increased significantly over the last few years — from a recent low of $257 million and 8.5 per cent respectively in 2007 to 14.3 per cent in 2012 (see graph 2 above). Deferred maintenance calculations do not include the federated colleges — Victoria, Trinity and St. Michael’s Colleges — which conduct their own maintenance.

Graeme Stewart, communications manager at the Ontario Confederation of University Associations (OCUFA), said that underfunding is affecting the quality of education and research at Ontario universities. “I think the bottom line is as these buildings age, and as they are not renewed, essentially everything that goes on in those buildings comes under threat.”

OCUFA’s 2012 Ontario Budget Brief called on the provincial government to raise direct maintenance funding to Ontario universities via the FRP from the current level of $17 million a year to an annual $200 million by 2015–2016. It also cited estimates from the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) that suggest that maintaining facilities in their current condition would require $380 million in funding per year over the next decade.

Duguid said those demands are unrealistic. “I think it’s a little fanciful to suggest that somehow the province can just wave a magic wand and come up with hundreds of billions of more dollars every year.”


Is there a funding problem?

Michael Kennedy, a media officer for U of T, said that the university acknowledges the funding pressures on the government. However, “the low level of funding for maintenance is an ongoing issue for the University and one that is regularly raised with the provincial government.”

Naylor said that what matters is not necessarily the dollar value of deferred maintenance, but “do we have a lot of deferred maintenance that is reasonably pressing, and what are prudent and sensible responses to get it fixed to avoid a crisis that affects student, faculty, and staff, or avoids needless expenditure? The answer is, we have a lot, we know how big the level is, but for many years it has been almost impossible to get the province to engage in a serious discussion about putting in play the funds to fix those problems.”
The university’s deferred maintenance reports suggest FRP funding has fallen, from a high of $4.7 million in 2010 (see graph 3 above). Jelena Damjanovic, a media relations assistant at the university, indicated that FRP funding fell because “the entire program was reduced by the province.  That is why the dollar share allocated to the University of Toronto fell.”

Duguid said that’s not necessarily the case. “The funding levels haven’t changed. Different institutions will get different amounts every year, based on their project submissions. So that’s a number that will fluctuate a little over time, but the Facilities Renewal Program, it fluctuates just based on projects that are submitted.”

The COU is an umbrella organization that links Ontario’s publicly funded universities and advocates on their behalf. COU president Bonnie Patterson is registered to lobby the provincial government on several subjects, including infrastructure, and the organization also retains Toronto firm Counsel Public Affairs Inc. The COU declined to make anyone available to comment for this story. Bob Lopinski, a principal at Counsel and a former senior official in the McGuinty government, said the firm does not discuss client matters publicly.

Duguid maintained that the government has shown its commitment to funding the province’s universities. “In all, since 2003, we’ve invested $3.1 billion in capital funding, and one-third of that, a billion dollars, was specifically targeted to renewal, repair, and modernization across the sector. U of T got a good share of the funding for much of that capital funding,” he said.


Can it be fixed?

The province has announced $800 million in capital funding for the next three years, though the ministry could not provide an estimate of how much of that money would be put towards new projects, and how much to maintenance spending.

Duguid said there are currently no plans for more capital spending once that money runs out. “In the near future, as we’re working to balance our books in the province over the next number of years, there is no plan at this point for additional new capital dollars,” he said. However, he emphasized that the province has already made significant improvements in funding for Ontario’s post-secondary universities.

U of T’s administration stressed that while funding pressures are a problem, the situation is under control. “While we are advocating for more funding, we are managing the situation,” said Damjanovic.

Swail acknowledged that this year’s report is likely to see a further rise in total deferred maintenance, although he emphasized that the university has made significant progress in tackling the most urgent projects. According to Swail, the total amount of “priority one” deferred maintenance items have decreased steadily for the past seven years, from approximately $76 million to just over $18 million (see graph 5 below).
With new construction projects underway on all three campuses, Evoy said the university needs to concentrate on fixing its existing structures. “It’s extremely worrying; I think that as a university we should be trying to not just build outwards and seem impressive, but maintain the structures and capacities that we have,” he said.

The next deferred maintenance report will be discussed at the Business Board meeting on January 27, 2014.

Saying goodbye to David Naylor

Outgoing U of T president discusses flat fees, fee diversion, favourite books, and his final thoughts as he says farewell

Saying goodbye to David Naylor

It has been eight years since David Naylor became president of U of T. He’s led the university in the midst of provincial funding cuts, a global recession, and seemingly endless battles with the students’ union. He will step down on October 31, and former Arts & Science dean Meric Gertler will take his place. I sat down with Naylor one more time for a 45-minute interview that lasted nearly an hour and a half, not counting the responses he emailed for the questions we didn’t have time to get to.


The Varsity: I know that provincial and federal funding is something that you’ve talked about for a long time, in terms of the university wanting more of it. If you could have any system you wanted right now, what would it look like?

David Naylor: We would be at the national average for student funding, at the minimum, and that alone would see probably on the order of $300 million of additional base funding; that’s how big the gap has become.


TV: And why are we below the average?

DN: This is a very challenging question to ever answer definitively. If you go back twenty years, you’ll find the province was already lagging in terms of post-secondary funding and, despite some positive steps in the early days of the Reaching Higher program the province adopted, there has been no real progress. It’s particularly puzzling because we are the national average on spending K-12 education, and the national average in terms of spending on health care. Yet we seem to have decided, somehow, that it’s okay to have a situation in which universities and colleges receive relatively less per student from other provinces. Indeed, so much less that if I were to move the University of Toronto’s operations to Edmonton or Calgary tomorrow, we would double our funding from the province, even after they’ve had their cuts.


TV: The province is considering amending the flat-fees structure, the proposal is, as of next year students taking 3.5 courses will be considered full-time, and as of 2015 students taking four courses or 80 per cent will be considered full-time. Do you think that these changes are positive? If so, why, and if not, what would be a better system?

DN: I think the changes are not evidence-based…what has not been established is that there are any ill effects from this approach, and by established I mean good strong evidence rather than the usual anecdote that carries the day in newspapers. When you look at the studies that were done by the Faculty of Arts & Science, with student representatives on those committees, we see quantitative evidence that shows the following:

We see faster times to completion, which is good for everybody. We see the funds that have been generated from the program fee approach have been redirected to improve student aid, which is also a good thing net and net no one ends up paying more as a result, when you consider both intensification and the additional student aid.

You see that extracurricular participation has not fallen one bit. You see that grade distribution, so far from going in the wrong direction, is actually showing positive changes. When you put all the evidence together, there’s really not a lot to say that program fees have had an adverse effect.

Would you advocate for the status quo? Do you think that there should be any change at the provincial level?

DN: Do I think the threshold should be four? No, I do not think that threshold is appropriate. Do I think the threshold could be 3 or 3.5? You can argue it either way, but to me if you’re going to do it, what I really would want to see from the standpoint of fairness is get the evidence as you proceed, step by step, to show that adverse effects are not occurring.


TV: U of T consistently ranks poorly on Maclean’s and other surveys that rank student life on campus. Do you think U of T has as strong a student life or sense of identity as Queen’s or Western? If so, why? If not, why not? 

DN: I take some consolation on these surveys from the reality that we have a more critically minded, and I think very smart, audience that may be more inclined to take a skeptical view than those who are happier to paint themselves purple or participate in rowdy Homecoming institutions.




TV: Can it all be attributed to that?

DN: No, of course not. I just wanted to get in that preliminary caveat before I answered your question. The surveys that I look at that give me some sense of encouragement are the NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] surveys. On NSSE, we’re up meaningfully over the last few years on five of the seven big domains, and stable on two others. So there’s no question that student life and student engagement are improving. The reality is that this is a major urban centre. We have a lot of students who commute and we know in all these surveys that commuting poses challenges in terms of spirit and solidarity. I do think that the continued improvement in athletics helps. I think that having a Student Commons will help.

I do think that U of T students are simply more academic and have a stronger orientation to a life of the mind than students at some other campuses. And we get accordingly a group who may be less inclined to go out and whoop it up at an athletic event or hang out at a local bar and have fun and who may be a little more likely to be hitting the books in a pretty demanding school and tending to focus on their academics a little more heavily — and I frankly get that and I admire it.


TV: Yes. Now you said the words ‘‘student commons,’’ so I have to ask: On the one hand you have Trinity, Engineering, and Victoria who want to leave. On the other hand you have the students’ union who doesn’t want them to leave. What is a potential compromise?

DN: I think that one has to ask what are some of the services that are sufficiently common across the campus that they might be provided by an umbrella entity and which are division specific to the extent that one might want to see them devolved and that thinking around functionality is one starting point. Another starting point for a compromise is to think about how good governance occurs and that means there has to be some sense that there is an umbrella body like UTSU, that it is responsive to the component divisions in a way that gives them a real sense of full participation in decisions that are made, and both those principles become a starting point for some intelligent compromises. Where this will end up is going to depend upon whether people are willing to find compromises in both directions.

It is the formal position at Victoria, Engineering, and Trinity that they feel there is no room to compromise and they want out. And a few weeks ago the St. George Round Table passed a motion endorsing the principle that if students have voted to leave in a fair referendum then they should be allowed to leave. And, as you know, the union is not responsive to these things. Online voting only got implemented in this election because Cheryl Misak basically threatened to cut off funding. How do you work with the union under these circumstances?

DN: I think it is fair to say that the administration is very unlikely to be comfortable with anything that doesn’t involve some sensible compromises on all sides and if there is no appetite for compromise then there will have to be some decision made by governance on the advice of the administration as to what a sensible and fair dispensation would be. There is no question we have heard very quickly the unhappiness of at least three major student groups on this campus. There is also no question, that we have watched years of challenges to electoral results and have had more than one student group through the years have similar concerns to those that have crystallized and been voted on now. All that is to say that no one should underestimate the resolve of the administration to see a fair resolution.

So I think you will find that we will be moderately patient, perhaps frustratingly so for those that want a fast resolution, and we are going to try and keep the conversation going and if at some juncture there is no resolution, we will act.


TV: The Varsity recently wrote a story about interest fees the university charges. U of T collects about $1.76 million dollars in interest fees from the St. George campus undergraduate students. I don’t think that’s much money for the administration, but I do think that’s a lot of money for your average student. Students get osap money twice during the year, but they have to pay their fees once during the year. So bearing in mind the different OSAP timelines and the pressure from the students’ union, do you think the current model needs to be altered, and if not, why? 

DN: First off, whatever the number is, any money in base that recurs is important to the institution. This is not a one-time amount of money, it’s a recurring amount of money, but much more important than the actual amount brought in on interest charges is the fact that if fees are not paid on a timely basis, there is a loss on the part of the institution. Like any other enterprise we have to continue to make payroll, deal with our expenses, and manage cash flow.


TV: Are there ways to do that without charging interest?

DN: Well it’s pretty hard not to charge interest because if the money isn’t in our hands we can’t put whatever money has been banked out to collect interest out from the banks. Remember that our money comes in in a couple of tranches, just like the money comes in from OSAP in a couple of tranches. We have to manage cash flow for the year. If we don’t invest the money that comes in we’re guilty of dereliction of the appropriate use of capital in our hands and that would be inappropriate and wasteful. One of the reasons interest is charged on these accounts is not some desire to gouge or to make a lot of money out of the interest per se, but rather to make sure we actually have people paying on a timely basis.


TV: Could U of T operate on a model where students pay once per semester? Other universities do.

DN: You have to look at each institution’s model to look at what works. As I see it, most institutions have some interest charges simply to ensure fees are paid on a timely basis. As I see it when a newspaper reports that this amounts to 19 per cent they are misrepresenting the reality and that no one is going to go a full year without paying their fees. When we have claims that these fees are a great burden when in fact they’re OSAP-eligible expenses, we also have some misperception.


TV: If I may though, the data does show that most people are sitting with it between OSAP disbursement periods.  

DN: So in that period they will see this as an expense and they will wait to be paid back, and I understand that that is something that rankles, I get it. It also rankles when anyone else gets a bill with an interest charge on it, which is why we pay them. I would love to see some sensible compromise that found everyone happy our fees are paid on a timely basis and students feeling as though they are also incentivized to do their share to pay.


TV: What is next?

DN: I will go back to the ranks and I will try to be helpful to the institution in any way I can. I will do some private sector work and I will do some non profit and charitable work and try to stay out of the way.


TV: Will you teach?

DN: I hope so. I love teaching, and I really enjoyed research. I would like to live that life again, but I will have to take a little time to see how feasible that is. I mean, I’ve been at it 14 years as a full-time academic administrator as dean of Medicine and president and the jury is out as to whether I can retool and be effective as a researcher again. I’d like to give that a try, but it may be too late — the neurons may have gone to sleep permanently.


TV: What is your favourite book?

DN: Mr Bumbletoes of Bimbleton… That’s a sentimental choice.  My grandparents on both sides were immigrants with limited education.  My mother was a gifted student, but neither she nor her three brothers attended university. My father was determined to be a medical researcher, and was the only one of six children in his family to attend university.  He arrived here at University College during the Depression without any family financial backing, and worked more or less full-time to support himself.  There was no student aid.  He made it as far as first-year Medicine, but couldn’t manage and dropped out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my parents gave their four children a house full of books and a strong sense that we should all pursue higher education as far as it would take us. Among those books, Mr Bumbletoes was my childhood favourite. I am sorry that my father did not live to see his old oak desk in the office of the dean of Medicine at U of T.


TV: Let me ask you one last question. If you came back to U of T 10 years from now, what would you hope the campus would look like?

DN: I would hope they were still amazingly diverse, with the fabulous mix of students we have here from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. I think one of the things that I feel best about is that we’ve had huge numbers of people over the last number of years work hard to promote a uniquely Canadian brand of accessible excellence here at U of T. I think it distinguishes us hugely from some of the Ivy League institutions with which we compete otherwise on the academic level, and I also think in the quality of our graduates — so I would want to see that same wonderful level of diversity. I would hope that we might on this campus have finally figured out a way to close down some of the traffic around King’s College Circle, so that this can be even more of a pedestrian space.

I’d love to see some of the new buildings that are planned up and thriving and full of terrific students and faculty and staff, and I’ll be watching all of those developments with great interest. East and West, I would be really excited to see more of a sense of research buildings that enable more graduate students and graduate studies to thrive as per the 2030 plan as well as the outworking of some of the great plans they have underway. For example, in Scarborough the development of the North campus with the remediated land around the Pan Am Centre is going to be incredibly exciting, and I think they will have made big progress a decade from now.

To the West, there’s infinite potential at the Mississauga campus and I can see any number of new programs emerging there that would again represent a change. They have an academcy of Medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Missisauga and Scarborough with academies of engineering or similar professional programs that are tied to St. George at some later date. I think the sense of a blend of all the historic architecture and all the facilities and greenspace is something that I hope will remain forever. It will always be a place I come back to with a sense of coming home.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

CUPE 3902 supports Canadian Federation of Students

Union representing education workers at U of T condemns movements to defederate from CFS

The attempts by students on several campuses across the country to decertify their unions from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) returned to the spotlight last week, after a letter from the executive of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE 3902) became public.

CUPE 3902 represents 7,000 education workers at U of T, including teaching assistants, lab demonstrators, PhD course instructors, and invigilators. The letter, sent by the union’s executive committee to its members, was made public on Friday on studentunion.ca.

The letter states that the executive committee has “decided to join our provincial union in supporting the CFS and urging our members to oppose efforts at defederation.” CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn denounced the decertification attempts in a September letter, calling them “union-busting.”

U of T’s Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) is one of the groups for which a decertification petition was circulated. That petition was spearheaded by Ashleigh Ingle, a former GSU executive who also served as recording secretary on the bargaining committee for CUPE 3902, Unit 1, during contract negotiations with the university in 2012. Ingle, along with then-chief spokesperson James Nugent, resigned from the committee to speak out against the settlement that was ultimately reached between the university and the union. Many members of the GSU are also members of CUPE 3902.

The letter from CUPE’s executive notes that both the GSU and CFS “have supported our Local when we needed support; both are partners in our ongoing struggle for better learning, working, and living conditions.”

In November 2011, CUPE 3902 members voted 91 per cent in favour of a strike after unsatisfactory negotiations with the university following the expiration of the existing collective agreement in April of that year. The ratification of an eventual agreement in February 2012 prevented a strike from taking place. The CFS did not take a position on the possibility of a strike at the time.

The letter from the executive committee acknowledges that “among the many members of CUPE 3902, there will be a variety of opinions regarding the defederation campaign,” and assures members that “those members who decide to support defederation will not face any resistance within the union and are entitled to have their voices heard and respected.”

On Thursday, the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) published an open letter calling on the CFS to acknowledge a decertification petition that the CSU claims was submitted by some of its members. The letter states that the federation has denied receiving the petition, but that the CSU is “in receipt of a certified true copy of the petition, as well as a registered mail certificate authenticating its receipt at the CFS national office.”

The letter also calls for the CFS National Executive “to review the submitted petition in good faith, and to set dates for a referendum on continued membership in the CFS.”

Where is the Liberals’ PSE plan?

Wynne government lacks clear policy despite eight months in office

Where is the Liberals’ PSE plan?

Last summer, the Ontario Liberal government released a widely criticized discussion paper addressing the future of post-secondary education (PSE) in the province. Almost a year ago — in a rare show of campus unity — faculty, administration, and student leaders came together to critique the proposal at a town hall organized by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

The Varsity was among those criticizing the lack of foresight and blatant financial motives of the discussion paper entitled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge.”



In the year that has passed since that town hall, the discussion paper has mercifully faded from the scene — while the faces involved in the discussion of provincial PSE have changed. Premier Kathleen Wynne, a former minister of education, has replaced Dalton McGuinty. University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) alumnus Brad Duguid has taken over for Glen Murray as Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU). Cheryl Misak, who spoke for the administration at the town hall, has been succeeded as U of T’s provost by former vice-provost, academic, Cheryl Regehr. U of T president David Naylor, who presented the university’s strongly worded response arguing for U of T’s special place in Ontario’s PSE landscape, is set to give way to Meric Gertler, former dean of Arts & Science.

New faces have not, however, brought with them a new plan. One of Duguid’s first acts as TCU minister was to meet with the St. George Round Table, a group composed of the heads of various college governments at U of T. In a candid moment, Duguid admitted that the Wynne government had not yet decided what form PSE policy would take. There would be a policy, he promised — it would just take time.

Duguid and the Wynne government have now had eight months to formulate their PSE strategy, but students and university administrators across the province have yet to hear it. In the meantime, the Progressive Conservative (PC) opposition under Tim Hudak has released its own white paper, an ideological polemic that would remove tuition limits from elite research universities and tie financial aid to academic performance. While the PC’s plan may be even worse than the Liberal’s last attempt, the lack of a counter-proposal from the new Liberal government is worrying.

The academic landscape has not waited for Duguid and his ministry to make up their minds. Access Copyright, ancillary fees, academic freedom and research funding, flat fees, online education — all are more prominent issues now than they were when Duguid took over from Murray in February of this year.

Unfortunately, in the eight months since the government promised a plan, little has been accomplished. Duguid announced that tuition increases would be capped at three per cent, a compromise between universities’ demands for a five per cent limit and calls from student leaders to halt further increases. While that move came as a disappointment to many, it was more conciliatory than might have been expected. At least the minister showed that he understands the need to balance the high cost of an education with the need of universities to fund themselves. At the time, Duguid also promised to change tuition payment timelines to ensure that students who receive OSAP or other forms of financial aid would no longer be forced to pay interest on late tuition payments simply because their assistance did not arrive in time. The minister repeated on Thursday that he thinks the interest is unfair, after UTSU director Ben Coleman’s recent research showed that U of T students continue to pay those penalties. This time, Duguid told us to expect policy change by December, which may sound familiar to those who remember last April.

In an interview with The Varsity last month, the minister also promised to look into the issue of flat fees, a controversial policy under which U of T charges students for five full-course equivalent (FCE) credits if they take any more than two FCEs in a given academic year. Duguid said he was convinced that flat fees should be reviewed after meeting with representatives of the UTSU and Canadian Federation of Students. While welcome, Duguid’s announcement was decidedly short on specifics. It also failed to address the reality that students in certain professional programs actually benefit from a flat-fee system, as student leaders from the Faculty of Engineering have often pointed out.

Last February, student leaders revealed that U of T had charged ancillary fees that violated the province’s regulations. While U of T conceded on some points and discontinued a few fees, the bulk of the issue has not been settled. U of T and several students’ unions are still at odds over whether a long list of fees are legal. U of T has not offered to refund students, even for the fees that it admits should not have been charged. The number of ancillary fees has actually increased, most notably in the Faculty of Music. Meanwhile, the ministry in charge of regulating these fees has had almost nothing to say.

On a number of other PSE issues that require government action, Wynne’s Liberals have stayed frustratingly quiet. U of T’s arrangement with Coursera, an educational technology company offering open online courses, has produced decidedly mixed results. Provincial research funding has been falling for years, while the federal government has started offering grants with strings attached. Issues created by previous Liberal governments, like the gutting of the work-study program and the limited eligibility for McGuinty’s 30 per cent tuition grant, have also gone unconsidered.

Consultation, we are told, is the key to Wynne’s political style, and Duguid has implemented his boss’ mantra to good effect. As minister, he has met with student groups and representatives across the province and on multiple campuses. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and the urge to consult with everyone has turned into a shield for the Liberals to hide behind. The party’s new “Common Ground” website campaign seeks to crowdsource ideas from Ontarians in developing its policy platform, with the promise that suggestions from the public will be considered for an impending election. If the Liberals are hoping to gain support by saying the right things and doing nothing, we hope that students will prove their strategy wrong. Students may be convinced to vote for a party which does good things for PSE, but not for a party that promises good things and fails to deliver.

Duguid recently took to Twitter to declare his pride that U of T is number one in Canada on the QS world university rankings. If the minister and the Wynne government want this university, and Ontario’s other post-secondary institutions, to maintain their reputations, they need to address these issues. Talk is cheap, and we are tired of waiting.

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

GSU working with administration to improve system

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

Being a U of T student can be extremely stressful: endless readings, difficult tests, and the pressure of that seemingly omnipresent question: what’s next? Many stressed students seek support from the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office. CAPS, which is housed in the Koffler Student Services Centre, attempts to provide students with adequate resources to overcome mental health problems and successfully pursue their academic goals. Services include one-on-one counselling sessions, as well as group workshops that deal with topics like stress and time management. Their effectiveness, however, has been consistently criticized by student leaders, particularly due to long wait times for students.

“A major concern with CAPS is the sheer number of folks that need to utilize the services. They are in waiting lists forever, and when they need that service, they need it promptly. That is simply not happening now,” claims Brad Evoy, internal commissioner of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). Janine Robb, executive director of Health and Wellness Services at U of T, cited underfunding and “wasted appointments” as contributors to the delays. “We get students who make appointments and then don’t show up. Then we don’t have an opportunity to fill it in.”

Demand for mental help has increased as campaigns advocating destigamization of mental health have become more widespread across Canada and internationally. Next month, for example, U of T will be hosting a variety of workshops as part of mental health awareness month. In addition, Blue Space and Green Dot are permanent campaigns which aim to destigmatize mental distress and sexual assault respectively, while promoting an openly communicative atmosphere.

Still, U of T psychology professor John Vervaeke says that “There is such a stigmatization [around mental health]. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt if there is a physical illness but there is a lot more suspicion surrounding mental issues, and a lot more resistance to accepting it.”

The intangible nature of mental distress, uncharacteristic of physical illness, is a major contributor to CAPS’ lack of accessibility. For example, to discern the student’s needs, a screening session via phone is necessary before counselling can take place. “There are two groups of people: the student who doesn’t have a mental health issue and is overwhelmed, and then there’s the student who does,” says Robb. “Everybody has this idea that their emotional experience needs to have an individual counselling session, and that’s not always the case.”

In some cases, those who end up receiving counselling need to wait a long time in between sessions and are unsatisfied with their services. Melissa Beauregard, former head of arts at Trinity College, cited these as the main reasons for not referring her students to CAPS. Instead, she led them to their dean of students, an alternative for undergraduates seeking help. Beauregard described the administration as “incredibly supportive.”

A student suffering from schizophrenia, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed similar sentiments: “In my case, there was a willingness to modify the curriculum and allow me to complete the course… U of T will find ways to still assist you in completing your year.” After disclosing his illness to professors, he found support and an openness to discuss his illness through academic work. “School fostered an environment where I could self-analyze and develop myself…it has been a maturing and healing process,” he says.

While mental health training for faculty is not currently mandatory at the university, it is something Robb hopes “will get traction” as more attention is brought to these issues.

But while some students’ perspective on CAPS remains bleak, the prospect for change does not. The GSU is taking proactive steps by forming a mental health committee that will work with the administration to mitigate these accessibility issues. “I’m very optimistic … so far we’ve had a positive response from Health and Wellness, who are willing to work closely with us to improve the system,” said Evoy

Robb listed the creation and expansion of various venues for students to get help, such as a drop-in counselling program at Hart House and New College, a student-run peer substance abuse program in New College, and a positive psychology workshop starting in January. In addition, there is an active effort to build strong partnerships at CAMH, so that students in need of extensive care “receive it at the right time and for the right amount.”

As for the criticisms, Robb says: “I could hire more counsellors, but I would still have a wait list because there will always be more [students needing help]. We need to promote health. Rather than being reactive, let’s be proactive.”

Over 3,000 signatures collected to hold referendum on leaving CFS, say graduate student organizers

Referendum, if approved by CFS executive, will take place in March 2014

Over 3,000 signatures collected to hold referendum on leaving CFS, say graduate student organizers

Student activists at the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) have collected over 3,000 signatures requesting that the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFS-O) hold a referendum on decertification this March according to petition leader Ashleigh Ingle. On the morning of September 19, a petition asking the CFS-O to hold the referendum was received at the federation’s offices. According to a receipt provided to The Varsity, the package was signed for at 11:53 am by Ashkon Hashemi. Ashleigh Ingle, a former GSU executive mailed the provincial petition and is calling for a decertification vote that is expected to take place March 2014.

According to CFS-O bylaws, had to be received by the provincial office by September 24. Another petition must be sent separately to the CFS’ national office, where it must be received before the next national Annual General Meeting. Ingle, a graduate student at U of T who has been spearheading the petition drive, stated that the petition has surpassed the 20 per cent threshold required to trigger a referendum this year. This includes the signatures of over 3,000 GSU members.“There has been a huge amount of support from GSU members in response to this petition,” says Ingle, “This is the largest mandate provided by this membership to date, so the message is clear.”

Ingle is working with student organizers across Canada, who are engaged with similar movements to leave the CFS. Brendan Lehman, a graduate student leading the effort at Laurentian, said he had also sent a petition to CFS-O via Canada Post. “Many were shocked at how out of touch the CFS is, considering the amount they pay them every year. Personally, I am optimistic about eventual decertification,” he said. Alastair Woods, chairperson of CFS-O confirmed that the package from Ingle had been received but stated that, to his knowledge, Lehman’s package had not. According to the CFS bylaws, after a petition is received there is a period of validation where it is confirmed that it meets the specified 20 per cent threshold. At this point, the national executive is presented with the petition and is responsible for striking a committee to set a date for the referendum. The chief returning officer, appointed by the CFS, is responsible for executing the vote.

According to Ingle, 15 student unions are organizing to leave the CFS. Brent Farrington, CFS internal coordinator, cast doubt on that claim, stating that: “The people who are making the allegations are still not saying where this is alleged to be happening.” Unconfirmed reports from Laurentian allege that Anna Goldfinch, national executive representative of CFS-O, as well as other CFS executives, were present at Laurentian this week to work against decertification efforts. On allegations of counter-campaigns by the CFS, Farrington would only say: “The national executive does not have a motive to discuss these things until we have received an initiative from the membership.” In the coming months students will be engaged in conversation on the type of organization they would prefer to participate in, says Ingle, “We’ve followed the bylaws, we’ve collected the thousands of signatures, and it’s time for the CFS to allow democracy to occur.”

The CFS does not work for students

Should U of T groups defederate from the CFS?

The CFS does not work for students

The ongoing campaign by some members of various CFS locals to decertify from the federation has recently received considerable attention. The CFS, or Canadian Federation of Students, presents itself as a nationwide body that provides a platform for student groups to have their collective voices heard on a national scale. However, there have been ongoing issues with the body that are now finally coming to a head. The basic concept of the federation is a positive and desirable one. However, given the obvious geographical and cultural challenges of accounting for the needs of all Canadian students, as well as its lack of financial transparency, local groups are certainly wise to defederate and move towards a more efficient system.

After reading a number of articles related to the issue, the most pertinent issue raised was the lack of information given by the CFS in regards to its salaries. Brandon Clim, a money blogger, has published the CFS’ budget for 2014. Yet again, despite numerous campaigns, salaries are not accounted for. Given that the CFS is supported by student fees, to a total of over $4 million in 2012, financial transparency ought to be the primary concern.

Along with the obvious financial issues, it is also impossible to assume that every campus across the country could possibly be accounted for on a national scale. The CFS represents around 80 universities across the country, but almost half are located in Ontario. With little representation from the prairies and the East Coast, it is inevitably unequal, opening the debate as to the extent that non-Ontario schools are represented. In fact, the CFS is so far removed from the daily routines of student groups that they were “shocked” when informed that decertification petition drives had been launched for many of their local affiliates.

In the process of decertification alone, the almost absurd amount of associated bureaucracy proves the inefficiency of the entire system. It seems as though the mere act of certifying, decertifying, and making change within the system through alternative, less aggressive measures places the entire political structure in peril. The cost of lawsuits was also absent from the published budget. If the CFS is spending more time defending it’s presence than providing a presence at all, it is a redundant system, which ought to be removed from the political framework.

The CFS holds that the potential loss of 15 local groups across the country would weaken the overall message and tarnish the institution. But it seems, given the uproar, a lack of transparency and failure to equally represent Canadian universities has not justified the CFS in its collection of annual tuition fees. Unless a major overhaul is enacted, the CFS ought to be replaced with a more efficient system that can represent students’ needs more effectively.

Olivia Forsyth-Sells is studying English and philosophy.