The University of Toronto Students’ Union, which represents over 41,000 students at the St. George and Mississauga campuses is an organization appreciated for its services, but often resented for its politics. Past critics of UTSU have cited issues of communication, transparency, accountability, and even ideology that have left many students — especially on the St. George campus — feeling alienated. Last year, some college council representatives, particularly at St. Mike’s and University College, talked openly about de-federation. This year brings with it a new UTSU executive and an opportunity to tackle these past criticisms. Here are some practical suggestions for what UTSU could do to improve itself this year:
1) Build a better relationship with St. George Colleges: Last year’s Annual General Meeting was a tense affair with representatives from St. George College councils critiquing UTSU for lack of communication during Homecoming and questioning the transparency of Health and Dental Plan administration. UTSU should continue to liaise with the St. George Roundtable, a committee of college council presidents, and ensure that the concerns of all of the colleges are addressed. Representatives from UTSU should sit in on college council meetings and meetings of the St. George Roundtable to tackle issues of mutual concern.
2) Improve the Annual General Meeting: Aside from college council critiques, the Annual General Meeting was not well advertised. The AGM is an opportunity for all of UTSU’s membership to meet and discuss the policies, by-laws, and budget of the union. Large posters should appear across campus advertising the AGM at least a month in advance. Leaflets should be distributed to explain how students and college councils can place items on the AGM agenda, and how to collect proxies for absentee members.
3) Re-think the Drop Fees campaign: The Varsity, the Strand, and the Newspaper reported a low turnout for last year’s Drop Fees rally on November 5. Rather than lobbying for a blanket tuition freeze, the campaign should focus on university services that have been reduced. For example, sweeping changes proposed to the Arts and Science faculty at U of T such as the downsizing of area studies courses and the amalgamation of several different departments has U of T students concerned that they are paying more for less. Perhaps a series of organized campaigns directed at U of T protesting these program cuts would be a better approach than an afternoon of protest against the Government of Ontario?
4) Better election notices: Elections have always been a contentious affair at U of T, mainly due to the lack of voter turnout. For example, current president Adam Awad received 4,152 votes while his competitor Steve Masse received 2,977, in a potential voter pool of 41,000 students. In most democracies such a number would be unacceptable. UTSU must go beyond notices in student newspapers. With students continually occupied with essays and midterms there’s no such thing as too much notice. Once again, large posters should be distributed around campus, advertising fall and spring elections. Non-partisan volunteers could also be used to motivate students to attend debates and vote. Even a town hall on elections and student governance would be a good idea as this could provide a forum for information and improvement of the elections process.
5) Interact more with the student body: One of the best ways to ensure involvement is to interact more with students on campus. During campaign season, some voters complained that elected student officials were only visible at major events like the Drop Fees rally, or when a controversy of some sort emerged. For UTSU to affect change in the way they hope to, students will have to feel engaged and involved in the process. The general consensus is that UTSU hasn’t done enough to make this the case. An election poster should never be the first time a student learns the name or face of their elected representatives.
6) Empower student clubs: While UTSU has tried to take the lead on a number of social justice and community initiatives, students rely on them to be primarily a service-based organization. With that said, the union leading the way on campaigns that require a lot of energy and organizing may take away from time and resources required to deal with their other administrative responsibilities. To correct this, UTSU should support student clubs and organizations with similarly aligned goals — and, quite frankly, more commitment and expertise — to organize relevant events and campaigns.