The University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU) hosted an emergency town hall on education Tuesday in the McLeod Auditorium. UTSU president Shaun Shepherd, provost Cheryl Misak, and University of Toronto Faculty of Association (UTFA) president Scott Prudham led the discussion, with UTSU vice president-university affairs Munib Sajjad moderating.

The “emergency” at hand was the Ontario government’s summer discussion paper, “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge.” Issued by Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities Glen Murray, the paper suggests changes to post-secondary education in the province “the likes of which haven’t been seen in over 60 years,” according to a UTSU pamphlet advertising the town hall.

The paper recommends three-year degrees, year-round classes, standardized first- and second-year courses across Ontario, and the movement of up to 60 per cent of undergraduate courses online.

Murray had initially planned to attend the event, but reversed that decision after his office was informed by the UTSU that he would not be permitted to speak.

During his opening remarks, Shepherd said he did not want the panellists to take up speaking time intended for students to express their opinions concerning the paper.

Panellists and speakers were broadly critical of the discussion paper. “This paper contains some pretty bad proposals for undergraduate education,” said Misak, “but in each of these proposals, there is a good side.”

While Misak criticized the proposal for three-year undergraduate degrees, she alluded to an optional program in which students could do their degree in five years, divided between a three-year bachelor’s degree and a two-year masters.

Misak also previewed an agreement, expected to be announced next week, that would make it easier to transfer credits between a consortium of Ontario universities.

UTFA president Prudham criticized the proposal’s apparent lack of concern for research, as well as the absence of any mention of academic freedom. Prudham was also skeptical of the paper’s call for greater “productivity” in the post-secondary sector, which, Prudham and other speakers explained, has already been forced to do more with less. Prudham also slammed the paper for adopting a view of universities as factory-like institutions for training future workers.

“It’s good news that the minister has asked for input,” Prudham said, “but bad news, because he really needs it.”

Shepherd’s remarks were brief and mostly explanatory, though he did touch on the Murray’s absence.

Around 100 students were given an hour and a half to comment on the proposal. Topics of discussion ranged from transfer credits to summer employment, to physical and mental health at Ontario universities. The atmosphere remained calm and civil, with the room at only about half capacity.

The UTSU will synthesize the opinions expressed during the town hall into an official submission to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. The Ministry is accepting institutional and individual input on the discussion paper until September 30.

For a full report on the discussion, as well as exclusive interviews with minister Glen Murray and provost Cheryl Misak, check out our next issue, on stands October 1. 

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