With the UTSU Executive and Board of Director elections on the horizon, much has been made around campus of hot button topics like online voting and the possible secession of Trinity College, St. Michael’s College, and the Faculty of Engineering from the union. These moves to exit the union come as a result of its failure to implement a number of reform recommendations in time for the impending elections. This political power-play has diminished the amount of attention given to many important issues that affect student life at U of T on a daily basis.
One such pressing issue is that of student housing. Those running to lead the students’ union should consider how the UTSU can lobby more effectively to ensure that current residences on campus continue to provide enough affordable spaces to house a massive undergraduate population in the city, while also improving the overall quality of residence life on campus. In addition, it’s time to get moving on plans to provide more residence space so that more students can live on campus, improving their university experience and connection to U of T.
Affordability and accessibility are two major issues facing the university’s current student housing offerings. Residence fees across the St. George campus, which often include mandatory meal plans, can run in excess of $10,000, while students attending York University, a school of comparable size, are able to purchase flex-meal plans with more affordable options available. The union could begin lobbying to make residence more affordable by voicing complaints and calling for residential fee changes.
High residence costs are an obvious financial barrier to many students, and an important accessibility issue. Student who are forced by financial circumstances to commute to school spend valuable hours each day in transit and often find it more difficult to get involved and feel connected to their university. Many people on campus are increasingly concerned about student apathy at U of T, and there is a clear but often unnoticed connection between this problem and the low portion of our student body who can live in residence.
The second issue that needs to be addressed is that of the availability and suitability of university-affiliated off-campus housing, specifically the Chestnut Residence located near Dundas and University. Originally envisioned as a spill-over residence building fashioned from a converted hotel, Chestnut residents are faced with relatively long commutes compared to those students living in residences on campus while also having to pay fees of $12,000 or more.
Our student population increases each year but residence availability does not. So far U of T has barely been playing catch-up; it’s time to get ahead of the curve.
The university’s most recent attempt to add a new campus residence on College Street was shot down by Toronto City Council after it became clear that the neighbourhood would not be amenable to the proposed high-rise, glass and steel building. It is imperative that the UTSU push the university to seek new opportunities to open residential spaces on campus that will meet the demand imposed by students, fit in with our urban neighbourhoods, and incorporate innovative residence design. Apartment-style residences are among the most popular, while traditional dormitories are increasingly seen as out of date. U of T doesn’t need another box full of boxes; it needs student residence communities that will foster a vibrant campus culture.
With an estimated 85 per cent of students U of T commuting to the university’s three campuses on a daily basis, the addition of new, affordable options for residential life must be an issue of focus this election cycle.
Alec Wilson studies history and American studies.