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Music students asked to approve 80-fold increase in fees

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The Faculty of Music is asking its students to approve a steep $1,200 levy increase to help close a $1.5 million budget shortfall. Administrators say that without the increase, the faculty will be unable to meet “the typical yet extraordinary costs of providing international-quality professional training and research programs in music” and has warned of cutbacks in staff and course offerings.

“I cannot emphasize enough how critical a positive response to the referendum question is for our future sustainability,” said dean Don McLean in an open letter. “We are currently in a position where we cannot move forward with hires and cannot expand or enhance any of our program offerings without showing a more stable financial trajectory.”

Provincial policy prevents the faculty from abruptly raising tuition fees by amounts as large as that proposed. Consequently, McLean’s administration has been forced to ask students to approve the increase as a student society fee, which would then be siphoned to faculty bank accounts. The increase would mean a steep, 80-fold raise from the current fee of $15 (based on a fee of $7.5 per semester for the fall and winter semesters). This unusual approach requires students to vote on approving the increase before it can be charged.

The faculty held two open forums on January 17 and 24 to explain and discuss the situation with students.

The Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association declined to comment on the fee increase. McLean’s letter indicated that the association would remain neutral on the question of whether to approve the increase while it was hosting the referendum.

In his letter, McLean says emphatically that even with the proposed increase, students enrolled in U of T’s Music Faculty will be receiving a world-class education cheaper than at comparable institutions: music students at McGill pay nearly $9,000 a year, while for those at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School, the figure is closer to $20,000.

The effects of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote were discussed at the student forums held in January. Administrators painted a grim picture for the faculty if the increase is not approved: there would be an inability to hire staff; class would grow in size and decrease in diversity of offerings, leaving only the most basic of courses intact ­— a bare minimum of theory, history, and ensemble; the faculty would be forced to accept enrollment in classes from anyone in the university, not only those specially admitted to the program through a rigorous procedure involving auditions.

Even if it is approved, the fee increase will only bring the faculty halfway to its goal. McLean has committed to seeking other ways to contain costs and increase revenues. “We are making progress,” wrote McLean in his letter. “I am confident that the combination of these ongoing efforts in conjunction with a winning referendum from our students will allow us to flourish.”

The administration’s chosen approach to solving the faculty’s financial woes has been met with a stable, if quiet response. “Only a relatively small percentage of the undergraduate student population was present,” said McLean, referring to the town hall events. “I am naturally concerned that the message gets out.”

“The dean’s proposal to raise the money through a three-year increase is, in my opinion, a sound proposal,” said Paolo Griffin, a fourth-year student at the faculty.

Griffin said that a major concern with the faculty in its current situation is that it is being forced to accept more students than it normally would to offset operational costs. “As a result of the influx of students,” says Griffin, “there are not enough teachers to go around, or at least, the teachers are being saddled with too many students.”

“In my opinion the tuition hike is a necessity if U of T’s Faculty of Music wishes to continue being among the top music schools in the country,” says Griffin.

One option raised by a student at one of the forums was a grandfathering or phasing-in option. According to the faculty, a phasing-in option is probable for the final question that will be posed by the referendum. Students will likely be voting on approval of a three-year contract to pay in increments per annum, until they reach the $1,200 target; so students would pay $600 the first year, $900 the second, and $1,200 the third year. But the grandfathering option may not be possible because current students may not be able to vote on decisions that only affect incoming students.

Another student proposed that instead of a levy, students could help relieve the faculty of its operating deficit by contributing any money earned at gigs and through fundraising events. The faculty responded, saying that students could make donations if they wish, but the faculty could not force students to give  up money earned from outside work like gigs. As for fundraising, the faculty hosts galas and performances, but the money raised through these means would not be nearly enough to cover the
amount needed.

One issue raised at the student forum concerned fourth-year students voting, because the consequences of either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote would not affect them. The faculty acknowledges these concerns, but says no students can be prevented from voting in the referendum in order for it to be considered legitimate.

“It may upset some to know that students who are not affected by the hike get to vote, but these same people also have to trust that these students won’t simply vote ‘yes’ for the sake of it,” says Griffin. “Every person will vote according to what he or she thinks is right, graduating or not. So while it’s understandable that students may be frustrated, I believe that we should be allowed to, since it is and was our school too.”

The faculty said should the levy pass, its priorities are to retrofit the MacMillan Theatre, fix practice rooms, finally gather enough money to run the McLaughlin Planetarium, and hopefully attract more donors, who are less likely to give if they see financial problems within the faculty.

“The upcoming student society referendum represents a significant turning point in the future of the faculty,” McLean concludes in his letter. “Its consequences, one way or the other, will be critical for our path forward together.”