The upcoming Student Societies Summit is causing increased tension among the parties concerned. Student representatives, including the heads of student government from each college and the Engineering Society (EngSoc), have been invited to discuss referenda by the Trinity College Meeting (TCM), Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), and EngSoc, among other topics. The referenda called for the diversion of student fees, currently being paid to UTSU, to their respective student societies. The UTSU considers the referenda illegitimate.

Announced on September 12,  the summit will bring together representatives from over 20 student groups, as well as those from the factulty and administration. Student leaders have expressed varying degrees of confidence in the summit’s potential.

UTSU president Munib Sajjad is concerned about those student groups who were not invited to attend, including clubs who would be directly affected by fee diversion, and campus-wide unions such as the Association of Part Time Undergraduate Students’ Union (APUS). Although those groups will have the opportunity to make written submissions, Sajjad feels their absence will have a real impact: “Statements only go so far” he said, adding: “I feel there’s real value in having everyone in the room.” Of those student groups who will have an in person presence on October 7, many remain skeptical of the summit’s ability to affect change.

Mauricio Curbelo, president of EngSoc, holds the same position he has held since the referendum: he wants the UTSU fees diverted. Among numerous complaints, Curbelo is concerned about the significant cost that the UTSU maintains by having a salaried staff. “Engineering students made their wish clear in our referendum,” he said, “They would rather have services and representation provided by a more local organization that doesn’t spend 50 percent of its budget on salaries — one that is made up of actual students who understand what their life is like, rather than paid staffers and lifetime professional activists.”

Ashkan Azimi, President of New College Student Council (NCSC), on the other hand, finds the notion of college governments wanting to take on the UTSU’s job problematic. He understands the concerns of the various student societies who want to defederate due to endemic complaints about the union. However, he points out that UTSU staff are full time employees who have copious resources at their disposal. It would be misguided, he argues, for any organization to try to take on the union’s responsibilities without an analogous infrastructure.

“UTSU is composed of many full time employees, as well as a slew of volunteers,” he says. “They have all these resources at their disposal, and for these student societies, such as the NCSC, for us to want to tackle such tasks without having that administrative and financial backbone is very naive to me.”

At least some of the defederating colleges do not seem to have a clear idea of what sort of changes they would effect if the UTSU’s funds were redirected to them. “What we have decided to do is to take this year as a reflection and planning period,” said Zack Medow, vice-president, external, when asked what VUSAC’s policy plans are in the event that defederation is approved. “Those sorts of questions are going to be asked over the course of the year,” said Medow, adding that he would submit any final plan to the students of Victoria College at the end of this year.

Trinity and the EngSoc have more definite plans for this year. The EngSoc compiled a comprehensive report detailing the UTSU’s services and explaining for each one either how the EngSoc could provide it or why it is unnecessary. The document is similar to one prepared at Trinity. It revolves mainly around the contention that defederation could save engineering students the fees currently being paid to UTSU’s salaried employees, as EngSoc is staffed entirely by student volunteers.

Benjamin Crase, co-head of Trinity College, agrees. “Trinity students understand that they see a terrible return for the fees they pay the UTSU,” he said. “Since the majority of student fees go towards paying their salaries and overhead costs, such dissatisfaction is not surprising. At Trinity, we believe that student volunteers, who have a vested interest in their fellow students, should run our
student government.”

Some student governments have taken a decidedly ambivalent stance on the issue. The St. Michael’s College Student Union, (SMCSU), for instance, has weighed the potential advantages and disadvantages of diverting fees from the UTSU. Alex Zappone, president of the SMCSU, acknowledges that some criticisms of the union may be  valid. “I can say on behalf of SMCSU, most bodies would of course have issues with the UTSU, but are largely concerned with developing St. Mikes and haven’t spend too much time on it,” he says. He added that he is curious to see what the results of the summit will be, and that while St. Mikes’ has considered fee diversion, no final decision, one way or the other, has been made.

Professor Joe Desloges, who will serve as chair of the summit, expressed hope that all parties will enter discussions with an open mind, willing to seek a possible middle ground. However, the issue of whether or not paid staff are a wasted expense or a necessary resource for providing student services seems to be one on which student leaders disagree.

The first meeting of the Summit will take place on October 7 from 3:00 to 5:00 pm in Simcoe Hall in the Governing Council chambers.

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