Last March, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), Trinity College, and the Engineering Society (EngSoc) initiated independent referenda and voted to sever financial ties with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). In May 2013, U of T vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak issued a letter to student leaders. In the letter, Misak made clear that the remittance of fees from the UTSU to individual colleges or faculties was not possible under the existing university policy. She further encouraged student bodies to negotiate an agreement on outstanding issues related to fee diversion.
Since that time, talks between Trinity, Victoria, the EngSoc, and the UTSU have yielded little progress; the impasse has prompted the university administration to suspend approval of the much-anticipated Student Commons building, pending an resolution.
In September, provost Cheryl Regehr announced a Student Societies Summit in an effort to facilitate discussion and resolve the fee diversion dispute. The summit will take place October 7 from 3 – 5 pm. Highlighted below are a number of topics likely to be discussed.
UTSU Electoral Policy
Debate over the UTSU’s electoral policy has been fierce. In the past year, it has focused chiefly on online voting and its implementation.
The St. George Round Table, a forum of college and faculty student leaders, backed a “non-partisan declaration” early last year, calling for a clearer UTSU electoral policy. The declaration requested that accessibility of the elections be improved through the implementation of an online voting system, that the accuracy of elections be improved by the implementation of a preferential ballot, and that accountability be strengthened by changing the way that nominations occur and by bolstering oversight of the historically powerful Chief Returning Officer (CRO).
Early last year, amendments were proposed to the UTSU electoral policy in an effort to implement online voting. The amendments failed, however, to make the agenda of the UTSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). The UTSU pointed out that its bylaws made it impossible for it to add the amendments to the agenda at the time they were requested.
At a subsequent Special General Meeting (SGM), a non-binding motion calling for the implementation of online voting was passed. It was not, however, presented thereafter as an electoral policy recommendation to the UTSU Board of Directors. According to UTSU bylaws, the motion came too late to be added by the Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) as an amendment to the electoral code for consideration by the UTSU’s board of directors.
The board meeting did, however, see the adoption of clarifications to the UTSU’s electoral policy. These clarifications reflected recommendations from a legal opinion of UTSU electoral procedures, which the union commissioned in the spring.
The UTSU Board of Directors voted this month to offer online voting for its upcoming October byelection. Voting will be conducted through an external online service called Simply Voting, and will be available from 9 am–6 pm. While many are pleased with the development, some leaders remain concerned that the restrictions placed on online voting hours unreasonably limit accessibility.
The UTSU is responsible for advocating on behalf of its members to the university’s administration, lobbying provincial and municipal governments, and participating in broader socio-political activism.
Some of the UTSU’s endeavours have garnered praise; in 2008, the union supported a campaign to eliminate bottled water from the university, which was completed in 2011. In 2012, the UTSU organized a rally as part of the National Day of Action, in protest against rising tuition fees. In addition, the UTSU continues to promote consent and equity through the No Means No and Say What You Mean campaigns.
Other initiatives have been met with criticism. The UTSU’s decision to ban men’s issues awareness clubs ignited a debate over the right to free speech on campus. The UTSU’s stance on the Sri Lankan conflict in 2009 sparked questions over whether the UTSU should concentrate on problems it can influence and that pertain specifically to students, or whether it is important for it to take a position on political affairs, engaging students and upholding its mission statement.
Students wishing to propose issues on which they think the UTSU should focus have access to the AGM, their representative on the Board of Directors, and any number of the UTSU’s five commissions (Academic & Student Rights, Campus Life, Community Action, Social Justice & Equity, and Sustainability). Anyone can voice their concerns at commission meetings, which help the UTSU to gauge student interest in any given topic. In spite of this, the UTSU has been accused of ineffectively advertising the dates and times of commission meetings. The Board of Directors meets around once per month. It is the responsibility of individual representatives to encourage submissions from the student body they represent.
The UTSU’s budgeting process has eight stages, and is audited externally. In recent years, the UTSU has taken measures to increase transparency; the 2012-2013 revised budget is available online. However, privacy and contractual restrictions prevent the UTSU from disclosing the salaries of its full-time staff. The matter of paid staff and the executive stipend, which combined totalled $335,220 in 2012-2013, has been a point of contention. UTSU executives work up to 16 hours a day, and their stipend is often their sole source of income. Most students recognize the need to compensate the executives, but believe there should be more volunteer positions. Currently, UTSU executives are only permitted to take 1.0 Full Course Equivalent (FCE) per semester, which has caused disputes over both their statuses as students and their eligibility to represent student interests.
In 2010-2011, the UTSU spent $194,486 on clubs and subsidies, while in 2011-2012, this figure was $118,774. With these statistics in mind, the EngSoc, Victoria, and Trinity prepared reports in February 2013, in which they claimed to be able to replicate services, increase funding to clubs, and reduce overhead costs in the event that student fees currently paid to the UTSU were diverted to their respective societies.
Part of the premise behind fee diversion is to give colleges and faculties more control over the services they fund, which could be more specific to their individual needs. Under the current arrangement, all students pay $17.34 per semester, for a total annual levy of approximately $1,350,000, to the UTSU. Had all of the societies that held referenda voted in favour of severing financial ties and left the UTSU, that levy would be reduced by approximately $331,194. Trinity, Victoria, and the EngSoc reported that they would continue to pay the amount of the current levy to all currently funded clubs. Despite the promise of continued funding, some students worry that the support and resources UTSU provides would be lost if fee diversion were to be implemented.