Second semester is well underway, and time is winding down on the effort to improve democracy at U of T.
Pressure was mounting on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) at the seventh Student Societies Summit meeting on Monday, January 27.
The Medical Society (MedSoc) discovered that their members paid fees to the union, and felt that they should not have. Representatives of the UTSU justified the fees on the ground that MedSoc members use UTSU’s clubs and services.
MedSoc proceeded to conduct a survey of its 1,000 members to test this assertion. Over the course of a week, 40 per cent of its constituency responded. 71.13 per cent of respondents stated that they do not use any UTSU services not including drug and dental insurance, which were not included in the survey. The remainder of the respondents used the International Student Identification Card (ISIC) or discounts on entertainment. However, according to David Bastien, vice-president, finance of MedSoc: “These services are largely redundant with those offered to medical students through the Canadian Federation of Medical Students and the Ontario Medical Association.”
No respondents were members of clubs funded by the students’ union that were not additionally funded by MedSoc. “Currently, there is concern that fees paid to the UTSU by medical students are not optimally allocated and do not reflect medical student involvement in UTSU services or club initiatives,” said Bastien.
“I’m unsure if it was made clear that our services include the health and dental plan, food bank, sales of Metropasses, and a variety of discount tickets, among other things,” said Yolen Bollo-Kamara, vice-president, equity of UTSU, “we know that medical students use these services. Medical students at both the St. George and UTM campuses also benefit from the advocacy services of the UTSU.” Bollo-Kamara went on to list recent advocacy successes of the UTSU, mentioning the expansion of multi-faith space, childcare services, and athletic facilities, and the recent ending of the Access Copyright licensing fee.
Bollo-Kamara stated that the union is listening to MedSoc’s concerns: “I’d like to take this opportunity to work with MedSoc to improve awareness and service provision among medical students of resources available to them, particularly the services and advocacy provided by the UTSU. This is the tact we take when we hear of students who are unsure of the benefits of university services.”
A number of student groups not seeking to divert fees from the union feel that it should be an option for those who wish to do so. “Based on the ongoing discussions at the summit, we have identified some things we’d like to see improved at UTSU, but will be pursuing avenues with UTSU’s existing structure to suggest those changes,” stated Ashkan Azimi, president of the New College Student Council (NCSC).
“However, we feel that there are circumstances under which specific populations of students might not be best served by UTSU. Engineering has made a case for that, and at the recent summit meeting, second entry professional programs were considered by that light.
“Therefore, we support the idea that a method should exist for populations of students to divert fees from central student governance in favour of local governance and more comprehensive service provision, though the logistics and legality of such a process will definitely take some time to be worked out,” Azimi continued.
UTSU president Munib Sajjad has, to date, not attended the summit. The union has been represented by Bollo-Kamara and vice-president, university affairs, Agnes So. “As the most informed UTSU representative, Munib’s absence has severely hindered proceedings. Having served on both UTSU and UTMSU his participation would have been an asset. Unfortunately, he has chosen to ignore the concerns of his members and efforts from the university to improve student governance at the university,” said Benjamin Crase, Trinity’s co-head of college.
“Every meeting, I wonder why he chooses to continue sending this message to his membership and the university administration,” Crase continued, “If I had a vested interest in perpetuating a fundamentally broken system, I might also do anything I could to maintain the status quo, no matter how ridiculous.”
“Mr. Crase seems to have a deficit of understanding of how the UTSU works, which is disappointing, as he is a board member,” said Sajjad.
Sajjad emphasized that all UTSU executives are part of decision-making processes, no matter who actually attends any given meeting. “Ms. Bollo-Kamara and Ms. So are more than capable of representing the UTSU, and have reported back and brought the collective ideas of the UTSU to the table each time. I would not have done anything differently, so I am unsure how our participation could possibly be hindering proceedings.”
There is currently no timeline on the resumption of the Student Commons project. The Commons, a planned student-run building at U of T, was postponed by Governing Council in July because of the fee diversion conflict. The Commons is intended to be a campus hub for student life, including spaces for clubs, food options, and student meeting areas. UTSU has lobbied to have the project approved for decades. It was funded in large part by a $20 million levy approved by students in 2007.
The Student Societies Summit is a series of meetings between representatives of over 20 student organizations. Provost Cheryl Regehr called the summit to discuss referenda held last year by the TCM, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), and the Engineering Society (EngSoc) in which students approved a motion to divert fees paid to the UTSU to their respective organizations, although the VUSAC’s referendum fell short of the required voter turnout.
The first meeting was held on October 7. The U of T administration has emphasized that the summit cannot affect policy change, and only has the authority to make recommendations.