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Why U of T should endorse Boycott, Divest, and Sanction

Students are denied adequate input on the distribution of tuition funds
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U of T is among the least publicly funded of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, which are also the least publicly funded in the country — they receive about 30 per cent less public funding than the national average. As such, U of T gets just under 40 per cent of its revenue from tuition, which has been steadily on the rise for years (even as recent as a couple of months ago, when Governing Council voted to raise international students’ tuition). In light of how much money we pay, then, it is strange we have next to no say over the decisions made with this money.

In particular, U of T has valuable investments in military, armaments, and surveillance corporations. These companies are no small names either: the list includes Raytheon Company — which provides defense support services for, among others, gulf state autocracies; Harris Corp — whose surveillance technology has also been used throughout the US to monitor civilians; Northrop Grumman — whose drone technology is used to survey and attack targets in regions where the American army operates; L3 Communications — a defense systems corporation associated with middle east operations, including ties to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal; Hewlett-Packard – which supplies the technology for maintaining military checkpoints in Gaza and the West Bank; and Finning International – which deals Caterpillar machinery, used by the Israeli Defense Forces. 

Every day at U of T, choices are made with huge sums of money that have real-world consequences. The money that the university invests — coming particularly from our pockets, moving without our say — funds checkpoints, guns, drones, and bulldozers. The university’s capacity to do so is determined unilaterally. Money talks, but right now, it’s a monologue.

Consequently, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement  — like other ongoing campaigns that seek economic responses to political issues — attempts to challenge this unequal and undemocratic power dynamic. Specifically, it recognizes how the university’s millions of dollars worth of investments in these companies reinforces human rights abuses via the occupation of Palestinian territories, and more broadly, by feeding worldwide arms proliferation. It is a movement with a clear institutional focus, and with specific interests in promoting compliance with international law.

BDS represents a voice that is counter to the silent decision-making of our university. The university uses, makes, and invests money in companies with their hands and feet dirty in environmental degradation, conflict zones, and irresponsible exploitation of third world peoples and regions.

Some may reject the premise that we should have any say over where tuition money goes — tuition is a payment for a service, that service being education, and the university can then use that money as it sees fit. However, this is misunderstanding the role of the university.

If we choose to interpret our education as a straightforward exchange of resources, then it may be accurate that we can make no claims about the use of tuition. But if we frame our university education, not as a commodity to be exchanged, but as a set of activities, values, practices, and systems that we engage with as participants, rather than as consumers, then the relationship changes.

Similarly, it is hard to see the true merit of a goods for services view of higher education at U of T, when we consider the cost and funding of this education. U of T is among a small pool of Canadian schools that collectssuch high tuition, relies on that tuition for such a large portion of its general funding, perpetually raises tuition, and yields such few tangible returns for some of its students in terms of their experience at the university.

Consider the behaviour of the administration during last year’s strike; the sluggish and stilted process of formulating an accessible and effective mental health or sexual assault response program; the cases of homeless students struggling to stay in classes. If one buys into the argument that university education is ultimately transactional, then shouldn’t we as students be getting more bang for the buck? If one believes it’s acceptable that students don’t get to have a say in the direction of our school’s investments — even when those investments are bloody-handed — then can we at least concede that the pay-in isn’t worth it?

Alex Verman is a fourth-year student at New College studying political science.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly featured an illustration that was originally purposed for a different piece. In the wrong context, the illustration in question was liable to upset some of our readers. The Varsity regrets the error.