For the first time in years, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) has been forced to justify its existence — because of a referendum I initiated challenging its purpose. With an annual budget of over $147,000, OPIRG claims that its purpose is to facilitate meaningful advocacy work. The reality is that OPIRG does very little meaningful work. Undergraduate students should take the opportunity on November 20, 21, and 22 to vote ‘Yes’ to stopping their financial support for OPIRG.
One of OPIRG’s main claims to fame is that it runs training workshops for activists. At first glance, the workshops appear to be great resources for students to learn about and engage in activism. However, digging deeper into their programming, I learned that virtually all workshops are actually run through an organization called “Tools For Change.” While this group is said to be a project of OPIRG, Tools for Change’s website presents itself as a separate organization. The reality is that the program is mostly funded by groups like the U of T Student Initiative Fund. OPIRG’s support entails paying the group so that OPIRG’s members don’t have to pay the nominal attendance fees, which range from $20 to $90.
To say that Tools for Change is a project of OPIRG is grossly overstating the impact that OPIRG has. It would be akin to the UTSU buying donuts for students, then claiming that it baked the donuts. Anyone can buy donuts — we don’t need a public interest research group to do so.
Another justification for its continued existence is that it produces a bi-annual newsletter, called Action Speaks Louder, which is intended for OPIRG members to write about pressing issues faced in their communities. The newsletter typically contains around seven works, such as “How sex lost its steam” and “Eclectic vultures go on a wine-tasting spree.” Sadly, the newsletter has not been updated since September 2016, so even though OPIRG has mentioned this newsletter many times, it effectively no longer exists.
OPIRG prides itself on the fact that it provides funding to other groups, but their website has stated that they are unable to provide funding for over a year now. Perhaps that’s because they only budgeted $21,000 for programming in 2016, up from $8,000 in 2015. Perhaps that’s also because they pay over $6,000 to be part of the Ontario PIRG network, which helps subsidize the existence of other PIRGs — such as Kingston PIRG — which have been defunded by their respective student bodies. Most of all, perhaps it’s because they pay over $100,000 on staff salaries and benefits.
For a group that calls itself a research group, OPIRG’s TracX research symposium would be their most important event of the year. However, the event schedule shows that describing it as a research symposium is extremely misleading. The majority of the sessions are run by activist organizations from outside the U of T community, and are presented as workshops rather than research presentations. In 2017, OPIRG actually had the audacity to claim that they only had $500 in funding for this symposium, and ask for the community to fundraise over $4000 for the event.
Undergraduate students, myself included, have lost faith that their student fees are being used appropriately. Undergraduates paying $38,000 to OPIRG should expect value for our money, and OPIRG is not providing that value. Funding for actually meaningful activist work can easily be distributed through existing frameworks, saving students money by eliminating duplicated overhead costs, and ultimately resulting in more financial support for those causes.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an organization mandated to provide support for activist communities. It is, however, disingenuous to claim to be a research group but in reality run activist workshops. It is useless to provide services that are poorly run or have little benefit to students. And it is wasteful to spend so much on overhead costs that there is no money left to fund the groups you support. For all of these reasons, I encourage eligible students to vote ‘Yes’ on November 20, 21, and 22.
Christopher Dryden is a second-year Computer Engineering student and the Engineering Director on the University of Toronto Students’ Union Board of Directors. He initiated the referendum to defund the Ontario Public Interest Research Group Toronto.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article was removed from The Varsity’s website after it was discovered that substantial changes — including a factual inaccuracy — were included in this op-ed during a stage in the editing process. The Varsity regrets the error.