OPIRG Toronto is a volunteer-based group at the University of Toronto dedicated to research, education, and action on environmental and social justice issues. It is part of a network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) that seeks to empower and educate students while giving us tools and opportunities to work cooperatively for social change.
The group achieves this through programs like the Toronto Research and Action Community Exchange (TRACX). Students are paired with community organizations to conduct research for academic credit and are given an opportunity to network and participate in panels, keynotes, and group discussions.
OPIRG democratically decides on what programming to run among students. Institutional support for these initiatives creates a space for students who would otherwise be faced with bureaucratic and institutional barriers, unable to access the necessary resources.
From November 20 to 22, OPIRG is facing a referendum vote to remove its 50 cent per term levy from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which is paid by its members. Opponents have criticized the group’s financial management and programming in an attempt to challenge the very existence of one of few organizations supporting activism on campus.
It’s concerning that a largely unidentified and unaffiliated group’s push to defund an entire organization is seen as a valid solution to criticisms purportedly surrounding its work’s efficacy, especially when a meaningful dialogue was not attempted first. Places on campus where students can gain an institutional foothold while doing grassroots social and environmental justice work are few and far between, and many of the opportunities that OPIRG provides do not exist elsewhere at U of T.
Anxieties about the amount of money students are paying the university are not unfounded. Tuition fees continue to rise and the quality of our student experience doesn’t get any better. Many of us take on jobs and work long hours on top of participating in extracurricular activities, all while trying to maintain good grades.
As students, we know the problem doesn’t stem from service groups that work hard to support the U of T community. Conducting a critical cost analysis should begin by looking at all of the fees we pay, and at the number of university administrators, many of whom spend little to no time meaningfully engaging with the student body, making it onto the sunshine list every year.
The idea that staff salaries and benefits are misplaced fees is a misconception which underestimates the importance of fairly compensated employees. If we demand that staff be paid less than a living wage for their work, it contributes to the undervaluing of our own labour as students.
Other anti-OPIRG arguments and efforts have included publishing false statistics on OPIRG’s operations and costs. Simultaneously, student union representatives have both failed to follow and adjusted the UTSU’s own by-laws in the creation of the referendum, and their negligence in providing due notice has disadvantaged OPIRG by shortening the amount of time it could dedicate to preparing for the campaign.
This process has made it clear that the referendum supporters’ objections to the organization have little to do with any genuine desire to improve campus activism or lower student fees. This is not surprising — previous attempts to defund PIRGs and other equity-seeking university organizations reveal that this referendum is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the shifting political climate on university campuses. Fuelled by right-wing movements and interest groups, referenda like this one continue to try to push the organizing of marginalized students out of the university.
If you have criticisms of OPIRG Toronto and how your fees are being used, getting involved directly by joining an action group or the board can allow you to make your voice heard. Levy groups are meant to be a resource within our community that have been determined by a majority to meet a unique need on campus, but if students would like to opt out on principle or because of financial constraints, they are welcome to do so.
All we ask is for you to consider why many students have decided OPIRG is worth fighting for. On November 20, 21, and 22, vote ‘No’ to save OPIRG.
Nooria Alam and Ben Swadron are members of the Vote ‘No’ to Save OPIRG campaign advocating committee. Swadron is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Health & Disease, Physiology, and Equity Studies. Alam is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Geography, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive; the views expressed here are her own.