Every year, the university collects nearly $40 million from students to distribute to student societies. As a student at U of T, your membership in these societies is determined for you, as is the laundry list of compulsory fees you’ll be paying to them. In exchange for annual funding from students, the university requires that student societies act in an open, accessible, and democratic manner.
Democracy requires participation, but just how much participation is required for a decision to be democratic? This is a question that student societies rarely ask themselves, even when they are faced with evidence of debilitatingly low engagement. It is also a question that the student body should take more seriously.
In October 2016, Fusion Radio, the community radio station at UTSC, held a referendum to increase their membership fee from $4.85 to $12.85 — an increase of nearly 200 per cent. Neither their bylaws nor the relevant university policies outlined a minimum number of students that had to vote for the referendum to be valid. When the polls closed, only 59 students had cast a ballot. With the expressed support of less than than 1 per cent of members, Fusion increased the fee that all 13,000 students would be required to pay. In an interview with the campus newspaper, the president of the radio station said they “did not consider it a bad turnout.”
More recently, The Varsity’s fee increase referenda received negligible support from students. The referendum to increase the membership fee by $0.80 a session for full-time undergraduate students saw a total of 656 votes, a turnout of roughly one per cent of eligible voters. A larger question was presented to full-time graduate students, who were set to decide whether or not to become members of The Varsity. A ‘yes’ vote on this referendum would bind all full-time graduate students to membership in The Varsity and the fee that comes with it. That fee is now a total of $0.80 per session after the referendum passed by a narrow margin; it received 127 total votes, a turnout of roughly 0.77 per cent.
With the support of 534 full-time undergraduates — including myself — The Varsity is set to increase its fee for all 65,000 members. More worryingly, with the support of less than 1 per cent of those affected, all full-time graduate students at U of T will become members of The Varsity.
This should worry you. The decisions that we make today will affect those who follow us, and it’s important that those decisions are made fairly. Students pay an extraordinary amount in fees to student societies every year and deserve a say in how those fees are created and changed. Holding a referendum allows student societies to request a mandate from their members to take action. Without a reasonable turnout, the results of a referendum give no such mandate.
While student groups are autonomous from the university, they should meet basic standards of governance if they expect to collect fees from students. Although the university sets out minimum requirements that protect the rights of individual students, student societies are mostly left to their own devices when creating specific governing documents, including the rules that govern referenda.
Student societies, especially those that receive little to no engagement from students, should be particularly diligent in governing themselves justly. These groups should put in place rules that not only encourage member engagement in referenda, but require it. At the minimum, every student society should set turnout requirements for referenda.
Student societies that choose not to hold themselves to a higher standard have cause for concern. Following the Fusion referendum, members of both the UTSC Council and the University Affairs Board questioned the results of the vote. If concerned enough, these groups have the ability to block a fee increase from reaching students. I have no doubt that The Varsity’s request will see similar criticisms. Eventually something will break, and when it does, you’ll want your house to be in order.
Earlier this year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union and eleven other student societies came together to request that the Policy on Open, Accessible, and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations be amended to introduce specific language that protects the democratic rights of students. We’re pushing the university to make online voting mandatory in all student society elections and referenda and to implement a minimum quorum for any fee increase that is not already authorized.
If student societies at U of T want to be taken seriously, they need to start behaving seriously. We’re talking about students’ money. This isn’t child’s play.
Daman Singh is a fourth-year student at University College studying Political Science and Philosophy. He is the Vice-President, Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.