TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY

Following the release of an updated draft of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, a number of U of T student groups have released statements of opposition to the policy. These student groups are also demanding that the University Affairs Board vote against the draft policy, that the university expand student consultation in the policy’s development, and that mental health resources for students are increased.

A previous draft of the policy, released on April 26, included provisions for a 20-day online consultation period that ended on May 16. Following the consultation period, the university released an updated version of the draft policy on May 17. This newest iteration is set to be voted upon by Governing Council’s University Affairs Board for recommendation on May 24. If approved, there would be two more rounds of votes for recommendation before being sent to Governing Council for final approval on June 27.

If implemented, the policy would allow U of T to place students on a non-punitive mandatory leave of absence if their mental health poses a physical risk to themselves or others or if it significantly impairs their studies.

Criticisms of online consultation

Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA), an organization that advocates for equity and the removal of barriers to accessing education, has been speaking against the proposed policy since it was introduced in late 2017.  

On May 8, SBA released a statement asking the university to extend the student consultation period until the end of October, as well as to add in-person consultations and in-depth information sessions for students.

The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) released a statement on May 15 supporting all of SBA’s demands. VUSAC described the online consultation process as too brief and burdened by technical difficulties, adding that the “timing is irresponsible at best and borders on acting in bad faith. There have been no in-person consultations made available to the public and alarmingly insufficient consultation of mentally ill, disabled, and/or mad-identified students.”

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), which represents over 12,000 UTSC students, also released a statement criticizing the online consultation process. The union has demanded that the university extend the consultation period to November “to ensure that the process and policy itself be inclusive, accessible, sufficient and reflective of students’ needs.”

A supplementary statement from some members of SCSU’s Board of Directors added that “there have been zero attempts to consult [UTSC] students, and the centralized nature of this policy, would require our students travel downtown for any accommodation, meeting, etc. This is our reading of the policy, but we are confident that our students will not be well-off because of this policy.”

The Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS), the New College Student Council (NCSC), the University College Literary & Athletic Society (UC Lit), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) have also criticized the 20-day consultation period for being inadequate.

In response to these concerns, Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh described student consultations as a “valuable” part of the policy’s development. Welsh credited the consultations with additions such as the requirement that the Vice-Provost Students “will consult with an appropriate regulated health professional” to determine whether to invoke the policy. Some student unions reference the lack of mandatory health professional consultation as being one of the shortfalls of the policy; this issue is addressed in the updated May 17 draft.

“In terms of where we are right now, we do feel that [student consultation] has been sufficient,” Welsh said. “There are some fundamental differences of opinion in terms of the views on the policy, and when the university should be stepping in and intervening, and so I think we feel that it’s time to bring the policy forward for the governors to consider.”

Calls for increases to mental health resources

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), which represents approximately 24,000 UTSG students, released a statement calling the April 26 draft “indicative of the university’s abhorrently stubborn response” to student concerns. In its statement, ASSU called for the U of T administration “to step down from their ivory towers” and provide “meaningful support for mental health and accessibility” at U of T. “We hope that when given this response, our administration will finally seek to provide us students with the appropriate mental health resources we have continuously demanded.”

The Environmental Students’ Union, Indigenous Studies Students’ Union, and Society of Undergraduate Drama Students, which are all course unions under ASSU, also released statements in support of ASSU’s position.

UC Lit denounced the policy in its entirety, saying that it is unjust based on the argument that the university does not currently provide enough mental health resources. “There is no justification for the Policy until the university is at least able to markedly expand its offered accommodations in a timely and effective manner, and until a new Policy can be lined up with such expansions,” reads part of the group’s statement.

SCSU adds that the “policy neglects to acknowledge how students will be affected outside of the parameters of their education” and that mental health resources would become inaccessible to students who may need them.

The UTSU also called for guaranteed “personalized access to essential services,” including residence, immigration advising, and Health and Wellness. In addition, the union also calls for “the policy to guarantee the student’s right to not only represent themselves, but to choose others to act on their behalf and alongside them.”

“These services are often essential for students to recover and become well, and continued access must be at the discretion of the student.”

Clarification on invocation and application

UC Lit described some of the policy’s conditions for invocation as vague and called for the inclusion of minimum thresholds for student accommodations, such as those affecting immigration, residence, and financial status. The NCSC and VUSAC both support UC Lit’s calls for these minimum thresholds.

The APUS said the threshold for the policy’s invocation is “broad and unclear,” adding that it fails to “properly account for the reality of the inaccessibility of accommodations and support services experienced by many students.”

Welsh stressed that the policy would only be invoked as a last resort. “[The policy] provides the ability to review the support for students, to consider a voluntary leave, and at the very last stage, and only once we’ve looked at the supports… would the university consider a mandated leave,” Welsh said. “We really want students to get better, return to their studies. Having a non-punitive option continues to be very important to us.”

Improvements to the Code of Student Conduct

If implemented, the leave of absence policy would replace the one in the current Code of Student Conduct, which allows the university to place students under a punitive leave of absence in identical circumstances. The proposed leave of absence policy, in contrast to the existing one, would be non-punitive.

“The University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy does not differentiate itself enough from the Code of Student Conduct to address the realities of mental health on campus,” reads the UC Lit statement. “The recognition of the need for reprieves and accommodations for students experiencing mental health difficulties does not line up with the end product.”

In its statement, the UTSU wrote that “Though an expansive policy is an improvement to our current procedure, the University of Toronto Students’ Union cannot support the Policy in its current state. We will not support the removal of students in most dire need without guaranteeing them the provision of ongoing resources.”

Welsh said that student comments and willingness to engage have been helpful in shaping the policy. “I think most importantly, though, this policy addresses a gap in our system that has been long-identified as something that the university needs,” Welsh said. “It will give the university some tools that are needed to support the very few students whose behaviour threatens the safety of our employees or the students, or makes it impossible for them to pursue the basic activity of their education due to their significant illness.”

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