The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) presented a lobbying-based strategy for responding to the provincial government’s changes to postsecondary education in an emergency meeting held by its Board of Directors on January 24.

This is in response to Premier Doug Ford’s government announcement last week that it would give students the option of opting out of “non-essential” fees, cut free tuition for low-income students, and cut tuition by 10 per cent.

At the emergency board meeting, UTSU President Anne Boucher said that the union was one of the few across the province to be meeting with the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU), and was thus in a rare position to lobby the provincial government.

The UTSU’s strategy emphasizes making the most out of its unique position to be consulted by the MTCU, the ministry responsible for designing and announcing specifics for these policy changes. The UTSU itself is largely funded by incidental fees and is therefore in a risky position if its currently mandatory fees are deemed opt-out.

Boucher specified that representatives from the University of Waterloo, Western University, and perhaps only a few more universities have been in consultation with the MTCU, during a Varsity interview after the meeting.

These student union consultations come after The Varsity asked TCU Minister Merrilee Fullerton at her January 17 press conference whether her office had met with student groups in developing these policy changes, to which she was unable to give a clear answer.

Who the UTSU is speaking to and what it is negotiating in favour of

In a question period, University College (UC) Director Lina Maragha asked Boucher about the direction that she is taking in lobbying and what the UTSU is trying to advocate for.

Boucher responded by saying that the UTSU was taking a “two-prong approach.”

The first priority is for the UTSU to concentrate on talks with the MTCU. The second priority is to speak with local MPPs. While they have limited influence on the legislative process, noted Boucher, the UTSU does wish to “see if there’s any way that they can help.”

Boucher said that the UTSU’s goal regarding the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) is to have students “see the same support that they had before the announcement, as much as possible.”

Addressing the opt-out option for non-tuition fees, Boucher said that the UTSU is aiming to “make recommendations to the [legislative] framework directly that would essentially safeguard our groups,” which include clubs on campus that directly affect student life.

Boucher noted that this seemed to be the UTSU’s best option to negotiate and compromise, as it would be unrealistic to ask the MTCU to reverse its position on OSAP and non-tuition fees entirely.

The UTSU had met once with the MTCU before the emergency board meeting, “and it’s one of many meetings to come,” said Boucher.

Aims to reach students with social media campaign

Boucher noted that, in focusing efforts on lobbying, the UTSU’s efforts have not been as visible to students, as there are obstacles to transparency regarding negotiations.

To combat this, Boucher said that the UTSU is initiating a social media campaign named “UTSU With You,” aimed at giving its membership updates on the negotiation process and a platform to share thoughts.

Boucher mentioned that the UTSU has been using stories it received in conversations with the government, and that “case studies are something that really speaks to them.”

Boucher also noted that Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin will be in consultation with U of T, as the university will “have some discretion over what this will look like.

She reiterated that the goal of Grondin’s talks will be to “make sure that the student fees and the student levies are protected through all of this.”

Opposition among directors

Boucher’s top-down approach was faced with opposition by directors favouring a greater focus on student engagement.

Directors took specific concern with the perceived weakness of the UTSU’s January 17 statement against the government’s announcements.

Maragha said that UC students visiting her during her office hours have felt a “disparity between their vocalized concerns with the OSAP’s cut and the UTSU’s response.” She specifically remembered a student calling the statement “robotic.”

In response, Boucher acknowledged that the wording of the statement had been “very diplomatic,” but said that this was a conscious choice “with reason, and not because we don’t care about the issue.”

Maragha followed up by saying that a more “aggressive approach” was important, because “the Ford administration did decide to… throw us under the bus.”

“I think it’s really important to consider their voices, and they’re not happy with the strength of our approach right now.”

Boucher responded by agreeing that the UTSU has to take students’ perceptions into consideration since, if the fees do become opt-out, the UTSU’s actions in the present may influence students’ choices to remain opted-in.

However, she said that the key question for the UTSU was, “Do we want to have the opportunity to make change, or do we want to seem supported?”

“It’s one thing to take more direct action, but if the effects of that is that we lose that seat, then sure, we’re placating people who are upset with us for not being as visible, but we lose that opportunity to make that change.”

Woodsworth College Director Octavia Andrade-Dixon also noted that “from being on the ground, the UTSU isn’t necessarily fully understood by students or even very popular,” and advocated for increased “direct engagement” to address that.

She recommended an active approach of reaching out to club executives to communicate progress on the UTSU’s advocacy, which Boucher supported.

UC Director Tyler Riches also noted from his interactions with UC students that the UTSU is “being perceived as passive,” and requested that the executives share progress on MTCU negotiations as soon as possible for wider dissemination.

Likely outcomes for the UTSU

A likely outcome of the MTCU consultations will be of the UTSU splitting its fees into several categories to become more “transparent” for students, which Boucher described as “one of the few common-ground points that we actually have with the government right now.”

Boucher told The Varsity that, in the best-case scenario resulting from consultations with the MTCU, the UTSU and campus groups may not have their fees and levies affected by the government’s opt-out options for students.

In this case, campus groups that “directly serve” students, such as those that are a part of Hart House, Student Life, and student societies, would also not be affected. However, external groups and other groups that “don’t directly serve” students would see their fees become optional for students to support.

In another scenario, Boucher said that only part of the UTSU’s fees and levies may become optional to students, while others would continue to be mandatory.

Grondin noted in the meeting that he thinks “it’s safe to assume that the part of our fee that could be most at-risk is the lobbying, advocacy type of campaigning work that we do.”

He advocated for directors to help with the UTSU’s archive project, which aims to document a “concrete list” of initiatives that the UTSU had previously lobbied for, in order to better communicate to students what advocacy work the UTSU does.

Finally, in the least-favourable scenario to the UTSU, students would be able to opt out of all fees broken down by the UTSU.

Parliamentary Assistant to the TCU minster David Piccini told The Varsity that the government plans to continue consultations with students.