Op-ed: A student union must always be political

The UTMSU VP External discusses Ford reforms, importance of advocacy

Op-ed: A student union must always be political

If you’re a student at a postsecondary institution in Ontario, you are bound to know what just happened with the recent announcements by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government, especially as it pertains to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Last year, it was estimated that over 400,000 students in Ontario use OSAP to attend school. Students at U of T know how expensive it is firsthand and how much government assistance is essential to access education.

As a disclaimer, I must note I abhor all political parties, and I choose to voice my concerns based only on policies that affect me and the students that I represent. And I can’t say that I was a full believer in the Liberal changes to OSAP in 2016.

I am a student who heavily depends on loans, and my family does not make enough to support me and my two other siblings who also attend postsecondary institutions. We don’t qualify for the “free tuition” grant because my dad makes $65,000 a year, but nonetheless, some of the grants helped us through.

But with the Ford government announcing major changes to student assistance, including cuts to funding for students, I am one of the students who will only walk out with more debt, like thousands of others at U of T.

When I joined the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) a few weeks after my orientation week, I found a place where I can be a part of something bigger. I began volunteering and pretty soon applied for a part-time position in the union, where I began to engage students and help with event planning. Now, as an executive, I can see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into representing over 14,000 students and providing them with campaigns, services, and events that work for them.

There is so much at stake as students now see the low level of support for students from a government whose platform was supposed to be “for the people.” I ask the question: are they really?

I read a recent Varsity Comment piece on how the UTM Campus Conservatives are somehow the “official opposition to the UTMSU.” The writer went after issues between UTM’s student newspaper The Medium and the UTMSU, seemingly failing — or choosing not to — understand that both parties have addressed their recent behaviour, instead loosely clinging on to misguided attacks in a desperate cry for attention.  

After scratching my head from reading the piece and coming to the conclusion that some people enjoy altering reality under the guise of pretending to care, I began reading old articles about student organizations and how student unions lobbied the government in the past.

I came across an article in The Charlatan, Carleton University’s student newspaper, from March 2009. It exposed how the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association allegedly led meetings and trainings for Campus Conservatives to take over their student unions. Leaked documents from a workshop at the University of Waterloo on WikiLeaks showed how Conservative students were told to create front clubs like “Campus Coalition for Liberty” to defend free speech agendas and  lobby for funds

Reading this, I felt immediately that history was simply repeating itself. It’s not unheard of for Conservative chapters on campuses to wish to remove political activism from student union organizing.

What we see is that Doug Ford and the PC government’s agenda with the “Student Choice Initiative” is precisely meant to attack student organizing and autonomy. Why? Because the government fears student unions and student organizations when we become political. We create platforms for students to assemble, to organize, and to challenge. Whether university administrations or governments, student unions have been there to fight those that stand in the way of student interests.

Students should always demand to see better from their student unions. I was lucky enough to join my union and feel inspired by the work and leadership of the executive when I was in first year. Victories are important, and I saw them in abundance over the 2016–2017 academic year. Student unions must always work to build on strong advocacy efforts to achieve a better and more inclusive campus environment.

For instance, the UTMSU got rid of the $35 exam remark fee, introduced free menstrual products on campus — becoming the first U of T campus to do so — extended the credit/no credit policy to the last day of classes, successfully lobbied for a direct transit line from Brampton to UTM, and brought in gender-neutral washrooms on campus. This was a student union at work.

Last month, the UTMSU saw a huge victory with our course retake policy being approved by Governing Council, one that was seven years in the making. This was achieved by the student union remaining true to its objectives for fairness in academic policies. Thinking and believing that students deserve more and better is the essence of being political, and must be how we reach those goals.

Some of our goals are lofty, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved. We must yearn for better. Our lives are inherently political because there are decisions being made for us. If being political is how we win, then student unions must stay political. If they aren’t, students must organize and make them that way.

Atif Abdullah is a third-year Computer Science student at UTM. He is the Vice-President External of the UTMSU.

Candidate Profile: John John, President

Independent

Candidate Profile: John John, President

John John is a fourth-year history student running as an independent presidential candidate. He says that he is running to combat student apathy at UTSC, as he is disappointed with the lack of engagement from both students and the SCSU. 

In an interview with The Varsity, John said that he is running more to make a point than to win. 

John’s number one platform point is to abolish slates, as he thinks they are a major barrier to getting students to run for the SCSU. 
“People are being boxed into certain kinds of ideology all the time. They don’t really have any time to express themselves freely, and also it intimidates a lot of people from getting involved in politics.”

He believes that the problem of student apathy toward the SCSU is less of a problem with individuals and more to do with how the union is structured.

However, when it comes to being involved in the SCSU, John calls on students to “figure it out for themselves.” 

“I don’t want them to always think someone will have some kind of ready-made answers for them.” 

If a candidate is making a promise, John believes that students should always be skeptical and ask the question, “So what?” 

When asked about what he would do regarding Doug Ford’s changes to postsecondary funding, John said that he did not really have an answer for that as he doesn’t “have a formulated platform and it’s more like getting people [to] run for themselves.” 

Candidate Profile: Rayyan Alibux, Vice-President Operations

Slate: SCSYou

Candidate Profile: Rayyan Alibux, Vice-President Operations

Rayyan Alibux is a third-year student double majoring in Political Science and Business Economics. This is Alibux’ second time running for the SCSU, having contended for president in last year’s elections, during which he was disqualified and then reinstated. 

Alibux is a member of the Scarborough Campus’ Union Reform Club. Fellow slate member and presidential candidate Anup Atwal is the club’s current president. 

Alibux’ platform includes ensuring budget transparency by making financial reports and budget sheets available, lowering locker rental fees, lobbying to have food vendors open longer, and implementing online voting. 

Alibux also hopes to make bylaw changes that focus on budget transparency. “I don’t think the current system provides people with enough information,” Alibux said. “One thing I’d like [to see from the union] is that when they’re releasing their financial statements, they’re going to also release an Excel spreadsheet or something available online, which will show an itemized sheet of everything that was purchased.”

He also hopes to implement online voting at UTSC. “It makes things like re-evaluating levies a lot easier… Every three years there needs to be a mandatory re-evaluation of the levies that students will vote on,” he continued. 

In regards to a recent controversy that saw the SCSU board of directors vote to disregard a decision made at the Annual General Meeting and give additional money to the Women’s and Trans Centre, Alibux barely hesitated before asserting what he would do in that position. 

“It’s the students’ choice… I don’t think the board has a right to disregard their decision. I think that’s very undemocratic. And part of the whole spirit of this online voting is that students will have the choice to vote on policy,” though he added that students should be as informed as possible.

The Underground hosts Scarborough Campus Students’ Union executive candidates debate

Disagreements over qualifications, “Free Palestine” sign

<i>The Underground</i> hosts Scarborough Campus Students’ Union executive candidates debate

UTSC’s student newspaper The Underground hosted a debate on February 1 for the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) executive candidates. The presidential candidates discussed their platforms and students’ needs, and the debate grew heated over accusations of a lack of qualifications, and debate over a “Free Palestine” sign at the Student Centre.

“Come up with your own ideas for once in your life”

The presidential candidates answered questions about what they thought of the opposition, the most pressing needs of UTSC students, and what oppositional platform point they would like to incorporate into their own.

Independent candidate John John said that the opposition promises a lot of things but “they’re not going to do anything for you.”

John said that he does not have a platform and that he does not want to know what the students’ problems are. “I’m really here because I want to start a movement on campus… Come up with your own ideas for once in your life.”

SCSYou’s Anup Atwal said that the student union needs “fresh faces and fresh ideas.”

Atwal also commented that John was outlining the main problem with the SCSU, but “it seems that John doesn’t actually want to do things. It’s more [to] just make the noise.”

Atwal believes that financial security and academics are the most pressing needs of UTSC students. “If you don’t have financial security, you don’t eat, you don’t socialize as much… that affects your mental health and ability to perform… in the classroom.”

For Shine Bright UTSC’s Chemi Lhamo, UTSC students need diverse representation the most. She provided the example of courses in which the teachers do not represent the community being taught.

When asked about an oppositional platform point that she wants to incorporate into her own, Lhamo said, “I can spill you a little bit of tea. There is a lot of alignment in between [Shine Bright UTSC’s and SCSYou’s] campaign points. Perhaps because some of our campaign points were leaked prior to us knowing, because of certain implantations?”

The audience both booed and clapped in response to her statement.

“My opponent is utterly unqualified for the position”

The candidates for Vice-President Academics & University Affairs were asked about what would be their biggest worry if their opponent wins.

Shine Bright UTSC’s Raymond Dang said that his biggest worry was that if SCSYou’s Carly Sahagian wins, “no action will happen.”

Dang said, “Number one, my opponent is utterly unqualified for the position,” to which the audience interrupted Dang with murmurs and grumbles.

Dang continued, “It is my political opinion, that it is utterly unqualified —”

The audience started to boo and grumble louder. Somebody in the audience said, “Don’t be rude!”

Dang, referring to Sahagian’s two years of registrarial experience, said that the registrar’s office is still the same. “And additionally, we have known that [having] no DSA [Departmental Students’ Association] experience within Academics & University Affairs is actually harmful for the position.”

Sahagian was given a chance to respond, during which she said that her Student Recruitment Assistant position at the registrar’s office did not give her any power over student services. She mentioned her other qualifications, including being a secretary for the Women’s and Gender Studies Association and serving the Campus Affairs Committee.

“I’m representing every department, not only Political Science,” said Sahagian.

Dang is currently the SCSU’s Director of Political Science. He has also worked with the Political Science Students’ Association at UTSC.

“Free Palestine” signage

The Vice-President Equity candidates were asked whether the “Free Palestine” sign at UTSC’s Student Centre creates a hostile environment for Jewish students.

Shine Bright UTSC’s Leon Tsai said that she does not think that the sign is antisemitic or anti-Jewish. She mentioned that the union supported Palestine and also Holocaust Education Week “to make sure that it’s not one or the other.”

“We need to have all these discussions… to make sure everyone is heard,” she said.

SCSYou’s Tebat Khadhem said that the problem with the banners is that they are “single-sided on one political issue… [so] the other side will feel marginalized.”

“Our slate will make the option of putting up a poster equitable for all student clubs… as long as they are within the limits of the Charter of Rights,” Khadhem said.

Voting for the SCSU 2019 Spring Elections will take place February 5–7 at the Bladen Wing Tim Hortons, Instructional Centre Atrium, and Student Centre.

The Breakdown: U of T policies behind cancelling classes

UTM, UTSC must give hours notice for evening cancellations, UTSG has no guidelines

The Breakdown: U of T policies behind cancelling classes

Toronto weathered a miserable and messy Monday as the city saw a record-breaking 19 centimetres of snowfall on January 28. Throughout the day, U of T’s three campuses closed or cancelled classes due to the weather. With temperatures expected to remain chilly, The Varsity took a look at how and when U of T campuses decide to close.

UTM

The first campus to take action at around 10:00 am, UTM announced on January 28 that it would be closing at 4:00 pm “due to worsening weather conditions.”

According to the campus’ website, notices for full-day or morning cancellations at UTM are posted by 6:00 am, with updates for evening classes and events generally made by 3:00 pm.

All decisions regarding class cancellations at UTM are informed by its chief administrative officer (CAO) and Campus Police, and made by its Vice-President & Principal. In the event of campus closure, decisions are also discussed with the Vice-President Human Resources & Equity.

Prior to Monday’s closure, UTM was last closed in April due to an ice storm.

According to UTM’s Weather Information page, aside from current and predicted weather conditions, factors considered before closing campus include the states of local roads, walkways, and transit operations, any closures of local and regional businesses and schools, and the consequences of closing campus.

Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories on January 28.

Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories on January 28. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

UTSC

Following suit less than two hours later, UTSC declared all classes and scheduled events on January 28 cancelled starting at 5:00 pm.

According to its severe weather guidelines, UTSC’s decisions for morning and evening classes are posted around 6:30 am and 4:15 pm respectively.

Cancellations at UTSC are also determined by its Vice-President & Principal based on advice from its CAO and Director of Campus Safety and Security. Closures are likewise discussed with the Vice-President Human Resources & Equity. Last April’s ice storm also saw UTSC close.

UTSG

While updates for UTM and UTSC evening classes were given with at least five-hours notice, classes at UTSG scheduled for after 6:00 pm were not cancelled until after 2:30 pm, with emails not sent until a few minutes before the hour.

According to the provost office’s policy on class cancellations, UTSG staff, faculty, and students should be alerted of morning and full-day cancellations or closures by 6:00 am.

The provost’s office gives no indication for how soon updates on evening classes can be expected.

Both the Vice-President & Provost and Vice-President Human Resources & Equity are involved in determining UTSG’s status under adverse weather conditions. Concerns from Campus Police and the Vice-President University Operations are also considered.

Freezing students walk through the wintery abyss on a cold and snowy day in Toronto.

Freezing students walk through the wintery abyss on a cold and snowy day in Toronto. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

In the event of a campus closure on any given day, including weekends, all on-campus activities and events are cancelled and all buildings are locked, with the exception of essential services such as campus security and residence-related services.

During class cancellations, all non-academic services remain operational. Proceedings of non-academic events and operating hours for campus facilities may vary at the discretion of their respective supervisors. Students who are unable to attend classes are advised to look through the syllabi of affected classes for policies on attendance and late or missed assignments and exams.

Of 16 other colleges and universities in southwestern Ontario affected, only Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Guelph, and the University of Waterloo remained open on January 28.

NDP Critic for Colleges and Universities Chris Glover speaks at U of T

Glover calls out Ford government for changes to postsecondary education

NDP Critic for Colleges and Universities Chris Glover speaks at U of T

Chris Glover, MPP for Spadina—Fort York and the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) Critic for Training, Colleges and Universities, was hosted by the U of T New Democrats on January 30 to discuss the changes made by the Ford government to postsecondary education, and how these changes will impact students.

Glover, a former adjunct social sciences professor at York University and graduate of Innis College, spoke to a handful of students on a cold Wednesday evening.

During his opening presentation on student financial issues, he reiterated the NDP’s position on the provincial government’s reforms to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), the elimination of the six-month interest free grace period after graduation for OSAP loans, and the new opt-out feature for “non-essential” student fees.

The Ford government’s changes to postsecondary education were not welcome news to the MPP.

While Glover said that he agrees with the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) that the previous Liberal government’s Free Tuition plan was never really free tuition, he disagrees with the tuition cut, as it is unfunded.

“Ontario universities… will have $380 million less in operating revenue [next year], and colleges [will have] $60 million less in operating revenue,” Glover said. “If it was a fully funded tuition cut it [would have been] a wonderful thing because you would have been paying less for the same quality of education.”

While Glover had sharp criticism for the old plan under the Liberals, he did say that it allowed more students from low and middle-income families to benefit from the program, and that if it had continued, more of those students would have graduated with less debt.

Glover also voiced his concerns about the effect on student groups. He noted his dismay at the opt-out nature of student fees, saying that student unions could lose out on much of the revenue that they use for advocacy. He also claimed that the change is a political move to hamstring organizations and prevent them from fighting to reverse these and future cuts.

When asked what an NDP government would do, Glover cited the party’s 2018 provincial platform, in which it committed to working toward ending interest on student loans, converting more loans into grants, eliminating the province’s policy of using private loan collection agencies to collect OSAP, and lifting the budget freeze on colleges and universities.

When asked for solutions to the cuts and their effects, Glover said, “This is not inevitable,” adding that students need to organize at Queen’s Park and especially call on students in PC ridings to confront their local representatives.

U of T approves Second Attempt for Credit policy change at UTM

Policy allows students to retake up to 1.0 previously passed credits for their GPA

U of T approves Second Attempt for Credit policy change at UTM

U of T’s Committee on Academic Policy and Programs approved the introduction of a Second Attempt for Credit (SAC) proposal on January 14, which will allow UTM students to choose up to 1.0 retaken passed credits to count toward their cumulative GPA (CGPA). This policy does not apply to UTSC or UTSG students.

Currently, marks received for a retaken course are not reflected in students’ GPAs, but are denoted as “extra” on their transcript.

Effective May 1, the policy makes changes to UTM’s existing Repeating Passed Courses Policy, according to an email from U of T spokesperson, Elizabeth Church.

“Under the existing policy, students are allowed to repeat passed courses only once and only when the course is needed to enter a program, to satisfy a prerequisite, or to demonstrate higher performance for an external credential or future graduate study,” explained Church.

Data collected by the university since September 2015 shows that, out of 1,340 instances of repeated passed courses, only 10 per cent of students taking previously passed courses saw a mark decrease. Most students saw a median increase of 13 per cent.

Students must designate a course as SAC before completing it for it to count toward their GPA, or else it will continue to be denoted as “extra.”

The deadline will correspond with the deadlines for late withdrawal and credit/no credit. There is no restriction on the year that the student is in, the level of the course, or the campus where the course is offered.

The Office of the Vice-Principal Academic and Dean consulted with UTM’s Office of the Registrar and solicited feedback from UTM Department Chairs and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU).

Professor Angela Lange, Acting Vice-Principal Academic and Dean, formally proposed this policy in October last year, after which it was brought to UTM’s Academic Affairs Committee. Upon the Academic Affairs Committee’s recommendation, the motion was presented to the Committee on Academic Policy and Programs for approval.

“The rationale behind this [policy],” said Church, “is to give students more opportunities to recover from challenges in their first year that may keep them from entering programs that require a minimum mark in a particular course… or a minimum CGPA.”

The SAC amendment acknowledges students’ efforts to improve and ensures that this effort is reflected in their GPA.

The new policy will also be consistent with other U15 universities, a group of 15 Canadian public research universities of which University of Toronto is a member.

The UTMSU has been advocating for the course retake policy for years, with the union releasing its policy proposal on the issue last March.

However, this policy currently only exists at UTM; no similar policies have been proposed at either UTSC or UTSG.

Haseeb Hassaan, President of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), which represents undergraduate full-time students in the Faculty of Arts & Science at UTSG, wrote to The Varsity that ASSU “supports such a policy at the faculty of arts and science.”

“Our counterparts at the UTMSU have also briefed us on the policy,” confirmed Hassaan. “ASSU has brought this to the attention of the deans office and has made it clear that this [policy] would be of benefit [to] students.”

The Varsity has reached out to the UTMSU and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union for comment.

New U of T sustainability report recommends “curriculum innovation,” partnerships with community

Student groups commend new steps, say it’s not enough

New U of T sustainability report recommends “curriculum innovation,” partnerships with community

Founded at a time when U of T’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies was under scrutiny, the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability (CECCS) has released its second annual report.

The report outlines proposals by the CECCS, though the committee does not have the power to implement its suggestions without the appropriate governance approvals.

Professor John Robinson, Presidential Advisor of the committee, said that the report aims to connect operational aspects of sustainability with academic approaches.

“The first report was really just saying, ‘Here’s the approach we want to take,’” he said. “That approach was also saying [that] we’re looking for sustainability as a way to make things better, not just less bad, not just harm reduction.”

The report’s suggestions are grouped under three subcommittees: Campus as a Living Lab, University as an Agent of Change, and Curriculum Innovation.

“Campus as Living Lab says, turn the whole campus into kind of a sandbox for sustainability to test out, try out the most advanced possible sustainability activities on everything the university does. Building, landscaping, social programs, everything,” said Robinson. The report proposes six “living lab[s]” that would implement sustainability projects across all three campuses.

The University as an Agent of Change subcommittee seeks to make partnerships in the private and public sector outside of the U of T community.

Curriculum Innovation attempts to identify existing courses that have an element of sustainability, using a “sustainability pathways” approach to help students connect with the issue of sustainability in the real world.

In the area of curriculum innovation, the report proposes new certificate initiatives that would encourage all students, regardless of program, to partake in sustainability-related activities. If the proposal succeeds on a governance level, students would be able to gain recognition as a Global Citizen, Global Scholar, or Global Leader through curricular and extracurricular activities.

“I think it’s a great idea because it isn’t just about the students taking sustainability as they’re focus. It’s about everybody, every student at the university, having this opportunity,” said Robinson.

Environmental student groups Leap UofT and Regenesis UofT commended the report for addressing issues pertaining to sustainability and taking steps in the right direction, but criticized it for not going far enough.

Naomi Alon, co-president of Regenesis UofT, said, “Considering the amount of people who use U of T on a daily basis, there [is] definitely a need to enact… the measures outlined in the CECCS report, and also establish sustainable practices within the education of students, so they can be mindful of environmental sustainability going forward.”

However, Julia DaSilva, co-founder of Leap UofT, criticized the report for “promoting attractive eco-friendly projects while continuing to invest in the powerful fossil fuel [industry]” and “presenting surface solutions as genuine change.”