With the recent postsecondary fee changes announced by the Ontario government, student groups across the province are under attack. It is more important than ever to fight for the existence of strong, well-funded, and democratic student societies. It would feel almost irresponsible to urge students to vote against a student organization’s fee increase at this time.
However, these changes have placed a new emphasis on accountability, and it remains important to speak out against student societies that, whether through apathy or malice, act in undemocratic ways. As such, I cannot support the Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) upcoming referendum to increase its levy from $9.50 to $11 per semester.
ASSU’s primary function is to organize, aid, and fund arts and science course unions. The union proposes to distribute about $180,000 in course union funding each year. It also offers essential academic services and advocacy. While there’s no evidence that ASSU is acting maliciously, it is clear that little progress has been made to address the union’s long lasting problems.
A read of ASSU’s constitution shows that there is no avenue for a member to engage in the union’s governance process. ASSU holds no general meeting at which all fee-paying members have voting rights, does not advertise the dates of its regular meetings, and holds no public forums to hear student concerns.
Furthermore, although it holds its presidential and executive elections at open council meetings, ordinary members are not eligible to vote. It seems that the only time that ASSU offers its membership basic democratic control is when it needs a fee increase.
Instead of being governed by its 23,000 full-time undergraduate student members, ASSU is governed by the course unions to which it provides funding. ASSU defends this structure because it views itself as a federation of course unions rather than a student union made of individual members.
However, the union cannot expect its members to pay fees if it is not ready to give those members the right to participate in its governance process. If ASSU wants to be more than a middleman for distributing funding, it needs to acknowledge that it is accountable to all full-time Arts & Science students at UTSG.
With little oversight, it’s easy for an organization to slide further away from its mandate and democratic norms, and a look at the ASSU budget tells us that this is exactly what has happened. ASSU has three full-time staff members in addition to its elected executives. The most senior of the three staff members receives a salary of at least $100,000 before benefits. The remaining two employees receive salaries of about $55,000 each.
Student society staff are essential and deserve to be compensated fairly. However, ASSU spends about $280,000 on salaries and benefits each year, and these salaries are increasing at an annual rate of three per cent above inflation. With every year that goes by, a larger and larger share of ASSU’s budget will be taken up by its staff’s salaries — leaving less and less money for bursaries, scholarships, and course union funding. The ASSU executive has not, and likely will not, admit that these salary increases are an issue.
ASSU’s financial statements paint a picture of an organization that’s running out of money as staff costs increase. While the union claims that it needs a fee increase to fund bursaries, scholarships, and the growth of course unions, it hasn’t made any assurances that this is how the new funds will be used.
The proposed increase is a band-aid solution for ASSU’s problems, and those in charge have demonstrated no intention of finding a long-term fix. Even if this referendum passes and allows for inflationary increases, between each referendum, staff costs will increase at a rate greater than these levy increases due to inflation. Eventually, the union will run out of money, be forced to cut services, and will come asking for another increase.
If ASSU wants a fee increase, its leadership needs to show that it understands who the union is accountable to. It can begin by giving all members the ability to elect their own representatives. It should also follow the lead of similar unincorporated student societies and voluntarily hold annual meetings for members of the executive to hear and address the concerns of students.
It also needs to prove that it has a long-term plan to fix the union’s financial woes. ASSU should work with the labour union that represents its staff to limit salary increases and ensure its long-term welfare.
Until ASSU starts to take the students’ concerns seriously, and addresses them with long-term solutions, they shouldn’t be given a fee increase.
The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.
Daman Singh is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Operations of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.