In a recent Board of Directors meeting, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) addressed holdover items from its September board meeting.

Branden Rizzuto the outgoing UTGSU finance commissioner whose resignation will take effect on November 1 gave a report on how many students opted out of the UTGSU’s fees, in accordance with the province’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI). The SCI allows students to opt out of incidental fees deemed “non-essential.”

The UTGSU’s mean fall 2019 opt-out rate for full-time students, across all optional fee categories, was 17.48 per cent and 25.95 per cent for part-time students.

“We’re actually in pretty decent shape,” said Rizzuto. He noted that he had planned for a “variety of revenue loss scenarios,” even considering opt-out rates of 70 per cent. “What is actually more of a threat to us, is not the overall revenue loss… but it’s that the University of Toronto has used the SCI to limit our financial autonomy.”

The UTGSU’s fees are separated into a number of optional fees categories which constrains the way the union can spend its money. Funds raised in one area, like “academic support,” cannot be used for any other purpose. Rizzutto explained that the university has determined where “80 per cent” of the UTGSU’s funding will go because of this categorization of fees.

Before the UTGSU was aware of how many students opted out of its fees, it proposed changes to its funding structure in anticipation of a significant drop in its budget. The first of the motions would have introduced a linear model for department head grants. This would have jeopardized the funding of small departments, and so another motion was proposed that would have evened out the distribution of funds to small departments.

After some debate, both motions failed. Members expressed that because the opt-out rates were manageable, they preferred to revert back to the original funding model.

When asked why the proposed linear model had two different sources of funding, Rizzuto responded, “The University of Toronto misled everyone and put hidden fees in all of the fee categories.” For graduate students paying their incidental fees, Rizzuto described the fee structure as being “not necessarily what you thought you were paying for.”

He explained that one of the UTGSU’s essential fees, “academic support,” contained within it a $4.87 fee that had to be used for department head grants. This is despite the fact that there is a department head grant fee within the UTGSU’s levies that was deemed non-essential. For this specific section of the budget, part of the funding was deemed essential, while the remainder was subject to student choice.

The UTGSU also passed a motion to increase mental health services for its members. “This is a little bit prompted by recent events, but this actually is a conversation that’s been ongoing between myself and the finance commissioner,” said Sophie McGibbon-Gardner. Due to Rizzuto’s resignation, McGibbon-Gardner was appointed Vice Chair Finance Committee at the meeting.

“We kind of have a vision of providing a service that is impossible to implement by administration, and that would be having an onsite mental health support system that is integrated into the GSU,” continued McGibbon-Gardner. She added that a lengthy consultation process to identify the needs of the GSU membership would be the first step in this process.

Rizzuto spoke in favour of the motion, saying that the UTGSU had enough funding for the proposal. Last year, the UTGSU added five dollars to their Health and Dental Administration fee. “We have the funds, I estimate that we might have upward of $100,000 to put toward these types of initiatives.”

Rizzuto was also appointed head of the UTGSU legal ad hoc committee.