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The Breakdown: The UTGSU’s financial transparency practices

Reviewing accessibility, accountability ahead of the union’s 2020 AGM
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The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), which represents all 20,000 graduate students across U of T’s three campuses, is due to host its Annual General Meeting on December 1. Due to its vast membership and other revenue sources, the UTGSU controls over $13 million — though most of that amount is collected for the health and dental plan.

With council members recently raising concerns about transparency, The Varsity inquired with the UTGSU about its current financial practices.

Accessibility of financial information

As of November 23, the UTGSU had not posted the names or contact information of any member of the Finance Committee on its website, except for the finance commissioner’s email address. This was a departure from previous practices of listing prior finance committee members on the website. 

Prior to the recent election of An-Noûra Compaoré as Finance Commissioner, Lwanga Musisi, the current university and governance commissioner, had been in charge of the finance commisioner’s duties, as decided at a May 6 meeting. The executive also allocated him half of the honorarium for the finance commissioner position.

The Varsity reached out to the UTGSU executives about the lack of committee members’ names available on its website, and the names of finance committee members have now been updated.

Moreover, Finance Committee meeting highlights have not been posted to the website for almost 10 months, with the most recent ones dating February 14, 2020. When The Varsity asked the UTGSU executives why they had stopped uploading meeting highlights, they responded, “The highlights from the finance committee minutes from this executive term will be posted on the website.” 

The union subsequently added a folder for 20202021 Finance Committee meeting highlights, although it remains empty at the time of publication. In the email to The Varsity, executives added, “We can’t comment on why the previous executive stopped publishing highlights from the finance committee.”

Although the 2018–2019 mid-year financial statement is posted on the UTGSU’s website, it has yet to post the 2019–2020 mid-year financial statement, even though it was received by UTGSU General Council on June 30.

Transparency surrounding executive honoraria 

At its most recent council meeting, the UTGSU passed its fiscal year 20202021 budget. Concern was raised over the new budget line for executive honoraria, which increased from $110,000 last year to $118,000 this year. Musisi, University Governance Commissioner and Finance Committee Vice-Chair, claimed the budget line increase was because it is “heavily based on the anticipated CUPE [Cost of Living Adjustment] increase on which our honoraria are tied to.” 

However, an amendment to UTGSU policy ratified in April 2019 froze executive honoraria at $15,505 per academic year for each executive position, plus $454 per month for the executive-at-large, who serves for a six-month term from November 1 to April 30. 

The maximum sum of the honoraria of all seven executives, plus that of the executive-at-large would therefore total $111,259 per year — over $6,000 less than the new budget allots. 

At the same meeting, a council member asked whether executive honoraria payment records could be publicly circulated. When asked why the union hasn’t made documentation of paid out honoraria public, the UTGSU wrote to The Varsity, “Documentation of executive honoraria has never been published on the website.” 

In the past, however, a document has been published on the website that includes both the monthly sum and annual sums being paid to each executive member.

The UTGSU assured The Varsity that, despite the budget line increase, honoraria payments have not been increased at this time. “Previously, the executive honorarium was subject to a cost of living increase, however, these increases were removed last year because UTGSU was trying to save money due to the Student Choice Initiative,” the union wrote.

The UTGSU added that the budget line increase was in case the General Council does approve an honoraria increase, as the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), a provincial government mandate that allowed students to opt out of certain fees, has been struck down. “If General Council does not increase honorariums we will be under budget in this area,” the UTGSU wrote.

Budget organization

In the recently passed 20202021 budget, three budget items from the 20192020 budget, “Union Fees,” “[Health and Dental] Fees Revenue,” and “Extra-Levies Revenue,” were combined into a single item called “Union Revenue.” Health and dental insurance (HDI) fees are collected for health and dental expenses, and extra-levies revenue are distributed to levy groups for whom the UTGSU collects fees. The item “Union Fees” refers to revenue from the union’s levy fee. 

Union revenue may be obscured by combining these three items, especially considering that in the 2019–2020 academic year, HDI fees revenue accounted for over $11 million, while union fees only accounted for around $1 million.

When the 2020 mid-year financial statement was presented to the General Council on April 28, after the SCI had been overturned, several members of the General Council spoke out against the change. Sophie McGibbon-Gardner, the former finance commissioner, claimed that this move decreased transparency around the UTGSU’s income. 

A motion for the General Council to receive the mid-year financial statement failed at the April meeting, instead motioning to send it back to the finance committee to make amendments, and the statement wasn’t received until the council meeting on June 30. 

When asked about the recombination of these three items, the UTGSU responded that the budget items were divided because of the SCI, which categorized different fees as ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential.’ “Now that the Student Choice Initiative is reversed, UTGSU has reverted back to the traditional way of including revenue in the same budget line,” the union wrote. 

Executive accountability

Since the beginning of the 20202021 academic year, executive reports have not been given orally — a break from precedent in years past. Previously, receiving executive reports has always been one of the first items of business at council meetings. 

Having the reports on the agenda also included a discussion and vote to receive the report, which serves as an executive accountability mechanism. Due to the executive only submitting written reports this year, the council has not been given time to discuss, ask questions about, or vote on receiving the reports.

The UTGSU wrote that “oral reports unfortunately have not [been] heard by General Council on [a] regular basis due to time constraints.”

Editor’s note (December 1): A previous version of this article wrote that the honoraria budget increase was to $180,000 instead of $118,000. The article has been updated to correct this. The Varsity regrets this error.