One of the main roles of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is to advocate to the university administration on behalf of students. This year, more than ever, it is crucial that the UTSU convinces the administration to act based on student input.
Fortunately, the recent extended winter break didn’t just give students more time to recover from a hectic fall semester; it also served as a prime example of how to convince the administration to listen to students.
One of the factors that may have led to the extension of winter break was engagement of the student body. The almost 9,000 signatures that the “Extend Winter Break for UofT Students” petition gathered was an impressive show of support for the measure and proved that it was something that students truly wanted.
Unfortunately, low student body engagement with the UTSU means that union executives don’t have a strong claim to be speaking on behalf of students. This can be seen in the union’s most recent by-election, which had a voter turnout of 1.5 per cent.
Likewise, Muntaka Ahmed, the current UTSU president, was elected with just over 1,700 votes because only about 5,000 of approximately 38,000 eligible voters cast a ballot in the election. Because a candidate can ascend to the union’s highest office with the support of only a small fraction of the student body, elections cannot be viewed as a mandate of student support.
This means that executives can’t simply approach the university with a strong mandate from students. Instead, UTSU executives need to engage with their constituents to find out what students really want, be more public about what they are advocating for, and use the union’s social media to keep students engaged in the process. The university won’t take the UTSU’s advocacy seriously until the union has a legitimate claim to be speaking on behalf of the students.
In addition to student body engagement, the petition to extend winter break worked because it was reasonable. The job of university administrators is to balance the needs of students with those of other members of the university community. Whereas students are focused on decreasing the cost of education, keeping the university accessible, and improving the student mental health crisis on campus, other members of the university — such as faculty and staff — are concerned about other issues, such as their health insurance and job security.
When union executives approach the administration with radical demands that only benefit students, such as a substantial reduction of tuition, they could be dismissed as unrealistic and unreasonable because they don’t consider the needs of faculty and staff. Shifting to more realistic, feasible solutions that benefit the university community as a whole is the only way for the UTSU to create real change for the students whom it represents.
Finally, the unusual circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have opened the door for more change. Nowadays, it seems as if every email from the university administration begins with some variation of the phrase, “during these difficult circumstances.” Although these words have become trite over the past few months, they reflect a new reality: pandemic-era education means that students are learning under particularly stressful conditions.
In any other year, administrators could have used their confidence in the systems that they have built to push aside the problems that students bring up. This year, with class delivery methods continuously changing, administrators know that what they are delivering isn’t perfect. Because of this, they are more likely to accept change and are more sympathetic to students.
One notable change came from the Faculty of Arts & Science, which changed its exam period to a more laid-back “final assessment period” for the fall 2020 semester. UTSU executives need to act quickly and decisively in order to take advantage of this moment if they want to bring about change.
The extension of winter break by the university is not only a show of sympathy from a generally unsympathetic administration; it is also an excellent model for student advocacy at U of T. If the UTSU wants to break a years-long streak of failing to compel action from the university administration, it must engage the student body, be reasonable about what it asks for, and remind administrators that we’re all bearing the brunt of online education.
Sarit Radak is a second-year molecular genetics student at University College. He served as the 2019–2020 life sciences director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union and currently serves on the Arts and Science Council as a full-time sciences student.