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Op-ed: Students are missing from U of T’s budget process

The admin must do better consultation for its multi-billion dollar operations
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ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY
ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY

Over the course of my term at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), I’ve learned about and interacted with many of the structures for decision-making at the University of Toronto, and have walked face-first into the realization that these governance structures are not designed to meaningfully involve students. 

The most stark example of this is tuition, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen courses delivered in an online format. Whether through advocating for lower tuition for online classes or through lobbying for tuition relief for computer science, bioinformatics, and data science students, I’ve discovered that U of T’s budget process is lacking a critical step: consulting students.

In April, after the shift to online learning, the UTSU published a statement calling on the university to reduce ancillary fees for summer 2020, and “reduce both domestic and international course fees due to online delivery.” The demand to lower tuition for online classes was reaffirmed in UTSU statements in May and July

The university refused to lower tuition, citing the cost of digital infrastructure and arguing that students would still receive a high-quality education as their academic programs continue to be delivered remotely. But we knew better, and students knew better.

In response, the UTSU administered a survey in August to collect feedback from students on their experiences in online classes. In October, we published a report highlighting the results of the survey, offering recommendations for administrators and instructors, and concluding that the “quality of education at the University of Toronto has suffered as a result of the shift to online learning.” 

That same month, student leaders from UTSG published a joint statement criticizing the university’s COVID-19 response, and once again called for — among other things — the reduction of tuition for online classes.

As I wrote in an op-ed in August, the university can’t justify keeping tuition fees the same when its educational experience has changed significantly. But U of T refused to entertain discussions of lowering tuition during a pandemic despite widespread student support for the idea. 

This is at a time when the university’s 2020–2021 operating budget stands at $2.99 billion, and the year-end financial projections show increases in net income and net assets. Lowering tuition is more complicated than these numbers alone, but it’s telling that the university didn’t seriously explore tuition relief when students called for it, even though its budget indicated that it was able to do so. 

In mid-December, I attended a meeting with the student governors and key administrators responsible for the university and Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) budgets, along with student leaders from the Arts and Science Students’ Union, Computer Science Students’ Union, and Bioinformatics & Computational Biology Students’ Union. 

We were lobbying for a reduction in tuition for the computer science, bioinformatics, and data science programs as part of our Same Degree, Same Fee campaign; these programs were historically deregulated, and tuition rose until they were subsequently re-regulated, leaving fees higher than other regulated FAS programs.

At this meeting, administrators explained U of T’s budget process to us. The process begins in the summer, and starting in the fall semester, each division will craft its own five-year plan, which is then reviewed before being consolidated by the central U of T administration starting in January. Then, in February, the draft budget begins to make its way through the university’s governance cycle, receiving a final stamp of approval by the Governing Council at the beginning of April. 

This yearlong process was described to us as “bottom-up,” in that it begins at the department-level and ends at Governing Council. But nowhere in this “bottom-up” process is effort made to consult with students or student societies.

Without public access to this budget information, we’re unable to offer solutions and unable to corroborate their claims. The UTSU has since filed Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requests to get this information, but needless to say, this isn’t the most accessible way to engage with the budget process.

After our meeting in December, the student leaders organizing the Same Degree, Same Fee campaign sent a follow-up email requesting another meeting to discuss how best to implement a tuition reduction for the 2021–2022 budget. We were told by the assistant provost that it was too late in the process for changes to be made to the budget. The only opportunity left for us to speak on the 2021–2022 U of T budget was the upcoming governance process.

In theory, students are represented at Governing Council. U of T students elect eight student governors to represent us in Simcoe Hall, and students can request speaking rights at meetings. In practice, however, this means nothing. Our eight student governors are easily outvoted by the other 42 members of the Governing Council, and representatives from student unions are only given a few minutes each to address the governors. 

Most of the important decisions for the budget have been made by the time the draft comes to the Governing Council. This begs the question: if students are being told that January is too late to impact the budget, what’s the point of us participating in the process in April through the only means of formal representation we have?

It’s seemingly apparent that the university’s budget process fails to engage students in any meaningful way, and this needs to be addressed. Students pay tens of thousands of dollars to this institution and should have a bigger role in determining where that money goes, particularly with the pandemic and the financial difficulties it’s caused. 

Firstly, each academic division should develop its own process to consult with students and student leaders when crafting its budget. When divisional budgets are sent to the central U of T administration for consolidation, student unions should have an opportunity to make pre-budget submissions with recommendations, similar to municipal, provincial, and federal budget consultations. 

Before the budget is finalized, students should have an opportunity to engage with administrators in a town hall to learn more about the budget and ask questions. 

Finally, divisional budget information needs to be easier for the U of T community to access. If tuition can’t be reduced without service reductions, the onus is on the administration to be transparent and show us the numbers that would explain why.

Students are the largest stakeholder at U of T, and should have a greater say in the governance and finances of this university. Budgets are a reflection of an institution’s priorities, and as of late, students haven’t been adequately reflected in the priorities of the University of Toronto.

Tyler Riches is a third-year human geography, urban studies, and women & gender studies student at University College. They are the vice-president public & university affairs of the UTSU.