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Op-ed: Support student leadership — vote in the UTSU elections

The union’s president on how systemic change is a collective effort
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JULIA MALOWANY/THE VARSITY
JULIA MALOWANY/THE VARSITY

Democratic participation is at the forefront of every student government at our university. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is no exception to this. 

The UTSU represents over 38,000 full-time undergraduate students at UTSG, and is one of the largest student unions in the country. Odds are, if you’re reading this article, you have a stake in the UTSU and the people who are running to lead it in this year’s elections. In the most practical sense, voting in your student union election will give you the right to hold it accountable. When you’re part of the process, you can ensure that you have a voice. 

In recent years, we have seen student participation across all facets of campus hit an all time low. Last spring, a paltry 12.7 per cent of students cast their ballots in the UTSU election, which was up from just 4.2 per cent in 2019. As well, this is the second year in a row that we have uncontested and vacant positions within the spring election cycle. However, this is more than just a UTSU problem — it’s systemic. 

This university, for the most part, does not let student leadership and participation thrive outside of the classroom. The rigorous and often detrimental academic environment at U of T has historically put students at a disadvantage when it comes to making a decision between their academics and extracurricular involvement. Stopgap solutions like the Co-Curricular Record have been implemented in the past, but have largely proven to be unsuccessful without a fundamental shift in mindset across campus. 

Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had to put much of my academic opportunities and obligations on hold as I’ve pursued student leadership throughout my time at U of T. This year, the problem has been further exacerbated by the fact that students are generally burned out and not seeking out positions of leadership as much as they used to. 

There are also barriers within the UTSU itself that make it hard for many students to engage with us. For years, the full-time nature of executive positions, inadequate outreach, and negative perceptions of student politics in general have driven students away from getting involved with us. These are fundamental issues we are trying to address as an organization, but we are far from where we need to be in terms of providing equitable access for all. 

This year we’ve made steps in the right direction by introducing a host of accessibility measures to our online elections. However, to fix the overarching issues, we need systemic change in both the UTSU and the university as a whole. This won’t happen in one year, which is why your vote is all the more important. Your engagement with student democracy has the potential to shape the direction of the UTSU for the near future and be a catalyst for change throughout our campus.

In this election, eight individuals, each of them distinguished student leaders in their own right, have put their names forward to be your next UTSU executive team. Alongside them there are a host of dedicated and community driven Board of Directors candidates who are looking to govern the UTSU in the coming year. With our imminent move into the Student Commons and the major need for student advocacy during the pandemic, it is safe to say that U of T students have a lot riding on their vote in 2021. 

In addition to voting for the executive and Board of Directors candidates, the UTSU is running a referendum to increase it’s Student Aid Program levy by $1 for the upcoming year. The program gives direct financial support to students in need through its different bursaries, which students can apply to by visiting our website.

The Student Aid Program is one of the most important services offered by the UTSU. Earlier this year, the UTSU’s Finance Committee needed to expand the program fund by an additional $45,000 in order to keep the program from going over budget due to a surge in applications. 

This referendum would expand the program fund by roughly an additional $80,000, which would help keep the program budget sustainable for the coming year as students continue to struggle during COVID-19. It would also provide a sustainable funding pathway for the UTSU’s new scholarship program, which consists of four new scholarships for students who routinely give back to their community while also demonstrating financial need.

Students have been hit hard by this pandemic, and the usage rates of our Student Aid Program have reflected that more than anything. The surge we’ve seen in applications this year overwhelmed our system, and we are actively building out new systems and policies as a result to keep the program running smoothly. Increasing the UTSU’s ability to expand this program and provide our students with more direct, student-led financial assistance is absolutely essential — and it depends on your vote. 

While the pandemic has, no doubt, forced us to completely reimagine the way we engage with our students, having a fully online election does pose a unique opportunity for us all. On one hand, we lose in-person campaigning, debates, and direct connection to the candidates. But on the other, all of it — including the voting — takes place online. As such, the barriers to democratic participation on campus have never been lower. 

Don’t miss the opportunity to support student leadership, participate in your student union’s decision making process, and have your voice heard by casting your vote in UTSU’s spring 2021 elections. 

The voting period began today, March 17 at 9:00 am and ends on Sunday, March 21 at midnight. Visit utsu.simplyvoting.com to cast your ballot today.

Muntaka Ahmed is a fourth-year life sciences student at St. Michael’s College. She is president of the UTSU.