In its 2019–2024 ‘Strategic Plan,’ the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) outlines initiatives it is planning to improve its ability to directly influence student life on campus, its position as a service provider, and its engagement channels with students.
According to the plan, increasing voter turnout in student government elections is a target engagement goal for the UTSU. Despite this, student government participation has steadily decreased at U of T, where it is now among the lowest in Canada.
There’s a glaring disconnect in terms of the UTSU’s involvement on campus, and the student body’s failure to get to the polls to vote indicates as much. Students are disincentivized from engaging with the UTSU because they’re largely unaware of how the student union impacts their university experience. The UTSU’s lack of transparency fuels this, as its failure to consistently publish meeting minutes and update financial statements shows.
Meeting minutes provide a public record of major UTSU rulings, such as those relating to bylaw amendments, financial statements, and the appointment of auditors. More broadly, public meeting minutes ensure that the student union and other university officials remain accountable for the decisions they make and the rationale backing those decisions.
There’s no doubt that the UTSU is publicly committed to transparency; its open board meetings and previously published minutes, reports, and agendas serve as a testament to this commitment.
However, the UTSU website offers little to no information regarding meetings held in 2021 and 2022. In fact, none of the Annual General Meeting (AGM) minutes from either year have been posted under the site’s ‘Meeting and Minutes’ section. You can find the agenda from the 2022 AGM by sifting through the Governance Affairs calendar or under ‘General Meetings,’ while the 2021 AGM minutes are nowhere to be found.
For an institution that supposedly values transparency and accountability, why aren’t these relevant documents front and center? It’s crucial that the union keeps its meeting minutes updated and accessible to students.
For those seeking information about the student union, it’s important that they know of the ongoing decisions behind the scenes that impact the student body. Disorganized meeting minutes from the union site — its primary point of contact for students and faculty alike — sends the wrong message.
In light of its lack of transparency, it’s unsurprising that the UTSU has seen declining voter turnout since 2018. Meeting minutes are one of the most direct ways by which students can stay informed on matters concerning their university experience, but the minutes are not being regularly updated. As a result, it’s difficult to bridge the gap between the UTSU and the students it claims to represent. Why engage with the student union if you’re not even sure of how it’s advocating for you at the most basic level?
Similarly, certain types of financial records are unavailable on the UTSU site. For instance, neither the audited financial statements or the profits and losses statements have been updated since the fiscal year of 2019–2020. As students’ incidental fees primarily fund the UTSU, it seems only appropriate that they be aware of its financial position.
It’s for this exact reason that the UTSU publishes its budget quarterly; students have the right to know what is being done with their money. Financial reporting guarantees that accurate data about the union’s finances is available to the public, and the UTSU aligns itself with this principle.
While the UTSU’s consistent budget publishing is a good start, it’s just that — a start. Financial transparency doesn’t begin and end with budgetary planning: it implies a variety of factors ranging from income to expected revenues and expenses.
In the 2018–2019 ‘Statement of Activities,’ the UTSU confirms its dedication to financial transparency, claiming that such responsibility includes “measures that go the extra mile in showing students that their money is in good hands.” The aforementioned Strategic Plan reiterates this, as it states that financial reports “beyond the budgeting process” will be published regularly throughout the year. Why then does the site’s ‘Fees, Budget & Finances’ page display extensive funds allocation but virtually no up-to-date information on financial statements?
As it stands, students don’t get a complete picture of the union’s financial position based on the information seen on the UTSU site. According to the 2021–2022 operating budget, the UTSU received approximately $1,640,000 in student membership fees. When paying that price, it’s not much to ask that the available financial data be more comprehensive. As is the case with the meeting minutes, it’s hard to drum up student interaction with the UTSU when its public financial record is obviously incomplete.
Needless to say, there is much room for improvement when it comes to the UTSU’s transparency and public record. The union might have better luck generating engagement if it commits to updating and maintaining their online presence. This way, students can easily navigate the UTSU’s responsibilities and goals as they relate to the actual university experience. Otherwise, low democratic participation may persist.
Emma Dobrovnik is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science and criminology. She is an executive-at-large for the Association of Political Science Students.