The University of Toronto’s Governing Council convened for its second meeting of the fall semester on October 26. At the meeting, U of T President Meric Gertler discussed how the university has advocated federal and provincial governments to increase their funding for postsecondary education and how international tensions have impacted the university.
Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3261 — which represents more than 1,000 service employees, including maintenance workers, cafeteria staff, and technicians across U of T’s three campuses — raised concerns about low wages and understaffing. Governors also heard about the university’s strategy to maximize its placement in global university rankings.
Anna Kennedy, chair of the Governing Council, also announced that students had elected two new student representatives to the council: Part-Time Student Representative Joseph Nkeng and Graduate Student Representative Annabelle Dravid.
CUPE 3261’s concerns
Executive members of CUPE 3261 spoke at the meeting. The union began bargaining for a new contract with the university on November 14 and will hold bargaining sessions throughout November.
CUPE 3261 President Luke Daccord told the governors that, despite CUPE 3261 members’ critical role in the university, about 70 per cent of them earn less than the Toronto living wage rate identified by the Ontario Living Wage Network — an advocacy organization that works on and highlights living wage initiatives in the province. Other CUPE 3261 executive team members raised concerns about the university outsourcing work to private companies and about how understaffing has left employees to effectively perform multiple jobs.
“Low wages create understaffing and overwork,” said Soosainathan Rajendiram, a representative for cafeteria employees at Chestnut Dining Hall. “It leads to [an] incredibl[y] high amount of stress and burnout amongst our members and the quality suffers, preventing us from delivering the experience students will deserve.”
Kennedy said that the council would not comment on concerns representatives raised at the meeting out of respect for the collective bargaining process.
During his report, Gertler told the governors that the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel remains “top of mind for everyone these days.” He offered condolences to those affected in Israel and Gaza. He also reaffirmed U of T’s commitment to academic freedom and free expression, noting the need to “engage in such debates with civility and mutual respect.”
Gertler also discussed the university’s advocacy targeting the federal government. In March, a panel of experts appointed by federal ministers released the Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System to the public. The report notes that Canada’s research funding has not kept pace with funding in other research-focused countries, and it describes that a lack of coordination between federal funding entities has left gaps in research funding. The report recommends that the federal government create a new mechanism to govern funding councils, simplify funding processes, and implement an equity plan to improve the underrepresentation in research of some marginalized groups, such as Black researchers.
Gertler told governors that U of T has lobbied the federal government to fully implement the report’s recommendations, including by increasing graduate student and postdoctoral scholarships. Many graduate student stipends the federal government offers have not increased for the past 20 years.
Gertler brought up a Blue-Ribbon Panel the Ontario government convened last year to investigate the postsecondary sector’s stability after high-profile bankruptcies and closures. He told the governors that the university administration anticipates that it will base its advocacy on the results of the panel’s report. He said that the university’s top priority is increasing its operating grant from the Ontario government, which currently covers around 20 per cent of the university’s operating costs — far less than in past years.
Gertler also expressed concerns about how deteriorating Canada-India relations might impact student recruitment and research partnerships. In September, Prime Minister Trudeau accused the Indian government of assassinating a Canadian citizen, sparking restrictions on visa services. However, Gertler noted that the Indian Government had resumed processing Canadians’ visa applications, which he characterized as “good news.”
Simon Pratt, director of research strategy and excellence, gave a presentation about university rankings. He noted that although there is controversy over the accuracy of university rankings, many potential students, staff, and donors view them as important.
The university mainly tracks five large-scale rankings, each of which uses different methodologies. For all of the rankings the university highlighted, U of T came in as the most highly ranked university in Canada and among the top 25 in the world for 2023.
Pratt said the university’s reputation has grown in the past few years.Pratt told governors that the university takes steps to ensure it understands ranking methodologies and performs strongly, such as strategically targeting newspapers like The Guardian to report on its research and focusing on faculty retention. Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives, explained that the university also coordinates with its divisions so that they understand the university’s methodologies and can align their divisional strategies to help improve rankings.