The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) conducted a referendum from November 7–9 at polling stations throughout the campus, asking students to approve a levy to fund an expansion of the Student Centre. 

The majority of students voted against approving the expansion fee. TransparentUTMSU — a group of anonymous student volunteers who run an Instagram account of the same name — criticized the UTMSU for a lack of proper organization of the Student Centre expansion referendum. 

Results of the referendum

The UTMSU Board of Directors voted on September 23 to hold a referendum to approve the expansion. The UTMSU explained that it wanted to create a more inclusive and accommodating space that addressed the evolving needs of the UTM community. 

The Student Centre was originally built in 1999 for a student population of around 6,000. UTM currently accommodates a student population of 16,000. On its website discussing the proposed expansion, the UTMSU argued that the Student Centre isn’t large enough to accommodate all students and campus groups. The UTMSU held a referendum in 2014 asking students to approve a levy to fund a student centre expansion, but the referendum failed.

The recent referendum asked students whether they supported implementing a Student Centre expansion levy fee, which would have started at $10 per full-time student per semester from fall 2024 to spring 2027 or until the building expansion finished. At that point, the levy would increase to $30 per student per semester until the union finished paying mortgage payments. The UTMSU did not specify how long the union would take to pay off the mortgage.

On November 13, 2023, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) announced on Instagram that 9.6 per cent of the student body voted in the referendum, with the majority — 56.2 per cent — voting against the Student Centre expansion and 39.4 per cent of students voting in favor. 

Student concerns with the referendum

On November 7, TransparentUTMSU published a post on Instagram condemning the UTMSU’s lack of transparency about the expansion. The post, which has 409 likes as of November 19, states, “We aren’t anti-student centre expansion. However, we’re against supporting a referendum that is mismanaged, has inadequate planning, and lacks transparency.”

In the post, TransparentUTMSU accused the UTMSU of financially incentivizing campus groups to publicly support the expansion. The group presented screenshots of an email to student clubs where the union apparently encouraged groups to utilize the Student Centre expansion fund to host an event for the membership to discuss the expansion. 

The UTMSU hosted a livestream on Instagram on November 7 where they answered questions related to concerns about the expansion. During the stream, Vice President (VP) External Kiki Ayoola stated that the UTMSU did not intend to offer the expansion fund as a bribe but as a means to encourage clubs to participate in discussions about the proposed expansion. Ayoola expressed that the funding allocation remained consistent for any group applying for it, regardless of the group’s stance on the expansion, and that the union planned to continue the fund after the referendum to fund discussion events. 

“If it was bribery, we would stop the expansion fund after the referendum. But no — we are going to continue because we continuously need student feedback,” she said

TransparentUTMSU also argued that the UTMSU didn’t properly organize its Student Centre expansion referendum campaign. The group claims that four of the five resources the UTMSU linked on its site regarding the Student Centre expansion weren’t viewable, and students had to request access to view them. 

In an statement to The Varsity, UTMSU President Gulfy Bekbolatova outlined the union’s extensive planning efforts leading up to the referendum, including meetings with students and administration and incorporating student feedback. She stated that UTMSU executives actively engaged with students and student groups, sharing resources and encouraging direct communication for concerns. 

In regard to links being unavailable, she acknowledged that the union had technical issues with linking resources on the UTMSU site. “We apologise for this, and as soon as this was flagged up, we made sure to change these settings and fix this,” wrote Bekbolatova. 

The UTMSU initially planned to conduct voting from October 24–26, but on October 20, announced it was adjusting the voting schedule to November 7–9. TransparentUTMSU asserts that the UTMSU did not update the change in voting days on its website despite announcing new referendum dates on October 20. 

Bekbolatova clarified that the union had to change the referendum date because UTM administration noted an issue with the original referendum question. She noted that her team had to deal with other issues at that time, including backlash from U of T and the provincial government related to the union’s statement supporting Palestine. 

Vanessa Hy, a second-year student specializing in accounting, told The Varsity that she had concerns about inadequate communication and transparency, citing a lack of awareness and information about the referendum among students she talked to. Pearl Saldanha — a third-year student studying French language teaching and learning — also told The Varsity that she was satisfied with the outcome of the Student Centre expansion referendum, and specifically mentioned she was unhappy about the changing referendum dates. 

TransparentUTMSU claims that the union also did not provide enough information on how the mortgage will work and how the UTMSU would use referendum funds. 

Emaan Fatima — a third-year management student — and Saldanha both emphasized reservations about the lack of a concrete plan for the project. “I feel like they — the student union — expects us to make an investment, you know, through our tuition, through extra fees, but they’re not willing to make that investment of planning beforehand,” said Fatima in an interview with The Varsity

The UTMSU created its UTM Student Centre expansion report — which discusses accessibility and proposes plans for the “space needs” of the student centre — in 2023. The report recommends creating additional office spaces for clubs, expanding study areas, and enhancing the multi-faith space, among other improvements. The report also mentions expanding UTMSU offices and upgrading the Blind Duck Pub facilities.

Bekbolatova emphasized that the UTMSU shared the report with students. She noted, however, that all plans for the building were preliminary because  “no concrete expansion plans could be made until the UTM students, UTMSU members, voted in favour and passed the referendum.” 

TransparentUTMSU also shared screenshots of messages from UTMSU executives — in particular from Vice President (VP) External Kiki Ayoola and VP Campus Life Jasnoor Sandhu — that it characterized as “snarky and passive-aggressive.” TransparentUTMSU claims that Ayoola stated in an Instagram comment to a student criticizing the expansion, “You have every right to your own opinion but at least know what you’re ‘criticizing’ before you do so.” Bekbolatova wrote that their responses aimed to address questions from students, debunk rumours, and confront hateful comments. “As they [the statements] were through text, we understand that it could be misinterpreted in another manner, however this was definitely not our aim or intention,” Bekbolatova wrote in a message to The Varsity.