Where do your tuition fees go? Every term, for all three campuses, 50 cents of undergraduate incidental student fees go to the University of Toronto’s Student Environmental Resource Network (UTERN). UTERN receives 25 cents of UTSG graduate student fees. 

For context, as of January 20, only a tiny portion of UTSG undergraduate incidental student fees — typically less than two per cent — goes toward student organizations like school newspapers and student unions, most of which provide important services for students and help strengthen the campus community. Student levy organizations are valuable tools for student empowerment and collective action, but I believe they require transparent and accountable governance to ensure responsible use of funds and effectiveness in serving the student body.

Very few student organizations are supported by a student levy, as levies take widespread support, responsibility, and effort to institute and maintain long-term. Hence, the establishment of these levy organizations on campus is a testament to the dedication and initiative of student activists throughout U of T’s history. 

Leading by example, I hold the responsibility of UTERN’s presidency with deep personal commitment. At present, with our executive board leading the effort, UTERN is undergoing an exhaustive review and restructuring. Our team is asking important questions, such as: have we been effective in our mission over the last 20 years? Moreover, how effective has UTERN been in its governance over the last 20 years? What can it do better?

Several considerations necessitated this review: late and incomplete audits as well as continual complaints about delays in funding decisions and reimbursements by students who applied for UTERN’s funding to run sustainability projects and events.

In the end, UTERN elects representatives who must act in the best interest of the environmental mission and interests of the organization. The current leadership team is committed to strengthening administrative processes and ensuring a smooth transition that benefits UTERN’s future leaders and thus, future U of T cohorts. 

Larger organizations, such as the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), recognize the significance of efficient and adaptable governance. The UTSU utilizes its resources effectively, employs dedicated staff to manage operations, and prioritizes regular reviews of its constitutional provisions and policies. This approach ensures UTSU’s framework remains relevant and effective in serving U of T students.

Given that these organizations are student-run and are what I see as part of our training to become contributing members of society, governance hiccups do happen. For example, missing receipts — which an auditor needs to ensure funds have been spent appropriately — can happen from time to time. Nevertheless, as this issue was identified as part of our UTERN review, we came up with some concerns that we are addressing with policy changes to prevent this from occurring in the future.

During this internal investigation, the decision by past executive members to allocate funding to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference has received scrutiny from faculty and staff. In my view, this is warranted as it illustrates what I see as potential tensions between UTERN’s environmental mission and the environmental consequences of individual travel choices. While attending international conferences can be valuable, ensuring responsible resource allocation and minimizing carbon footprints remain paramount, especially when representing an environmental organization. In total, a levy organization must serve the student body, and any dispensing of funds must meet a higher standard where there is a clear benefit to the U of T community. 

This incident further highlights UTERN’s need for robust internal protocols for ethical decision-making, clear financial guidelines, and comprehensive oversight to navigate such complexities. 

Effective leadership training during yearly executive transitions, access to experienced mentors like faculty advisors, strong and clear policies, and the robustness of oversight mechanisms all play a critical role in upholding organizational integrity and preventing such missteps.

The efficacy of levy organizations depends on the combined efforts of not only executive leadership but also financial and social stakeholders, such as the student body. U of T and levy organizations must educate students on how to actively learn about the work of levy groups they contribute to, by understanding their mission, budget, and projects. 

The student body can gain understanding by reading meeting minutes and reports. U of T and levy organizations must remind students to voice their opinions on the initiatives and practices of levy groups. Levy organizations can do so through surveys, open forums, or direct communication with representatives. U of T and levy organizations must encourage students fervently to volunteer their time, skills, or expertise to support levy group activities and contribute to their success.

U of T must keep levy organizations in check by asking how levy funds are allocated and spent to ensure transparency and responsible use of resources. This can be done by requesting financial reports and asking for clarifications. Given students’ financial commitment, students have the right to question the actions of levy groups, especially when they seem wasteful, misaligned with the group’s mission, or lacking in effectiveness. 

Students can express their concerns through formal channels like appeals processes or by organizing collective student voices. U of T and levy organizations must ensure students are aware of their voting rights to choose competent and responsible leadership for levy groups. This ensures their voices are heard and reflected in the group’s direction.

I see student levies to be like taxes but with a student dividend. They pay for services you use, like discounted healthcare, legal aid, and academic workshops, and empower you to navigate university with confidence and success. But, if students do not use or care to learn about the services provided by levy organizations, then the potential of these resources remains untapped.

Student levy organizations can demonstrate social programs and collective power in action, and that will save students far more than what students pay to the organization if students use simply a fraction of the services provided. By collectively pooling student levy resources and ensuring students are aware of the rights and resources in the context of levy organizations, we can achieve access to opportunities that level the playing field, from equity initiatives, to initiatives that lower the cost of living, to initiatives that build community and empower each student to reach their full potential. 

Since student levies are much like taxes, I look at opposition to student levies in the same way that I look at right-leaning, ideological opposition to the idea of taxes. I see these knee-jerk reactions that aim to throw the baby out with the bathwater to be shortsighted at best. A recent example of this is the attacks on the UTM Student Centre Expansion levy, for which the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union planned to get U of T offer to pay 50 per cent of the costs, if approved. Ultimately, because skeptical students undermined the idea, it failed. 

It is important that we be vigilant, so as not to give right-wing detractors any ammunition to attack the collective power that levy-fee student organizations bring in terms of student services, advocacy, community-building, and access to resources and support. 

The UTERN team and I are dedicated to promoting good governance and its associated principles. I encourage other levy-supported student groups to do the same! 

Giselle Sami Dalili is a fourth-year student at New College studying political science, sociology, and environmental studies. Giselle is the President of the University of Toronto’s Student Environmental Resource Network (UTERN) for the 2023–2024 academic year.