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ASSU referendum succeeds, increasing levy for students to $11.00 per term

Referendum result also ties ASSU levy to increase with inflation

ASSU referendum succeeds, increasing levy for students to $11.00 per term

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) has successfully passed its levy referendum to increase its fee from $9.50 to $11.00 per term and tie it to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) starting in fall 2019. Around four per cent of eligible students voted in the referendum.

Preliminary results released by ASSU on February 15 reveal that the referendum succeeded with 597 students — 57 per cent — voting in favour of the levy increase and 440 students — 42 per cent — voting against it. Eleven students — one per cent — abstained.

In addition to the increase of the levy, the referendum also narrowly succeeded by nine votes in approving a cost of living increase each year as determined by the CPI, with 480 in favour, 471 against, and 97 abstaining.

In total, 1048 students voted of over 23,000 full-time undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts & Science represented by ASSU. Voting took place online and in-person at Sidney Smith Hall.

Potential effects of the levy increase

All full-time undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts & Science pay the ASSU levy, which goes into funding services such as course unions and bursaries. A course union is a student union that represents a particular program of study.

Course union spending may increase, which may broaden the number of events available to students, said ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan. Students may also receive more opportunities for scholarships and bursaries.

However, Hassaan noted that a specific breakdown of planned spending of the increased funding is currently unavailable, as the present ASSU executive aims to let the next executive decide how to spend the funds. The new ASSU executive would assume office on May 1 once elected.

Motivations behind the referendum

ASSU explained the timing of the referendum in a public statement on January 28, writing that it has “historically asked students for a levy increase on a 5 or 6-year cycle” to account for inflation.

A previous referendum by ASSU to raise its levy failed in 2016.

Hassaan believes that students may have voted in favour of the levy increase this time because ASSU “did a really good job of communicating and talking to students about the work that we do.”

Another factor may have been ASSU’s increased direct engagement with students, said Hassaan. “We partnered up with a lot of our course unions and made them the focal point of our campaign because, in my honest opinion, I think course unions are one of the most fundamental things that ASSU does, and that’s where a lot of our funding goes.”

Explaining the ballot requesting an annual levy increase tied to the CPI, Hassaan said that ASSU thought it was a “smart, sound financial decision to make” to account for annual changes to the cost of living. He also noted that other student unions on campus, such as the UTSU, have already tied their levies to the CPI.

Responding to voices against the levy increase

Asked how ASSU would respond to students who have spoken against the levy increase, Hassaan noted that there have been “a lot of valid criticisms.”

He continued by saying that ASSU is “taking a lot of what people have said and the arguments against the increase, and hopefully we will implement some changes.”

Hassaan further noted that ASSU plans to host an annual general meeting or a town hall to receive student concerns. However, Hassaan said that ASSU had discussed this before the announcement of the referendum.

“We are hoping to do one this year,” said Hassaan. “If not me as president, hopefully the future executives could do it.”

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

How we support students — beyond just buttons and free coffee

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

During the 1960s, students were faced with large class sizes and a sense of alienation on campus. In response, course unions were founded across the arts and science disciplines to advocate on behalf of student issues within their respective departments.

Ultimately, this led to the formation of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) in 1972 to ensure stronger representation for all students in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Today, ASSU represents over 23,000 full-time undergraduates, and we’re asking you to vote in favour of the upcoming referendum to increase our levy by $1.50 per semester.

We support course unions

We at ASSU are comprised of seven executives, three staff, and over 60 recognized course unions. The structure of our council, which meets once a month, allows course unions to best represent the voices of their students. We fund over $180,000 to our course unions, which work tirelessly to meet student needs through interesting and innovative events.

The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union’s Honouring Our Students Pow Wow and the Philosophy Course Union’s Symposium on Love are just a few examples of the ways by which course unions are able to connect with their peers.

Course unions also provide a multitude of platforms for students to showcase their academic work, including journals such as the Classics Students’ Union’s Plebeian and the Health Studies Students’ Union’s Health Perspectives. Our course unions will directly benefit from our proposed levy increase as the funds will be used to further support their projects and events.

We support campus life

For student support, Executive Martha Taylor started the Moving on From… campaign to showcase the obstacles that students face during their undergrad. The campaign now features multiple students covering a range of themes, including international student life and mental health.

Executive Victoria Chen started the ASSU Mentorship Project (AMP) to establish a student support system, especially for first years, international students, and students with accessibility needs. The AMP received hundreds of applications, proving the necessity of such an initiative.

More broadly, providing our students with strength and guidance during stressful times is an area that ASSU aims to continue to focus and grow on, such as through our bi-annual Exam Jams — the ones with the cute puppies — and access to our past test library for over 500 courses.

We support student research

Last year, we recognized the lack of opportunities available for students to present their own research. In response, our Undergraduate Research Conference was created, inviting students from across disciplines to present original research to fellow students, professors, and the general public.

In addition to the conference, ASSU provides travel grants and undergraduate research funds to help students afford the costs of creating and presenting novel research. Our Arbor Journal of Undergraduate Research furthers our commitment to celebrating student work. With an increased levy, ASSU hopes to create and contribute to projects and grants that prioritize undergraduate research.

We support accessible education

Treasurer Ikran Jama created ASSU’s Student Success Day High School Conference in an effort to help marginalized youth explore the prospect of university education. Invited students attended workshops run by our course unions, listened to professors, and spoke to campus leaders.

Our Project: Universal Minds matches U of T students as tutors for high school students. Our scholarships and bursaries give our students greater assistance with continuing their education. Our levy will always contribute to projects and increases in scholarships and bursaries in order to ensure that the academic needs of all students are fulfilled.

We continue to build on our past accomplishments, including the implementation of our annual Fall Reading Week, the credit/no credit option, and the 24-hour study space in Robarts. Currently, ASSU is working to extend the credit/no credit deadline, revise our course retake policy, and create an American Sign Language course.

We need your support

Our levy, unlike that of most other student societies on campus, is not attached to the Consumer Price Index, meaning that it does not reflect the changes of dollar inflation over time. As a result, we have had to make strategic cuts to line items in our budget, which we hope to reverse and provide additional funding to, such as award bursaries and course union funding.

We encourage you to read our official referendum statement, and to contact us with any questions or concerns. We need your support to continue supporting you: please vote ‘yes’ to our levy increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Victoria Chen is a second-year Psychology and Cell & Molecular Biology student at Trinity College. Ikran Jama is a second-year International Relations and Criminology and Sociolegal Studies student at Victoria College. Martha Taylor is a second-year Life Sciences student at Trinity College. They are members of the ASSU executive.

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

Before asking for a raise, the group should improve its governance and finances

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

With the recent postsecondary fee changes announced by the Ontario government, student groups across the province are under attack. It is more important than ever to fight for the existence of strong, well-funded, and democratic student societies. It would feel almost irresponsible to urge students to vote against a student organization’s fee increase at this time.

However, these changes have placed a new emphasis on accountability, and it remains important to speak out against student societies that, whether through apathy or malice, act in undemocratic ways. As such, I cannot support the Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) upcoming referendum to increase its levy from $9.50 to $11 per semester.

ASSU’s primary function is to organize, aid, and fund arts and science course unions. The union proposes to distribute about $180,000 in course union funding each year. It also offers essential academic services and advocacy. While there’s no evidence that ASSU is acting maliciously, it is clear that little progress has been made to address the union’s long lasting problems.

A read of ASSU’s constitution shows that there is no avenue for a member to engage in the union’s governance process. ASSU holds no general meeting at which all fee-paying members have voting rights, does not advertise the dates of its regular meetings, and holds no public forums to hear student concerns.

Furthermore, although it holds its presidential and executive elections at open council meetings, ordinary members are not eligible to vote. It seems that the only time that ASSU offers its membership basic democratic control is when it needs a fee increase.

Instead of being governed by its 23,000 full-time undergraduate student members, ASSU is governed by the course unions to which it provides funding. ASSU defends this structure because it views itself as a federation of course unions rather than a student union made of individual members.

However, the union cannot expect its members to pay fees if it is not ready to give those members the right to participate in its governance process. If ASSU wants to be more than a middleman for distributing funding, it needs to acknowledge that it is accountable to all full-time Arts & Science students at UTSG.

With little oversight, it’s easy for an organization to slide further away from its mandate and democratic norms, and a look at the ASSU budget tells us that this is exactly what has happened. ASSU has three full-time staff members in addition to its elected executives. The most senior of the three staff members receives a salary of at least $100,000 before benefits. The remaining two employees receive salaries of about $55,000 each.

Student society staff are essential and deserve to be compensated fairly. However, ASSU spends about $280,000 on salaries and benefits each year, and these salaries are increasing at an annual rate of three per cent above inflation. With every year that goes by, a larger and larger share of ASSU’s budget will be taken up by its staff’s salaries — leaving less and less money for bursaries, scholarships, and course union funding. The ASSU executive has not, and likely will not, admit that these salary increases are an issue.

ASSU’s financial statements paint a picture of an organization that’s running out of money as staff costs increase. While the union claims that it needs a fee increase to fund bursaries, scholarships, and the growth of course unions, it hasn’t made any assurances that this is how the new funds will be used.

The proposed increase is a band-aid solution for ASSU’s problems, and those in charge have demonstrated no intention of finding a long-term fix. Even if this referendum passes and allows for inflationary increases, between each referendum, staff costs will increase at a rate greater than these levy increases due to inflation. Eventually, the union will run out of money, be forced to cut services, and will come asking for another increase.

If ASSU wants a fee increase, its leadership needs to show that it understands who the union is accountable to. It can begin by giving all members the ability to elect their own representatives. It should also follow the lead of similar unincorporated student societies and voluntarily hold annual meetings for members of the executive to hear and address the concerns of students.

It also needs to prove that it has a long-term plan to fix the union’s financial woes. ASSU should work with the labour union that represents its staff to limit salary increases and ensure its long-term welfare.

Until ASSU starts to take the students’ concerns seriously, and addresses them with long-term solutions, they shouldn’t be given a fee increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Daman Singh is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Operations of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.