Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

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.

ASSU announces levy increase referendum in response to rising costs

Union seeks to raise levy from $9.50 to $11 in referendum

ASSU announces levy increase referendum in response to rising costs

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) will be holding their second referendum in recent years to increase their union fees. 

After a similar referendum in 2016 failed to pass, ASSU now hopes to raise the current fee from $9.50 to $11 per semester. The union also seeks to tie the dollar value of their levy to the Consumer Price Index, so that the levy will increase proportionally to inflation. 

In a statement to The Varsity, ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan wrote that, from 2016 onward, the union has been forced to make numerous budget cuts in the face of rising costs. In particular, “awards/scholarships, bursaries, travel and course union funding have all been slashed,” said  Hassaan. The goal of the upcoming referendum will be to return funding to the programs that have seen their budgets reduced. 

ASSU provides 62 course unions with over $180,000 in funding, in addition to $36,000 in scholarships for students, and $21,000 in grants for undergraduate research. 

Some of the services provided by ASSU include selling test packages, offering printing and faxing services, and working with the Dean’s Office to represent students’ concerns with faculty policies. 

In the past, ASSU has also organized talks with prominent speakers, such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, run exam de-stressing sessions for students, and hosted an undergraduate research conference. 

Some of the projects that ASSU currently has in the works include a new mentorship program for Arts & Science students, and “Moving on From,” a project that seeks to highlight the difficulties that students face at U of T. 

Jennifer Wang, a second-year political science student, is skeptical of these proposed increases. In an interview with The Varsity, she said, “I feel like the ASSU has never been a really big part of my life. The time I’ve been at U of T, a year and a half now, I haven’t interacted with them at all. If it was something that was more integral in our student life then I would be totally fine paying more. But because I don’t really use their services, I feel like we shouldn’t be asked to pay more.”

In response to objections like these, Hassaan said that ASSU does play an integral role in the lives of students, even if they might not realize it. 

“Every course union in the faculty gets their funding through us, which is to be used to run events, academic talks and more. Moreover, academic advocacy is a big part of who we are, things like Fall reading week was a proposal that was given to the Dean of Arts and Science by us at ASSU.”

“Some students may not see the day to day work we do to enrich their student lives but we do the best we can to make sure that students can have the best education they can with as little barriers as possible.”

The referendum will be taking place on February 13 and 14. Students will be able to vote online or in person at the Sidney Smith Commons.