Op-ed: Low student participation in recent referenda is cause for concern

Increasing fees with low voter turnout undermines democracy

Op-ed: Low student participation in recent referenda is cause for concern

Every year, the university collects nearly $40 million from students to distribute to student societies. As a student at U of T, your membership in these societies is determined for you, as is the laundry list of compulsory fees you’ll be paying to them. In exchange for annual funding from students, the university requires that student societies act in an open, accessible, and democratic manner.

Democracy requires participation, but just how much participation is required for a decision to be democratic? This is a question that student societies rarely ask themselves, even when they are faced with evidence of debilitatingly low engagement. It is also a question that the student body should take more seriously.

In October 2016, Fusion Radio, the community radio station at UTSC, held a referendum to increase their membership fee from $4.85 to $12.85 — an increase of nearly 200 per cent. Neither their bylaws nor the relevant university policies outlined a minimum number of students that had to vote for the referendum to be valid. When the polls closed, only 59 students had cast a ballot. With the expressed support of less than than 1 per cent of members, Fusion increased the fee that all 13,000 students would be required to pay. In an interview with the campus newspaper, the president of the radio station said they “did not consider it a bad turnout.”

More recently, The Varsity’s fee increase referenda received negligible support from students. The referendum to increase the membership fee by $0.80 a session for full-time undergraduate students saw a total of 656 votes, a turnout of roughly one per cent of eligible voters. A larger question was presented to full-time graduate students, who were set to decide whether or not to become members of The Varsity. A ‘yes’ vote on this referendum would bind all full-time graduate students to membership in The Varsity and the fee that comes with it. That fee is now a total of $0.80 per session after the referendum passed by a narrow margin; it received 127 total votes, a turnout of roughly 0.77 per cent.

With the support of 534 full-time undergraduates — including myself — The Varsity is set to increase its fee for all 65,000 members. More worryingly, with the support of less than 1 per cent of those affected, all full-time graduate students at U of T will become members of The Varsity.  

This should worry you. The decisions that we make today will affect those who follow us, and it’s important that those decisions are made fairly. Students pay an extraordinary amount in fees to student societies every year and deserve a say in how those fees are created and changed. Holding a referendum allows student societies to request a mandate from their members to take action. Without a reasonable turnout, the results of a referendum give no such mandate.

While student groups are autonomous from the university, they should meet basic standards of governance if they expect to collect fees from students. Although the university sets out minimum requirements that protect the rights of individual students, student societies are mostly left to their own devices when creating specific governing documents, including the rules that govern referenda.

Student societies, especially those that receive little to no engagement from students, should be particularly diligent in governing themselves justly. These groups should put in place rules that not only encourage member engagement in referenda, but require it. At the minimum, every student society should set turnout requirements for referenda.

Student societies that choose not to hold themselves to a higher standard have cause for concern. Following the Fusion referendum, members of both the UTSC Council and the University Affairs Board questioned the results of the vote. If concerned enough, these groups have the ability to block a fee increase from reaching students. I have no doubt that The Varsity’s request will see similar criticisms. Eventually something will break, and when it does, you’ll want your house to be in order.

Earlier this year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union and eleven other student societies came together to request that the Policy on Open, Accessible, and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations be amended to introduce specific language that protects the democratic rights of students. We’re pushing the university to make online voting mandatory in all student society elections and referenda and to implement a minimum quorum for any fee increase that is not already authorized.

If student societies at U of T want to be taken seriously, they need to start behaving seriously. We’re talking about students’ money. This isn’t child’s play.


Daman Singh is a fourth-year student at University College studying Political Science and Philosophy. He is the Vice-President, Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Op-ed: What’s at stake for your $0.50 each term?

Why you should vote ‘No’ in the referendum to defund the Ontario Public Interest Research Group

Op-ed: What’s at stake for your $0.50 each term?

OPIRG Toronto is a volunteer-based group at the University of Toronto dedicated to research, education, and action on environmental and social justice issues. It is part of a network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) that seeks to empower and educate students while giving us tools and opportunities to work cooperatively for social change.

The group achieves this through programs like the Toronto Research and Action Community Exchange (TRACX). Students are paired with community organizations to conduct research for academic credit and are given an opportunity to network and participate in panels, keynotes, and group discussions.

OPIRG democratically decides on what programming to run among students. Institutional support for these initiatives creates a space for students who would otherwise be faced with bureaucratic and institutional barriers, unable to access the necessary resources.

From November 20 to 22, OPIRG is facing a referendum vote to remove its 50 cent per term levy from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which is paid by its members. Opponents have criticized the group’s financial management and programming in an attempt to challenge the very existence of one of few organizations supporting activism on campus.

It’s concerning that a largely unidentified and unaffiliated group’s push to defund an entire organization is seen as a valid solution to criticisms purportedly surrounding its work’s efficacy, especially when a meaningful dialogue was not attempted first. Places on campus where students can gain an institutional foothold while doing grassroots social and environmental justice work are few and far between, and many of the opportunities that OPIRG provides do not exist elsewhere at U of T.

Anxieties about the amount of money students are paying the university are not unfounded. Tuition fees continue to rise and the quality of our student experience doesn’t get any better. Many of us take on jobs and work long hours on top of participating in extracurricular activities, all while trying to maintain good grades.

As students, we know the problem doesn’t stem from service groups that work hard to support the U of T community. Conducting a critical cost analysis should begin by looking at all of the fees we pay, and at the number of university administrators, many of whom spend little to no time meaningfully engaging with the student body, making it onto the sunshine list every year.

The idea that staff salaries and benefits are misplaced fees is a misconception which underestimates the importance of fairly compensated employees. If we demand that staff be paid less than a living wage for their work, it contributes to the undervaluing of our own labour as students.

Other anti-OPIRG arguments and efforts have included publishing false statistics on OPIRG’s operations and costs. Simultaneously, student union representatives have both failed to follow and adjusted the UTSU’s own by-laws in the creation of the referendum, and their negligence in providing due notice has disadvantaged OPIRG by shortening the amount of time it could dedicate to preparing for the campaign.

This process has made it clear that the referendum supporters’ objections to the organization have little to do with any genuine desire to improve campus activism or lower student fees. This is not surprising — previous attempts to defund PIRGs and other equity-seeking university organizations reveal that this referendum is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the shifting political climate on university campuses. Fuelled by right-wing movements and interest groups, referenda like this one continue to try to push the organizing of marginalized students out of the university.

If you have criticisms of OPIRG Toronto and how your fees are being used, getting involved directly by joining an action group or the board can allow you to make your voice heard. Levy groups are meant to be a resource within our community that have been determined by a majority to meet a unique need on campus, but if students would like to opt out on principle or because of financial constraints, they are welcome to do so.

All we ask is for you to consider why many students have decided OPIRG is worth fighting for. On November 20, 21, and 22, vote ‘No’ to save OPIRG.


Nooria Alam and Ben Swadron are members of the Vote ‘No’ to Save OPIRG campaign advocating committee. Swadron is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Health & Disease, Physiology, and Equity Studies. Alam is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Geography, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive; the views expressed here are her own.