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.

Graduate students should vote ‘yes’ to The Varsity’s proposed levy

A former graduate student makes the case for the $0.80 sessional increase

Graduate students should vote ‘yes’ to <em>The Varsity</em>’s proposed levy

In 1895, James Tucker, then-Editor-in-Chief of The Varsity, commented on academic freedom and the paper’s coverage of the first campus student strike at the University of Toronto: “Rather would we leave the University without a degree than surrender the principle for which we have been contending.”

Graduate students around the tri-campus area often have varying opinions of The Varsity. As a former graduate student, active member of the graduate community, and previously the third-highest commenter in The Varsity’s old comments system until it was retired, I think it’s imperative that graduate students vote for the graduate Varsity levy this week — a considerably meagre sum to ask of graduates, considering its benefits.  

There are a number of reasons why graduate students should care about The Varsity and this levy. First, there is currently no graduate media voice of any strength on any of the campuses at U of T. Three newspapers run by graduate students have existed in the past, but all were run by the U of T Graduate Students’ Union (or UTGSU) and largely failed over time due to mismanagement and a lack of proper resources. 

While these old mediums often framed themselves as rivals to The Varsity, we have to look at the sum of the paper’s history. The Varsity is the campus paper of record and has consistently covered graduate issues, from the recent Canadian Federation of Students referendum, to every major issue raised by UTGSU’s caucuses and committees for ages. 

Second, The Varsity could cover these issues more precisely. And the best way to ensure graduate student issues are covered properly is to engage graduate students in writing and producing the paper itself. This isn’t to say graduate students haven’t gotten involved with The Varsity in the past — most of my colleagues and I have — but the opportunity for added perspectives in the newsroom and on the masthead could only further the broader mission of the paper. An intensification of focus on graduate issues will make it easier for the paper to interpret graduate concerns and, in turn, provide a clearer and more comprehensive picture of graduate life to the rest of campus and the public. Graduate students can only benefit from such a sharpening of the paper’s relationship with graduate life.

Third, as U of T’s paper of record, The Varsity has covered many broader issues that intersect with graduate life. From being the starting ground for the country’s first student strike in 1895, to giving voice to those unlawfully violated in the mass arrest at the GSU Building during the G20 in 2010, The Varsity has always served as an important and critical platform for students to express dissent and bring about shifts at the university. Now, the ideological bent of The Varsity is about as consistent as a weather vane in a tornado, and some really noxious people — including young neo-Nazis — have been published in these pages. However, in the long swing of history, this paper has reflected the campus it has been written on, and those given the reigns — which, really, should include graduate students, given the importance of this space.

With the expansion of the paper to graduates and the promise of increased tri-campus undergraduate populace representation, The Varsity looks to be evolving into a more comprehensive news source for students and the whole campus community. As a long-time reader, contributor, and crank (I’ve admittedly sent way too many late-night emails to past news editors) I urge graduate students to take this vote seriously and vote in favour of the levy. I’ve read most of the archives of this very paper for my past graduate-level research on the development of governance and student activism here at U of T, and I simply could not have done this work without the archival material provided freely online by the paper. If my research experience shows anything, it’s that there is no better source for campus news or a better archive of a whole host of issues on campus and the community than The Varsity.

The spirit of resistance and principle found in The Varsity’s pages over the years is one that has always resonated with me. With the help of graduates and a wider view on all campuses, The Varsity will be better equipped to walk this path. I hope that graduate students take up the possibility of being part of The Varsity and bring their skill, their focus, and their constant contributions to campus life to the paper. Vote ’yes’ and we can see what the future will bring — no matter what, it’ll be written right here.

Brad Evoy is a former graduate student at OISE/UT, a multi-year UTGSU Executive, and an ex-UTSU Speaker.

ASSU loses bid to raise levy by $3

Course unions, ASSU Executive dissapointed

ASSU loses bid to raise levy by $3

Last week, the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) lost its bid to raise student fees by $3 per semester.

The tallied results of the referendum showed that 60 per cent of student voters were opposed to the proposed fee increase. Of a total of 1,533 voters, 925 voted against the increase, 578 in favour, and 30 voters abstained.

ASSU’s proposal would have raised union fees to $12.50 from the $9.50 that students currently pay per semester. It also proposed a new “cost-of-living adjustment” to tie future fee increases to the rate of inflation.

According to ASSU, funds collected from the increased fee would have gone towards funding its 66 course unions as well as towards grants, bursaries, and event programming.

ASSU’s decision to ask the student body for a fee increase was also, in part, due to financial concerns regarding its budget. Speaking to The Varsity earlier this year, ASSU President Ondiek Odour explained that the the union has been operating on a budget that “far exceeds our income.”

Sahal Malek is the President of the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Students’ Union and the French Course Union, which are two groups that could have benefited from the levy increase. Malek called the referendum results “extremely unfortunate.”

Malek explained that the work that course unions do includes representing the interests of students in the respective departments, hosting academic workshops and conferences, and organizing social and networking events: “We do these tasks on a shoestring budget, and are not paid for any of our efforts.”

“[It] tells us that our efforts to enrich the lives of students on campus are not worthy,” Malek continued. “I hope that students will appreciate what course unions do for them in the future, and maybe decide that we are worthy of a mere three more dollars.”

The political climate on campus likely played a major role in the referendum’s defeat. A month ago, the UTSU held a referendum on a levy increase, which also failed to pass.

Tanzim Rashid, a third-year Trinity College student opposed to the fee increase, explained his objections in a statement to The Varsity. Rashid is a member of Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), a student group critical of ‘political correctness’ which began in wake of the psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures on the topic. Rashid encouraged fellow SSFS members to vote against the levy increase.

Rashid expressed concern that ASSU is being used as “a platform to promote radical polarizing political views” and suggested that the impartiality of the union had been compromised in light of recent events. ASSU was one of several student unions to release a statement criticizing Peterson.

He said that the failed referendum was a message to the “ASSU, UTSU, and U of T admin, that the mismanagement of funds, and the misappropriation of the ASSU… will not be tolerated by the silent majority” and slammed the union for “purchasing drake posters, having coffee soirees,” and supporting the Black Liberation Collective.

Following weeks of campaigning, the ASSU executive was left “disappointed” by the results of last week’s referendum. In a collective statement to The Varsity, executive members addressed some of the concerns that ‘No’ voters may have had.

“A lot of individuals’ criticism of our levy stemmed from a misunderstanding of our current financial situation,” they said. “We admit that we could have been clearer with disseminating our financial situation to our membership, so that they could be better informed.”

Their statement continues: “One of the more common criticisms we received was that we had somehow mismanaged our funding by passing a deficit budget when having deficit budgets at tale end of our five-year levy cycle had been practiced for more than 25 years.”

The executive also admitted that “this is a difficult year to hold any sort of campus-wide vote.”

“Most of the discussion surrounding our referendum—ironically—focused on how our Union chose to freely speak out against a professor’s problematic actions,” they continued.

If it had been successful, the fee increase would be the ASSU’s first since 2010. The referendum also marked the first time that the ASSU used online voting instead of paper ballots. ASSU allowed students to vote remotely online or in-person with computers set up at Sidney Smith Hall.

Despite the new voting measures, voter turnout was meagre. Of the approximately 23,000 students that the ASSU represents, only 6.6 per cent voted in the referendum.

“The final votes cast are disappointing in light of the size of our membership, and show only a small increase compared to our last paper ballot in 2010. Regardless of whether students supported the levy or not, we were hoping to see more engaging numbers,” reads a portion of ASSU’s statement on its website.

The results of last week’s vote will be formally submitted to the ASSU Council Meeting on November 15 for approval.

ASSU levy increase referendum unsuccessful

'No' side wins 60 per cent of votes

ASSU levy increase referendum unsuccessful

The Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) bid to increase the ASSU student fee by $3 per semester has failed.

Referendum results on Friday shortly after midnight showed that 60 per cent of 1,533 student voters have voted against ASSU’s proposal to raise its student levy from $9.50 to $12.50 per semester. Of the total votes cast, 925 voted against the fee increase, with 578 in favour, and 30 voters abstaining.

Voting took place in-person at Sidney Smith Hall as well as online on November 2 and 3. According to ASSU, the proposed fee increase would have supported increased budgets for course unions, bursaries, and grants.

A levy increase referendum held by the University of Toronto Students’ Union two weeks ago was also unsuccessful.

This story is developing, more to follow.

A screenshot of the referendum results. VIA VOTING.UTORONTO.CA

A screenshot of the referendum results. VIA VOTING.UTORONTO.CA

UTSU referendum for clubs levy fails

'No' side wins 76.3 per cent of votes

UTSU referendum for clubs levy fails

The votes are in and University of Toronto Students’ Union’s proposal for a new levy to fund student clubs has failed, with 76.3 per cent of referendum voters casting their ballots against the fee.

The referendum was held from October 18–20. Of the 2,026 students that voted, only 23.7 per cent voted in favour of the proposed levy. 2.4 per cent abstained.

The proposed levy would have been $3.75 per session for the next five years. The funds collected would have been restricted towards clubs, events, and student service funding only, with no amount going towards salaries.

This story is developing; more to follow.