Sick notes create a barrier to access to education

U of T should implement an internal verification system for medical absences

Sick notes create a barrier to access to education

It is inevitable that students will eventually need to decide if they are too sick to show up for an exam, or whether they are well enough to wait in the doctor’s office for a sick note.

Many students may be in favour of a lenient system that does not require sick notes. Such a system would, however, be harmful. Students would be able to evade consequences for procrastination and poor time management, hence worsening their performance if the system allows it.

However, the current sick note system creates a barrier to access to education. In the process of obtaining sick notes, students face economic and geographic barriers, such as lack of time or money.

It is unethical to require students to wait for hours at the doctor’s office and pay the cost of procurement — all for a medical note that proves eligibility for accommodation. These conditions may cause students to forgo acquiring a sick note entirely, and opt to take exams or attend lectures while sick. This puts their fellow students and professors at risk for illness.

Students obtaining sick notes also cause “significant administrative burden” to our health care system, according to Carleton University Professor of Economics Frances Woolley in a Globe and Mail article. Writing notes, instead of tending to patients, uses up physicians’ valuable time and increases wait times in clinics.

Sick notes justify academic relief, extensions, and deferrals. They are safeguards put in place to discourage students from falsifying their health condition and taking advantage of the system to buy more time to study for exams or assignments. However, academic justification need not be deflected onto our health care system — because it is not a medical issue. It is an academic one. Doctors should not be the enforcers of student behaviour.

In 2009, during the H1N1 crisis, the University of Alberta waived the requirement of sick notes altogether as a temporary relief process during the crisis. According to registrar Gerry Kendal, who spoke to The Charlatan in 2010, the university did not find that its new policy would be a “major problem” if continued permanently.

Kendal addressed the risk of a lenient system by saying that, “we count fairly heavily on student integrity and we have general trust [in] our students,” in the same interview. A student cannot be required to produce a sick note to defer an exam or request an extension for term work. In its place, a student may fill out a Statutory Declaration of illness form. The same goes for the University of Calgary and Queen’s University, which both rely on a student’s self-declaration of illness.

If U of T is not ready to enter into a full trusting relationship with its students, there are alternatives. Keeping a record of deferrals and excused term work could be helpful in weeding out “chronic deferrers,” according to Woolley. Only requiring those who tend to take advantage of the system to produce medical documentation can lessen the burden on our health care system. It also ensures that students who are actually ill are able to get the relief and accommodation they need.

Nonetheless, the widespread practice of requiring medical notes needs to change. Student behaviour should be accounted for within the university system — and not just at the doctor’s clinic.

Ruth Frogoso is a fourth-year Art History, Classical Civilization, and Creative Expression and Society student at New College.

“The university works because we do”

Postsecondary instructors should not have to endure precarious employment

“The university works because we do”

The institution of the public university is one that prides itself on intellectual inquiry, debate, and openness for the common good. But this is currently marred by the dirty little secret of academia: the rise of job insecurity for instructors.

Although universities may prefer otherwise, it is imperative that students be alarmed about the working conditions of those who educate them. If U of T is dedicated to global innovation and development, it should first evaluate the reforms that must happen on its own campuses.

The rise of contract appointments

Earlier this month, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report entitled “Contract U,” drawing from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 78 of Canada’s public universities.

Based on data collected from the 67 schools that successfully responded with usable data, the report revealed that the majority of faculty appointments at universities are contract positions, as opposed to tenured or tenure-track. This isn’t new: it’s been the case for over a decade. Among the contract faculty, almost 80 per cent are part-time appointees.

While all contract faculty are faced with long-term employment uncertainty, the position of part-time instructors with short-term contracts should draw the most concern. They are paid on a per-course basis and might receive as little as a semesterly contract for each. There is no certainty that they will be rehired for the next year, and must re-apply for appointments each time. They also have little to no benefits, are not paid as well as permanent faculty teaching the same material, and are forced to simultaneously teach at other universities or have other gigs to make ends meet.

This reflects a broader, decades-long concern about the shift from full-time, permanent work to short-term contract employment in universities, associated with public funding cuts by the federal and provincial government in the 1990s.

However, the report concludes that austerity isn’t the only variable, since the proportion of contract appointments varies across schools based on categories like discipline and region. For instance, the proportion is higher than the national average in Ontario and in urban areas.

Ultimately, the report suggests that this shift is likely driven not by changes in market demand or personal choice, but by the decisions of university administrations to heavily rely on contract faculty.

The corporate model

These decisions can be situated within the general normalization of precarious work in the Canadian and global labour markets. This is based on a corporate model that seeks to cut labour costs, whether through suppressed wages or increased reliance on part-time work. Struggling employees with poor working conditions, whether at universities or corporations, are also easier to manage and control. By contrast, the salaries of high-level university administrators and senior managers remain high.

Whereas contract employment used to be a means to fill temporary gaps at universities, it is now replacing long-term employment entirely. Ontario has the lowest level of per-student funding in Canada, and as enrolment and demand for classes increase, universities seek contract faculty to do more teaching.

Responding to the rise of precarious employment are the labour strikes that have occurred in recent memory. At U of T, a month-long teaching assistants’ strike occurred in 2015 in response to below-poverty line compensation and being allocated only three per cent of U of T’s budget, despite performing 60 per cent of in-person teaching.

In the summer of 2016, a hunger strike by Aramark food service workers following U of T’s takeover of food services raised more questions about job security. In the following years, 2017’s Ontario college strike and 2018’s York University strike — the longest postsecondary strike in Canadian history — revolved around job security for contract instructors.

For sessional lecturers at U of T, represented by CUPE 3902 Unit 3, it is not so much compensation, but a pathway to permanent employment and job security that is a concern. During last year’s negotiations, Unit 3’s “conversion” proposal — to gradually convert instructors from sessional to full-time teaching positions — was viewed by U of T as “unacceptable.”

For U of T, frequently bragging about being the top-ranked university in Canada and providing a high-quality education should come with a corresponding responsibility to deliver high-quality and supportive working conditions. U of T’s attitude toward its workers — especially as a multibillion dollar institution and the wealthiest university in Canada — is what is unacceptable.

Student solidarity

Many students who are acquainted with contract instructors anecdotally know the difficulties that come with their precarious work: for instance, having to commute between two gigs at different universities to make ends meet. But beyond the professional hurdle, it is a deeply personal issue.

The process of having to frequently look, apply, and wait for jobs is stressful and harmful to mental health. It inhibits instructors from fully engaging with and meeting the needs and demands of their students — which often occurs outside of course hours, unpaid. The short-term nature of their work also makes it difficult to make long-term plans for themselves, such as starting a family or gaining access to financial institutions.

When labour strikes hit universities, the corporate model that is pervasive in universities tends to pit students against university instructors: after all, students paying tuition are losing out on a service they paid for. But, ideally, we are critical learners before we are self-interested consumers.

It is our obligation to inquire and understand how instructors endure questionable working conditions — especially when students are also affected by an economy of precarious employment and postsecondary debt. Students who plan to go into academia should also advocate for conditions that they would want for themselves in the future.

We should reflect on the fact that universities tell us that postsecondary education leads to good employment, and yet those who deliver that education are themselves far from that end goal. Today, it is possible for instructors with PhDs to live in poverty.

Even if we are to consider ourselves consumers, we should understand that poor working conditions for instructors inevitably degrade the quality of education on which we are spending our tuition. Ultimately, we should express solidarity with instructors against the university administration.

The need for transparency

The CCPA report has also sparked conversation about the lack of data surrounding precarious employment in universities. The authors reflected on how difficult it was to collect data through FOIs, especially since they rely on schools to release accurate data.

Schools may not reveal a complete set of information detailing factors such as demographics or credentials. The extent to which contract appointments are gendered is an important question. Data is crucial to mapping and identifying problems and determining solutions. As recommended by the report, this must be a government priority set through Statistics Canada to ensure the transparency of all public universities on such critical issues.

Indeed, some universities refused to respond to FOI requests, while others — like U of T — sent information that was not properly categorized and thus unusable. When The Varsity asked for comment, Vice-Provost Faculty & Academic Life Heather Boon said, “The categories used for this study didn’t reflect the nature of our faculty appointments.”

She went on to explain that “the University of Toronto has a carefully planned mix of faculty and instructors,” with sessional lecturers teaching 12 per cent of courses, and that “our students expect and deserve a world-class education, grounded in our research and teaching strengths, and that is what they’re getting with the mix we’ve created.”

Boon is correct: students do deserve a world-class education. But the instructors who provide that education also deserve world-class employment.

As a public institution, U of T has an obligation to show that it serves public interests. The university should be more transparent with data — like 67 other universities were — and address the needs of its workers. Likewise, the government must also do better to fund universities sufficiently and protect labour in terms of wages, fairness, and job security.

We need to remember that the university works because they — the instructors — do.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email

Editor’s Note (November 26, 7:00 pm): This editorial originally referenced reporting in another Varsity article which was later discovered to have inaccurately stated that the University of Toronto does not release demographic data on faculty and staff. In fact, the university releases an annual Employment Equity Report each year that includes this information. The Varsity regrets the error.

What are U of T’s policies on student-professor relationships?

No Canadian universities ban such relationships, despite recent controversy at UBC

What are U of T’s policies on student-professor relationships?

The debate around student-professor relationships was recently reopened in Canada in the wake of an alleged sexual assault of a former University of British Columbia (UBC) student by her professor, author and former UBC creative writing chair Steven Galloway. Galloway admitted to having an affair with the student, though he denied sexually assaulting her. Since the issue began in 2016, the student has called on UBC to ban relationships between students and professors.

While many American universities such as Harvard University and Yale University have policies banning sexual relationships between professors and students, no Canadian university has a specific ban on student-professor relationships.

U of T’s policy on such relationships is codified under the Memorandum on Conflict of Interest and Close Personal Relations from the Division of the Vice-President & Provost.

According to the memorandum, instructors romantically involved with a student must disclose their relationship to the chair of their department.

“We also have guidelines that make it clear that faculty members who have close personal relationships with students are in a conflict of interest if they exercise any influence, direct or indirect, in decisions that may affect the student,” said Heather Boon, Vice-Provost Faculty and Academic Life.

It’s the chair’s responsibility to relieve the instructor of their “professional duties” involving the student with whom they have a conflict of interest, or assign a third-party to oversee decisions made by the instructor, according to the memorandum.

The memorandum also states that the academic staff member “should also be aware that if [they] become romantically or sexually involved with a student or a subordinate, [they] leave [themselves] open to allegations of sexual harassment.”

As to whether U of T is considering banning student-professor relationships, Boon said that discussions “on this issue continue to evolve, and we will continue to listen to our community and consider updating policies.”

According to Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the UTSU has not been made aware of any potential changes to the Conflict of Interest Policy or if these conversations are happening at the administrative level.

“I would imagine that a standalone policy [for student-professor relationships] would be difficult to coordinate, as relationships often fall on a spectrum that can be difficult to pinpoint concretely,” said Grondin in an email. “The current policy allows for this flexibility and makes it easier to apply, in my opinion.”

However, Grondin believes that student-professor relationships should be banned.

“There are very complex power dynamics involved, and I think it exposes students to situations that could be unsafe or unfair if things do not work out,” said Grondin. “Relationships would create a bias, either good or bad, that I feel would inevitably interfere with the professor’s ability to treat the entire class fairly.”

In the worst-case scenario of an abusive professor-student relationship, Grondin said that, regardless of specific U of T policies, “all staff and students are still bound to the law, wherein abuse in relationships is not and should not be tolerated.”

“The UTSU would work to ensure that professors are held accountable to their actions, and that the student can have any resources/exemptions necessary to navigate the situation,” continued Grondin.

Boon noted that U of T’s Sexual Violence Policy covers all members of the U of T community, including faculty, students, and staff.

“Under the policy, supports including accommodations are available to all members of the community.”

U of T law professor pens open letter against Ford’s threat to use notwithstanding clause

More than 80 Ontario law professors sign on

U of T law professor pens open letter against Ford’s threat to use notwithstanding clause

In response to Doug Ford’s open willingness to invoke the notwithstanding clause to push through with his plan to cut the size of Toronto City Council, law professors across Ontario, including many from the University of Toronto, issued a response entitled “The Notwithstanding Clause – Only in the Last Resort.”

Written primarily by U of T law professor Brenda Cossman and co-signed by over 80 different professors, the letter takes issue with the Ford government’s near use of the notwithstanding clause. The letter claims that the framers of the constitution believed that the notwithstanding clause should only be used in exceptional circumstances.

“Premier Ford, you have stated that you will not allow the courts to override your political mandate,” the letter reads. “You have pointed out that you are elected, while the judge who ruled against Bill 5 was appointed. This is not simply a matter of disagreeing with a court ruling. Rather, you have claimed that a majority government can not only ignore court rulings, but that it is also free to set aside constitutional rights.”

The letter points out that the notwithstanding clause has only been used in two provinces — Saskatchewan and Québec — and has been attempted in Alberta and Yukon.

“We recognize that it is entirely within your government’s power to invoke the notwithstanding clause. But it should never be the first resort – it should be the last. The notwithstanding clause must be the exception – not the rule,” the letter concludes.

Trudeau appoints U of T professor to Senate

Tony Dean among six non-partisan Senate appointees from Ontario

Trudeau appoints U of T professor to Senate

October 31 marked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s nomination of six non-partisan Senators to fill vacancies in the Senate for Ontario, including U of T Professor Tony Dean.

A former public servant, Dean currently teaches at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He describes his independence from partisan politics as occupying “rich territory of the middle ground,” and that this independence was most likely a determinant in his nomination to the senate. Previous Canadian governments frequently appointed Senators along partisan lines.

“I certainly didn’t see the likelihood of being nominated for senate, there’s just no doubt about it,” Dean told The Varsity. “It’s something I would have never imagined.”

On Trudeau’s initiatives to appoint non-partisan Senators, Dean forewarns Canadians that, “change is difficult in big, complex, long-standing institutions,” and will inevitably create friction. However, Dean recognizes the importance of infusing independent Senators into Canada’s chamber of ‘sober second thought’ and notes that despite any impending collisions, “the interests of people in an organization, before you arrive there, are valid. There’s nothing right or wrong about it.”

Dean plans to harness his experience working in public service. “I think citizens need to know that not everything is political and that there are people working in public service organizations in government who’s job it is to…think about the broader public interest,” he said.

Dean left school at age fifteen whilst living in England and chose to take up an apprenticeship in the industrial sector. At twenty-five, Dean moved to Canada with a mindset devoid of political intent — he was to complete his Masters in Sociology at McMaster University.

His footings were established during his time in the Ontario Ministry of Labour as a policy advisor, where he tackled issues of legislation and collective bargaining regulation. This journey of two decades would culminate with his appointment to Head of Public Service, a role which made him responsible for 65,000 employees.

“I could not have imagined the possibility of the career trajectory I would have in this country,” said Dean.

Dean advises students wishing to develop similar momentum to follow their passions and seize as many opportunities as possible. In situations where one feels stuck in work that feels out of place and unfulfilled, he believes that one should continue working long enough to learn something about that particular field, and then use that new-found knowledge while in pursuit of looking for another job – one that provides the right managerial style and environment to breed personal success.

“I was thrown into the deep end… into kind of some of sink or swim situations, in which I felt that I was being asked to do a job that was way over my head. But then I kinda thought, I’m going to swim hard. I want to keep my head above the surface. That was my trajectory, that combination of finding work.”