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.