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The Breakdown: How will TA finances change this year?

Provincial government changes spell out an uncertain future for teaching assistants

The Breakdown: How will TA finances change this year?

The provincial government has introduced and passed multiple controversial bills this past year that will affect teaching assistants (TAs) at U of T. Notably, changes to tuition and financial aid structuring and a proposed salary increase cap are a cause for concern. 

TAs at U of T are upper-year undergraduate or graduate students who lead tutorials, grade assignments, and supervise labs. All are unionized under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Local 3902. These positions are integral to university classes, and the coming changes have left some with concerns about the long-term impact of the Ford government’s policies.

Tuition and financial aid changes

The Ford government slashed domestic tuition by 10 per cent for all colleges and universities across Ontario for the 2019–2020 academic year — U of T is expected to have an $88 million reduction in revenue compared to the original projections. While TA salaries and hours will likely not be impacted since union agreements guarantee a set of conditions, there is a growing worry about job availability. 

Individual departments at the university will be the ones to determine budgeting decisions, including job postings, based on their priorities.

Because of the inherent precarious nature of TAships, many workers choose to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. In an interview with The Varsity, Jess Taylor, Chair of CUPE 3902, said that “those additional contracts that people kind of need to be able to afford to live [are] what I’m worried about. I’m worried that there will just be fewer jobs posted as departments start to feel the pinch.” 

Further financial strains will be placed on other TAs due to recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. While in previous years independent students, who are eligible for more funding, were defined as those who were out of high school for four or more years, the new guidelines increased the time to six years. This means that a master’s student who entered university right after finishing high school is still considered dependent on their family’s finances. Furthermore, the adjustment of the grant-to-loan ratio will mean that students will receive fewer grants than before.

When asked about possible support avenues for graduate students, Heather Boon, Vice-Provost Faculty & Academic Life, noted that the university “remain[s] committed” to assisting students. U of T plans to spend $247 million on student aid for this academic year, in part thanks to the Boundless campaign, and is also offering financial advising and short-term financial assistance specifically for graduate students.

Public-sector salary increase cap

The provincial government is on track to pass its contentious Bill 124, or the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. The bill, first introduced this past June, would place a one per cent cap on pay raises and inclusive benefits for public sector employees across Ontario, TAs included. 

According to Kendall Smith, a representative from the Treasury Board Secretariat of Ontario, the bill is meant to “manage compensation growth in a way that allows for reasonable wage increases while also respecting taxpayers and the services they rely upon.”

Taylor expressed her concern about the bill passing, noting that it would cause employees to lose money over time since the cap is lower than the usual rate of inflation. 

The collective agreement of Unit 1 of CUPE, which TAs fall under, is set to expire at the end of 2020. If passed, the bill will apply to any new agreement.

Downtown Legal Services hit by triple blow from Ford cuts

Student-run clinic faces uncertain future

Downtown Legal Services hit by triple blow from Ford cuts

“A difficult and uncertain time,” is how Acting Executive Director Karen Bellinger described the present and future of Downtown Legal Services (DLS). Recent announcements by the Ford government entailed that Legal Aid Ontario funding would be reduced, that Faculty of Law tuition would be decreased by 10 per cent, and that students now have the option to opt out of DLS’ incidental fee due to the Student Choice Initiative (SCI). All pose heavy consequences for the student-run legal aid clinic.

Five staff lawyers, about 120 law students, and volunteers addressed over 650 files last year at DLS, providing free legal services to U of T students and low-income individuals in the community in the areas of housing, criminal, employment, family, and refugee and immigration law. 

For students, DLS provides free legal services on issues ranging from academic offences to landlord disputes, maintains a free notary and affidavit service, and acts as a training ground for law students.

A wide array of students seek help at DLS, explained Bellinger, however, most commonly DLS handles cases of academic offence, housing disputes, and employment issues. A 2011 Globe and Mail report found that international students are disproportionately represented in academic offence cases at Ontario universities, usually due to a language or cultural barrier. Bellinger agrees that this is still the case when profiling the students DLS helps at U of T.

“A very grim outlook”

The first and second rounds of potential cuts came in January. With the announcement of the SCI, students can now opt out of the $3.29 incidental fee that makes up 30 per cent of the DLS budget. The Faculty of Law, which also supports the DLS, will take hits to its budget through a 10 per cent cut in domestic tuition and subsequent tuition freeze, announced at the same time.

A $133 million cut to Legal Aid Ontario, announced in April, muddied an already uncertain future for DLS, which now has a majority of its income sources either in jeopardy or already cut.

“We’re getting hit from all sides, really, unfortunately. And… it most likely means that we’re going to have to scale down divisions or work, at the very least, if not potentially lose some [divisions]. It’s a very grim outlook.”

What comes next?

Bellinger described an atmosphere of community and support at the DLS office in response to the precarity of its ongoing work, without any information on student levy funding until late September to early October — and a fiscal year that started in March. However, the organization is carrying on with bated breath.

The optimistic outcome for Bellinger is for students to recognize that “student groups are essential services.” However, she also acknowledged that economically vulnerable students need to save money where they can.

“No one thinks they’re going to need a lawyer. No one plans on that… We’re only needed when something goes badly,” said Bellinger.

“[The cuts] are going to mean that people who are the most vulnerable in our society and communities will not have anywhere to turn. The vast majority of our clients are people… who don’t have any other option.” 

Support 140 years of campus journalism — The Varsity’s levy is worth it

Why the student press is vital under the Student Choice Initiative

Support 140 years of campus journalism — <i>The Varsity</i>’s levy is worth it

In 1890, on the 10-year anniversary of The Varsity’s founding, its editors wrote to the student body to thank them for their support of the young newspaper. In words that still ring true to this day, they promised “to make The Varsity a mirror of the events, the lights and the shadows of college life, and moreover a true exponent of the views of the undergraduates of the University of Toronto.”

The Varsity is one of Canada’s oldest student newspapers and one that takes its role as a platform for student voice no less lightly. Yet we are presently facing an existential threat: the Ontario provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which allows students to opt out of our levy.

After almost a century-and-a-half of serving the University of Toronto community, we are writing to you now to ask for your continued support of our mission to provide meaningful and balanced journalism. Please stay opted in to The Varsity’s levy.

We know that this is no small favour. While our per-semester fee is one of the lowest in Canada — $2.87 for undergraduate students and $0.80 for graduate students — there are students for whom opting out of all fees would provide enormous financial relief. However, for those with the means to do so, we ask that you consider supporting The Varsity’s work. 

This includes our efforts to keep students informed about our community, to act as a watchdog for campus institutions, and to provide a platform for students to speak on the issues of the day. We also provide a wide range of opportunities for students to develop their professional skills, whether through writing for seven different sections, or through photography, illustration, graphic design, and copy editing. Through their contributions, students can be a part of the larger student life and community at U of T. 

With our consistent record of financial transparency and journalistic excellence, we hope that you will put your trust in us to keep you informed.

Our recent work

Whenever news breaks that affects campus life in a major way, The Varsity is always there to uncover the truth and deliver it to more than 100,000 students, staff, and faculty at the University of Toronto.

Consider when the then-Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and current Minister of Long-Term Care, Merrilee Fullerton, announced the SCI back in January under a cloud of suspicion. Our reporter was the only journalist at the Queen’s Park press conference to ask about an apparent lack of consultation with students and campus organizations in the decision-making process.

We were also the first newspaper, ahead of other more established media outlets, to publish the unofficial guidelines of the SCI, lifting the veil on what had been a highly secretive process until that point. It was the first time that the public was able to see which groups were specifically targeted.

Our reporting has also drawn attention to important administrative decisions on campus. In the fall of 2017, we revealed that U of T was proposing a university-mandated leave of absence policy, which allows the institution to unilaterally place a student on leave from school for mental health reasons.

We covered the policy from start to finish, amid strong public outcry from students and even the intervention of Renu Mandhane, the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. And since then, we have been on the ground to document the ongoing mental health crisis on campus.

The Varsity’s journalism has also brought along real change. When The Varsity and The Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper of Queen’s University, reported that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities had come under fire for delaying the results of the provincial survey on sexual violence on campus, the survey was released to the public soon after, shining a light on the important topic.

The SCI as a challenge to student community

A student newspaper provides a service central to a campus community from which all members can benefit, as we’ve noted in a past editorial. Levies enable students to collectively pool resources to provide services accessible to all. As noted in that editorial, the opt-out model is problematic because it treats students as private, individual consumers, as opposed to participants in a broader community.

Consider Canada’s single-payer health care system: we all pay into and benefit from essential health care services. But the dilemma, as with health care, is that students do not always know that they need a particular service until they actually need it. Even if you do not regularly interact with The Varsity today, you could benefit from our services in the future — such as our ability to hold campus institutions, especially the U of T administration and student unions, accountable.

National media outlets also rely on campus newspapers like The Varsity to pick up on campus stories that would otherwise be underreported. We have a track record of doing this, from reporting on Muslims Students’ Association executives receiving surprise visits from law enforcement, to covering protests to student death on campus. These are just two recent examples of U of T stories that have received wider attention.

We also understand that students are frustrated that their levies might be abused, especially by student-run organizations. But The Varsity is on the frontline when it comes to student union accountability and financial mismanagement, such as when broke the story about the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) lawsuit against its former executive director and two executives.

While student unions such as the UTSU still have much of their levy considered to be “essential” under the provincial government’s guidelines, The Varsity does not. Staying opted in to The Varsity enables us to ensure that student organizations spend your essential fees responsibly.

The opt-out option makes it difficult for us to hold institutions accountable. The challenge is not just the possible loss of our funding. Each year, The Varsity must wait until autumn to determine our funding, rather than be assured of it well in advance. The opt-out option therefore destabilizes our operational stability by creating financial uncertainty and thereby obstructing long-term plans and projects.

Future projects 

With the federal election coming up, we hope to be the definitive source of information on student issues for the University of Toronto community. Much like how we covered the recent provincial and municipal elections, we aim to profile candidates running in all three University of Toronto ridings, host debates, and provide political analysis.

The Varsity also aims to increase coverage of the crucial issue of the global climate crisis. The University of Toronto is an immense institution and there are a myriad of stories waiting to be unearthed about how the school and the people in it are helping — or not helping — the fight against the climate crisis.

Moreover, we hope to continue our expansion of UTM and UTSC coverage, which was made possible with the creation of bureau chiefs for the two campuses last year following a successful levy increase the year before. Having these positions enabled us to break major stories and cover student unions more effectively, and we plan to expand into covering other areas of student life.

Finally, there are countless ongoing projects that require more resources, such as our blog, our efforts to highlight marginalized groups on campus, our video coverage of U of T sports teams, and our new events calendar, which we hope will become the go-to place to find a comprehensive list of events around the university. 

These projects are made possible through our student levy, without which we would not be able to fund them. We are very excited to bring them to life and others like it, but we need your support to make it happen.

Earning your trust

We are humbled by the past century of trust placed in us by students and we hope to keep it through not only continued truthful reporting but also through financial and governance transparency.

On our website, you can find our audited financial statements of the past decade. The Varsity is grateful to be funded by students and we are committed to telling you where your money goes. This includes how we pay our editors a fair wage in line with other student publications and provide professional development opportunities to our hundreds of contributors.

The Varsity is also committed to openness in governance, and our Board of Directors, which is run by students and open to all members, provides oversight on our operations. Any student can run to serve on it. Likewise, our Public Editor holds The Varsity accountable and addresses readers’ concerns.

For the past 140 years, The Varsity has been fortunate to have had the support of the students it serves, and we hope to be able to continue to provide the U of T community with comprehensive and trustworthy coverage for years to come. The University of Toronto is a vibrant university filled with brilliant, compassionate members from diverse backgrounds. It is only with your support that we can continue to be both a mirror and a spotlight for our community.

Students can choose their opt-out selections for the fall 2019 term on ACORN by September 19.

To learn more about our work, and why you should stay opted in to The Varsity’s levy, visit https://thevarsity.ca/dont-opt-out.

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

Op-ed: Why you should ChooseUofT this year

U of T students depend on services threatened by the Student Choice Initiative

Op-ed: Why you should ChooseUofT this year

When the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities released the official Tuition Fee Framework and Ancillary Fee Guidelines document in March 2019, student societies all across Ontario braced for the changes to come. Here at the University of Toronto, that story was no different.

Under the framework, certain incidental fees are considered “essential,” while many other fees that are important to student life have been designated as “non-essential.” These can no longer be charged on a compulsory basis like in previous years.

Over the past few months, the University of Toronto’s Office of the Vice-Provost, Students has assessed all student groups to determine which, if any, areas of their budgets could fall into the “essential” categories. Unfortunately, the provincial government’s fee framework does not take into account the importance of some of the programming that is provided by many of the student groups on campus. This has regrettably rendered certain groups with extremely high percentages of their budgets considered ‘non-essential,’ putting their ability to operate at serious risk next year.

While many of the services categorized as ‘essential’ are important, much of what has been deemed as ‘non-essential’ by the framework is equally so. Regardless of how important these resources may be for students, the provincial government has inadvertently placed them in serious financial jeopardy. Many services pertaining to orientation, clubs, and student activity are now classified as non-compulsory.

One example of such organization is Downtown Legal Services (DLS), a community legal clinic that offers counselling to low-income community members and U of T students with housing, employment, immigration disputes, and more, all at no cost. Its entire levy has been deemed ‘non-essential’ by the university. Coupled with cuts to Legal Aid Ontario and tuition cuts affecting the Faculty of Law also impacting revenue streams, this places DLS in serious danger of having to drastically reduce the services it provides.

Other important humanitarian-based organizations that have been similarly affected include The World University Service of Canada, which, as part of its services, sponsors student refugees to study at the University of Toronto by providing tuition, housing, and employment support. Students for Barrier-free Access, which provides important supports and services for students with disabilities, and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)-run Food Bank at the Multi-Faith Centre which provides food services for low-income students, also face an uncertain future.

Unfortunately, the list of threatened services just keeps going. Fees for financial aid bursaries, family care, and housing services are all considered to be ‘non-essential’ under the framework. 

Students who depend on these services are now subject to the will of individual students, each deciding on their own on whether or not to pay their fees. Since these changes have been so dramatic, and since there’s no concrete way of knowing how these services will be affected this year until September, it is no surprise that talk of a campaign began to surface when student society executives entered their new roles this past May.

Realizing how serious these changes were going to be, many student societies across campus started discussing their planned reactions to these new guidelines. These early meetings kickstarted a series of deliberations that would ultimately result in the ChooseUofT Campaign, which you may have recently spotted on your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed.

As a result of collaborative work between the UTSU, Arts and Science Students’ Union, eight service groups, seven colleges, and five faculty student associations, ChooseUofT asks students to consider the value that student groups and their services add to our campus. It asks students to remember their favourite experience from orientation, the night out they might have had at a formal, and the free snack they received at a library during exam season. While we may have had the privilege of these experiences, future students may be barred from doing so in light of these changes.

ChooseUofT has given campus groups the opportunity to show students just how essential their ‘non-essential’ fees are, each in their own unique way. Surprisingly, what started out as a dilemma has now given groups the opportunity to look deeply at what they offer to students. We have learned from each other and found ways to improve what we provide for this year and the years ahead. 

With that being said, the only way we can all benefit from these changes is if we decide to support each other. Now, more than ever, student societies are fighting to keep their services and activities alive. Each of the participating student groups and services is being showcased on the ChooseUofT website in great detail. It is imperative that we as students support each other and improve our student experience together. 

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we ChooseUofT, because the student experience that we take for granted will never be the same if we do not.

From the ChooseUofT campaign, we ask that you join us in investing in our student life, and that you consider what a service or fee means to you and others prior to unchecking that box. We ask this for the students who do not have a choice, for the students who rely on these programs, and for the students who would not be a part of our community without them.

This fall, we ask that you choose your peers, classmates, and friends. This fall, we ask that you ChooseUofT in the least cliché way possible. There’s so much at stake this year, and it is up to all of us to support our peers and help keep our community great. 

Students can choose their opt-out selections for the fall 2019 term on ACORN by September 19.

Joshua Bowman is a fifth-year Political Science and Indigenous Studies student at St. Michael’s College, and the President of the UTSU. Keenan Krause is a third-year International Relations, History, and Diaspora & Transnational Studies at Trinity College, and the UTSU Director of Humanities. Dermot O’Halloran is a third-year student at the Faculty of Music, and the Vice-President of Professional Faculties at the UTSU. Devon Wilton is a fourth-year Human Physiology and Ethics, Society and Law student at Victoria College, and a Chief Executive Assistant for the UTSU. They are members of the Choose UofT campaign.

Unions file application for judicial review to reverse SCI

CFS–O and YFS documents lay out legal argument for lawsuit against Ontario government

Unions file application for judicial review to reverse SCI

Starting the process for their lawsuit against the Ford government, the Canadian Federation of StudentsOntario (CFSO) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) have filed an application for judicial review to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The application, obtained by The Queen’s Journal, outlines the two student unions’ arguments against the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) — a policy the provincial government announced in January.

Alleging that the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) acted “unlawfully, unreasonably, improperly, disproportionately, arbitrarily, and without and in excess of her statutory discretion and authority,” the CFS and YFS are seeking to quash the policy, and place an injunction on its implementation in the meantime.

View this document on Scribd

The two unions also claim that the MTCU’s lack of consultation with student groups on the policy constituted a breach of “procedural fairness and natural justice.”

In an email to The Varsity, Paige Wiggans, Executive Assistant to the Deputy MTCU, presented an argument for the SCI as a policy of transparency and money-saving for students. However, Wiggans did add that: “As this matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this time.”