Court proceedings begin for lawsuit against Ontario government on SCI

CFS–Ontario, York student union argue SCI lacks legal basis, justices to give decision at later date

Court proceedings begin for lawsuit against Ontario government on SCI

Earlier today, the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) concluded the first hearing in their court proceedings against the Ontario government on the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), with the justices choosing to deliver a decision at a later date. The case launched against the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) argues that the government overstepped their authority by enacting the SCI.

The SCI requires Ontario postsecondary institutions to allow students the option to opt out of certain incidental fees that are deemed “non-essential.” At U of T, the CFS–O’s fees were deemed non-essential. 

The CFS–O and YFS launched their application in the Divisional Court, a branch of the Superior Court of Justice and the main judicial channel to review government action in Ontario. If this case fails to come to a final conclusion at this level of the judicial system, it can be appealed before the Court of Appeal of Ontario — with the next highest court being the Supreme Court of Canada.

In its application for judicial review, filed on May 24, the CFS–O and YFS claim that the MTCU breached the legal principles of procedural fairness and natural justice by failing to meaningfully consult student groups on the SCI. 

The Honourable Justices Harriet E. Sachs, David L. Corbett, and Lise G. Favreau heard the oral arguments of all parties involved in the legal battle; however, they chose to render a decision at a later date, possibly after the U of T winter opt-out period begins on November 1.

The applicants

Lawyers representing the CFS–O and YFS argued that the MTCU not only lacked the authority to impose the SCI on universities, but also alleged that the province intentionally structured the policy to target student associations. 

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union joined the legal challenge as interveners. Their representatives gave a brief supporting argument. 

In the midst of intense scrutiny from the judges, student groups asserted that the SCI interfered with the autonomy of universities. They asserted that the MTCU has no statutory authority to impose the SCI on agreements between the university and student groups — citing historical and legal precedent for the autonomy of universities and student unions.

The Minister’s operational jurisdiction is set out in the MTCU Act, the content of which CFS–O and YFS claim provides no authority for the province, specifically Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet, to force universities to comply with the SCI. 

In addition to a host of concerns about the way the SCI has changed the funding and future operations of student associations, these groups see Ford as having a personal animus against them. In a fundraising letter sent to Progressive Conservative party supporters, Ford wrote that student unions are engaged in “crazy Marxist nonsense.” While there was some debate about the admissibility of Ford’s campaign letter, the court decided to hear all arguments first.

The applicants point to the letter as evidence that the SCI isn’t truly aiming to give students a choice, but rather to “marginalize and silence student groups which are perceived as critics of the governing party,” as they wrote in their application for judicial review.

The respondents

Lawyers representing the MTCU argued that the SCI is about promoting choice. The respondents also noted that the SCI is reflective of the overarching policy of this provincial government which deals with “affordability, accountability, … transparency, … autonomy, and freedom of choice.”

Addressing whether the SCI constitutes an overextension of power, the respondents said that the government is “interested in making the postsecondary experience affordable for everyone,” and that they are entitled to a degree of influence over these institutions.

The respondents faced a slew of questions from the bench, including an inquiry into why the government would present the SCI as a tool to promote affordability while simultaneously cutting student aid and reducing funding for organizations that defend student accessibility, “all in the name of financial accessibility for students.”

The respondents further explained that the SCI focuses on incidental fees itself, not on the specific student associations. This was in response to the applicants’ assertion that the categorization of essential and non-essential fees was arbitrary and unfairly targeted toward student associations. They also noted that some student association fees may be declared essential, and that the government did provide notice to student organizations. 

The government’s counsel claimed that notice was given to student organizations regarding the SCI on January 17 and that a period of questions and answers followed this notice.

In closing remarks, the applicants responded that January 17 was the same day the SCI was announced to the public and that the memo to student associations merely asked if groups had any questions regarding the policy. 

B’nai Brith Canada, an organization committed to “defend[ing] the State of Israel…[and] combatting antisemitism,” according to their website, supported the respondents in the hearing. They believe that the SCI is “measured” and “balanced.”

The organization has been an outspoken critic of the CFS for its endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a campaign that calls for sanctions against Israel in response to alleged human rights abuses in Palestine.

Responses to the Hearing

The Varsity caught up with Kayla Weiler, National Executive Representative for the CFS–O, to ask about how a delayed judicial decision might affect campuses, especially as student associations may have to contend with another semester of reduced funding. 

Weiler said that in regards to the fall semester’s opt-out period, “there was still a lot of confusion between administration, student unions, student organizations, and the students as their members… I think we’re going to see more of that happen in the winter semester.”

The MTCU wrote to The Varsity that since the courts have not issued their ruling it would be inappropriate for them to comment at this time.

The Varsity has reached out to U of T Media Relations for comment.

The story is developing, more to come.

Student groups adjust to reduced funding in face of SCI

Multiple clubs experience financial challenges, limitations in programming

Student groups adjust to reduced funding in face of SCI

As the fall semester opt-out period came to a close on September 19, levy-funded student groups are now receiving information on their funding for the semester. The Student Choice Initiative (SCI), mandated by the Ontario government earlier this year, designates certain fees as “non-essential” and requires universities to allow students to opt out of them as they wish.

The groups that are affected by this change include student unions, student advocacy groups, and campus media, among others. Many groups expressed to The Varsity that they are still unsure of the impact the SCI will have on their organizations, and that the winter opt-out period could yield different results.

Multiple groups, like the Sexual Education Centre (SEC), also noted that their overall opt-out rate was around 25 per cent. “This means no new books for our library, fewer fun events for UofT students, fewer special products of the month, and more,” wrote Leah West, Executive Director of the SEC, in an email to The Varsity.

“We know that many people rely almost exclusively on us for free safer sex supplies and menstrual products. We worry that the current funding cuts will put these groups at risk by making these things even less accessible,” West noted of the SEC’s operations in the coming year.

“These cuts strike at the heart of our organization,” wrote Students for Barrier Free Access (SBA) Board Member Alisha Krishna in an email to The Varsity. “We cannot provide the same services as previously, especially since we were forced to implement staffing cuts. Not only does this mean we must reduce the services offered to our membership, but it is also significant because SBA has always tried to hire marginalized, disabled people who face barriers to employment, which is something we must now scale back on.”

Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) has also felt the impact of the policy. “The SCI has reduced the amount of money that LGBTOUT will receive this year by a fair amount, and it will definitely affect some of the events and programming we will be able to do,” wrote LGBTOUT Executive Director Cheryl Quan in an email to The Varsity.

Many groups’ levies are distributed through the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), including LGBTOUT and SBA.

“For the majority of these groups, we are their only source of income,” wrote Arjun Kaul, UTSU Vice-President Operations, in an email to The Varsity. He also wrote on the topic of UTSU’s opt-outs: “we are fortunate to be sitting at a relatively high percent of funds deemed ‘essential.’ We will likely have to trim some services, but fortunately, we have worked out plans to keep all of our services up and running, at the very least.”

Some groups expressed that while the SCI does not pose an existential threat to their organizations, they have had difficulty with the timeline of the opt-outs and the financial uncertainty before groups were made aware of their opt-out rate.

The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) President Alexa Ballis wrote, “The biggest impact that the Student Choice Initiative has had on VUSAC is that it has made the budgeting process extremely difficult,” in an email to The Varsity. She added that “financial planning over the summer was almost impossible.”

Ballis criticized the process for not giving groups updates on their numbers before the fall opt-out period was over. She further noted that, because the fees must be itemized and funds cannot be moved around, this added difficulty for the VUSAC Commissioner’s planning.

University College Literary & Athletic Society (UC Lit) President Danielle Stella was more optimistic. “Our overall opt-out percentage is lower than expected and we believe the decrease in funding will be manageable,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity. She noted that the UC Lit is changing its budgeting system to accommodate the SCI, but are still reaching out to university stakeholders to address any shortcomings in funding.

Op-ed: We must preserve legal aid for students — and anybody who requires access to it

Provincial cuts, Student Choice Initiative threatens the functionality of the Downtown Legal Services Clinic

Op-ed: We must preserve legal aid for students — and anybody who requires access to it

The Downtown Legal Services Clinic (DLS) is one of the U of T Faculty of Law’s community legal clinics that offers students the opportunity to handle local cases under the close supervision of lawyers. Their range of free services includes help with academic offences and landlord disputes, while simultaneously serving as an educational program for Law students.

With regards to The Varsity’s ongoing coverage of the effects of the opt-out period on various aspects of student life, it has previously been reported that the DLS is facing hits ‘by triple blow’ from the anticipated budget cuts not only deeming their $3.29 fee non-essential, but followed the already-announced $133 million budget cut to Legal Aid Ontario and a 10 per cent cut in Law tuition fees.

It is clear that the DLS’ future is bleak under such circumstances, as is the case with many other student societies on campus. At the time of writing, it is unclear the extent to which the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) has affected student life on campus or how this can be measured.

However, to me, the SCI has helped reiterate the importance of some of the many services students have access to on campus, particularly with consideration to the work of the DLS over the past few years. This is one aspect of the SCI that has urged our close attention to various services and groups that we are considered to be a part of or have access to.

In this case, most people might question to what extent the services of the DLS are useful to a current student. I hope to defend the view that the services provided by the DLS are of high value to both the students who have access to it and those who are involved with their work. Legal aid is a necessity not only to us as students, but to anybody who requires access to it.

The work of the DLS and its funding allows the clinic to offer services at no cost to low-income residents of the city and students at U of T. Access to free legal aid helps a person understand their rights and navigate the law with confidence. The ability to do this is dependent on the DLS’s budget. As outlined on their website, their ability to take on clients who are eligible to receive their services is dependent on the caseload they currently have. Hence, cuts to the budget threaten the clinic’s ability to manage large caseloads during the year and serve the communities that need it most.

Further, the communities which the DLS serves are entitled to attend Public Legal Education (PLE) workshops, which help people better understand the law. As depicted on their website, “Knowledge of the law and legal rights is a critical first step in assisting people in exercising their rights.” Through their efforts to extend their outreach in different communities, it is clear that the DLS is a vital resource in helping people recognize their rights and privileges through the law. This can range from students navigating the academic appeals system to the rights of refugees.

It is vital that we advocate for an informed population who are not at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law.

Access to this information is not universal and may be difficult to understand for some without assistance and the necessary education. Unfortunately, PLE is not a common course you get the chance to take in high school, or the kind of information a quick Google search can provide. It is vital that we advocate for an informed population who are not at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law. The DLS is an institution that characterizes that in the best way through its work across various legal fields. The DLS fosters this notion in both those involved with the clinic’s efforts and those who depend on it.

Their range of free services includes help with academic offences and landlord disputes

With the impending threat of the SCI levied above student groups, it is awfully concerning to me that the fragility of student life is best exemplified by services such as the DLS being deemed non-essential.

Some may continue to defend the view that not every student at the university is in need of legal aid, hence the ancillary fee is not one that concerns the entire student population. This perspective remains close-minded to the ethics behind what the clinic can offer to those who need it and how necessary free services really are for those who cannot afford it.

I am personally eager to continue supporting the work of the DLS and invite you all to consider taking the time to learn more about each fee that has been made optional to you this year.

Neeharika Hemrajani is a second-year History and Ethics, Society and Law student at St. Michael’s College. Hemrajani is St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Editor’s Note (October 6, 6:19 pm): This article has been updated to correct that legal aid is not a right.

The faces of Ford’s OSAP cuts

Three members of the U of T community share their stories

The faces of Ford’s OSAP cuts

Back in January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced large-scale changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Notably, there were significant changes to grant-to-loan ratios, the defining guidelines of independent students, and the scrapping of the free tuition program for low-income students. The Varsity spoke to three members of the U of T community about the personal implication of these changes.

“Education is about liberation.”

Yasmin Owis, a first-year PhD student and research assistant at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T, was confirmed to receive thousands of dollars worth of funding through OSAP in June. Two months later, her funding was recalculated to zero.

Thinking back on the completion of her first two degrees, Owis wrote that she had relied completely on OSAP to be able to afford her education. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to get this far.

Although as a full-time PhD student she receives a funding package from the university that covers tuition, the amount she receives doesn’t account for all the soaring costs of housing, food, and transportation that come with living in Toronto.

“I’m taking on extra work in an already stressful first year of doctoral studies to cover the funding I lost from OSAP and applying to as many scholarships, grants, and bursaries as I can,” Owis wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Among students and families impacted by the Ford adminstration’s drastic slash of OSAP funding, Owis’ story stands as one of thousands.

For many postsecondary students across Ontario entering the new school year, the prospect of funding their education has become an anxiety-driven scramble for financial security before their fees are due.

This anxiety began metastasizing in January, alongside Ford’s announcement. The previous Liberal government had implemented a program that offered affordable tuition to students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year. Coming into power early last year, Ford’s administration disagreed with the sustainability of such a program.

Their response was cutting postsecondary tuition by 10 per cent, reducing the qualifying threshold for funding from $175,000 to $140,000, and requiring students under the $50,000 threshold to take on loans in addition to grants.

“It pulls focus away from academics and completing your degree to the best of your ability,” Owis wrote.

Compared to others, Owis believes that she is one of the lucky ones. Many of her friends that are without funding packages are taking out lines of credit, moving back in with their parents, and balancing three jobs with their course load.

The mental costs of such a workload can be stark.

“If you’re someone like me, who has both mental and physical health barriers, OSAP cuts [mean] that I have less funds for medication and mental health services that [are] not covered by my health insurance,” wrote Owis. “Those who already face challenges [with] affording education are not spared.”

“Despite having worked two jobs — both full time — this summer, the money I saved won’t even help.”

Morgan Murray, a third-year student double majoring in English and Cinema Studies, with a minor in Creative Expression and Society at U of T, has been commuting from Cobourg to the downtown campus for the entirety of her undergraduate studies. She wrote to The Varsity that she and her parents agreed on the commute to cut down on costs, but now, even that won’t be enough.

“A major part of that decision was because I wanted to put all my energy into my studies and extracurriculars, rather than working [a job] after class or on weekends,” wrote Murray.

As she now faces losing thousands of dollars in OSAP funding, the mounting costs that she didn’t anticipate are another pile of responsibilities slammed on top of her textbooks. Her summer funds will be funnelled to her basic amenities, like transportation, food, and textbooks. Any potential for a layer of comfortable cushioning in her financial situation has all but dissipated.

“As I’ve become more educated from university, whether it’s from my classes or the life lessons learned in between, it is very apparent that many people in government are not concerned about their citizens being educated,” wrote Murray. “If they did, they would find ways to benefit the lives of students and help make an accessible way for all to attend, regardless of their background or family income.”

As a result of the OSAP changes, many postsecondary students find themselves in a ‘catch-22’ situation. With less support from the government, students need to compensate by dedicating more time to pursue scholarships or potential jobs.

However, the more time spent on these activities, the less time students have to focus on their courses, which detracts from their ability to achieve a higher GPA. This then lowers their chances to receive merit-based assistance like scholarships that would alleviate their need to work a job, which swallows up time and perpetuates the cycle.

“It seems the only thing you can do is work harder than before,” Murray wrote. “It’s going to be difficult to not constantly worry about finances, but just taking it one day at a time is the best way to get through this.”

“The next step is to definitely fight back.”

“My heart sank when Ford [made the] cuts.”

Ananya Banerjee, Assistant Professor and Interim Program Director at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has seen firsthand how the drop in OSAP funding has impacted many of her students.

“I had a number of our top applicants email me when they received an offer and saw the tuition cost of our program. Many simply said they couldn’t afford to enter our program as they didn’t get the OSAP amount [that] they needed,” Banerjee wrote to The Varsity.

Some applicants asked to be switched to part-time students so they could work on the side. “I noticed a high proportion of these top applicants were racialized and from low-income families,” wrote Banerjee. “Fewer individuals from marginalized communities will be entering our post-secondary education system, and those that do will spiral into severe debt in order to afford it, leading to a rise in mental health issues.”

Worries over losing a grip on postsecondary opportunities is shared amongst many. While the Ford government’s OSAP cuts impact different students in very different ways, one sentiment remains the same across each and every subject: a growing fear of the unknown.

“We have to commit as an academic institution to build a barrier-free and accessible education system until we have a change in government,” wrote Banerjee. “If we don’t, we are going to lose the brightest students who rightfully deserve to [be] part of the University of Toronto.”

“Our education is now a privilege.”

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.