“As of right now, the [University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)] is performing stronger than ever,” said UTSU President Joshua Bowman at its 2019 Annual General Meeting (AGM) on October 30 at the Innis Town Hall. During his presidential address, Bowman listed out achievements, like the First Year Council and the union’s various lobbying efforts.
However, the conversation at this year’s AGM centred on other matters: UTSU finances in the wake of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI); student mental health; and leaving the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
UTSU finances, clubs, and the SCI
Under the SCI — the provincial mandate to Ontario universities and colleges to provide an opt-out option for certain incidental fees — a portion of the UTSU’s fees were deemed “non-essential,” while others remained mandatory for all members of the union.
In his presidential address, Bowman unveiled the fall semester opt-out rates for the non-essential UTSU fees:
The Advocacy, Training and Development fund, which has a fee of $0.19, saw an opt-out rate of 21.9 per cent.
Bikechain, a non-profit cycling organization with a $0.54 fee, saw an opt-out rate of 25.4 per cent.
The Blue Sky Solar Racing Car design team, which has a fee of $0.13, saw an opt-out rate of 27.1 per cent.
The CFS, which has a fee of $8.21, saw an opt-out rate of 26.6 per cent.
The Ontario Public Interest Research Group, which has a fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 23.7 per cent.
The Centre for Women and Trans People, which has a fee of $1.50, saw an opt-out rate of 25 per cent.
The Cinema Studies Students’ Union, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 27.6 per cent, although it’s worth mentioning that the UTSU is not its only source of funding.
Dollars for Daycare, which has a fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 25.4 per cent.
Downtown Legal Services, which has a fee of $3.29, saw an opt-out rate of 19.4 per cent, though the UTSU is not its only source of income.
Food Security for Students, which has a fee of $0.15, saw an opt-out rate of 21.2 per cent.
Foster Parents Plan, which has a fee of $0.05, saw an opt-out rate of 24.4 per cent.
Health initiatives in Developing Countries, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 22.7 per cent.
Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans people of the University of Toronto, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 25.8 per cent.
UTSU Orientation, which has a fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 22.7 per cent.
The scholarships and bursaries fee, which is $0.16, had an opt-out rate of 15.8 per cent.
The Sexual Education and Peer Counselling Centre, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 23.1 per cent.
The UTSU’s Clubs Funding and Resource Bank fund, which has a fee of $2.00, saw an opt-out rate of 20.9 per cent.
Students for Barrier-Free Access, which has a fee of $1.00, saw an opt-out rate of 23.7 per cent.
The University of Toronto Aerospace Team, which has a fee of $2.77, saw an opt-out rate of 27.1 per cent.
And finally, the University of Toronto Environmental Resource Network, which has an incidental fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 23.2 per cent.
The overall average opt-out rate was 23.6 per cent. Bowman told The Varsity that “any percentage of students opting out of our fees is… not great.”
During the executive Q&A session, Vice-President, Student Life Ameera Karim noted that two funding regimes had been added to the UTSU’s funding structure for campus organizations, including the abolition of automatic renewal of funding and a new semesterly funding application. Karim maintained that these changes were necessitated by the SCI.
Another point of contention arose around the UTSU’s guidelines for recognition and funding of clubs, with students questioning whether groups with ties to the Chinese government or anti-abortion student groups are eligible. While Karim’s answer indirectly referenced the fact that student groups that threaten student safety would not be recognized, Bowman — following a direct question from a student — clarified: “We will not recognize Students for Life.”
The UTSU’s operating budget
Former UTSU President Anne Boucher challenged the UTSU on its delay in posting an operating budget for the year. Bowman pointed to the SCI in response, emphasizing the lack of precedent and the resulting difficulties in financial planning.
While a preliminary budget does exist, Bowman felt it wasn’t appropriate to post or approve a budget without knowing the UTSU’s opt-out rates. With the confirmation of the rates at the AGM, the budget will pass through the executive committee to be approved at the next UTSU Board of Directors meeting on November 17.
Approximately 87 per cent of the UTSU’s budget was deemed essential under the provincial guidelines, with the remaining designated as non-essential. Bowman noted that the remaining non-essential budget is directed at “people-facing” initiatives, which indicates that those formulating the guidelines “don’t understand what campus life is all about.”
Some substantial changes made in light of the SCI include cuts to club funding, student aid, and orientation. However, Bowman added that the UTSU would work to ensure that cuts to student aid would not impact those most reliant on the funds.
Mental health concerns
In a discussion on the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, Bowman expressed his disappointment with the task force’s operations thus far. He further noted that its four student members have not been present at recent consultations with U of T community members.
Vice-President, Operations Arjun Kaul echoed this sentiment, commenting that “the mental health task force… has been extremely uncooperative” and has only reached out to the UTSU once. When questioned regarding whether the UTSU should develop a committee to hold the task force accountable to its mandate, Kaul asserted that the UTSU’s resources would be more effectively used toward new independent initiatives.
U of T Ombudsperson Dr. Ellen Hodnett’s comments at the October 24 Governing Council meeting — which defended the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) and accused student activists of unfairly using campus deaths to criticize the policy — were raised repeatedly on the questioning floor. Campus groups, including the UTSU, have expressed outrage and called on Hodnett to issue a public apology.
Kaul highlighted the lack of consultation involved in developing the UMLAP as well as the policy’s inappropriate nature: “I do believe that there are cases where it would be the student’s best interest to be removed from their studies, but it’s an inherently devoid-of-logic question to pair that with mental health.”
Questioning CFS membership
Vice-President, External Affairs Lucas Granger claimed that the UTSU executive team cannot initiate a referendum with union resources to leave the CFS, in response to a question from Ilya Bañares. Rather, that responsibility resides with student members. A petition to call on decertification must be signed by 15 per cent of the UTSU’s members in order for an exit referendum to occur.
Bowman told The Varsity that, speaking as an individual, if a member were to initiate such a referendum, he would be in support.
—With files from Hannah Carty and Andy Takagi
Disclosure: Ilya Bañares is The Varsity’s managing online editor and attended the AGM as a voting member.
Editor’s Note (November 12, 4:25 pm): This article has been updated to reflect that signatures from 15 per cent of the UTSU’s members, rather than 20 per cent, are needed for a referendum to leave the CFS to occur.