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A look into the student groups protesting postsecondary changes

Weeks after the Ford government’s announcements, student groups continue to organize

A look into the student groups protesting postsecondary changes

From organizing province-wide protests to talks of a student strike, student groups and unions are mobilizing in response to the changes to postsecondary education funding announced by the Ford government last month. The Varsity took a look into what student groups are doing to protest the changes and what they hope to accomplish.

A majority of groups are rallying against the Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which would give students the option to opt-out of “non-essential” incidental fees and levies. The changes also include sweeping alterations to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and a 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) all signed an open letter to the Ford government, along with 75 other student unions from across the country, condemning the changes to postsecondary education and specifically asking for the reversal of the SCI.

The UTSU launched its #UTSUwithU campaign last week in an effort to lobby government officials and university administrators, and the union has also confirmed that it has met with the university to discuss how U of T plans to respond to these changes.

In a statement released last week, the UTGSU committed to working with “coalition and campus partners to advocate for accessible post-secondary education for all students.”

The UTGSU executive, in an email to The Varsity, confirmed that it is also in talks with other student groups to organize meetings with U of T administrators.

The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) executive wrote to The Varsity, “We are working with our members, student unions, clubs, societies and associations across all three campuses to fight back against these cuts.”

APUS executives particularly expressed concerns regarding the cuts to OSAP and the SCI and their impact on marginalized students and student groups that provide “support, services and community.”

The Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) confirmed that it is in discussions with other student groups on how to move forward and affirmed that OPIRG stands in solidarity with other levy groups.

“OPIRG is quite disturbed and condemns the [government’s] move to unilaterally invalidate and overrule the choices students have already made through democratic votes and processes to implement the levies currently in existence and the ways in which this provincial legislation now strips students [of] power to make their voices heard,” representatives wrote.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902 (CUPE 3902), the labour union that represents sessional lecturers and teaching assistants at U of T, has also established a presence at multiple rallies and protests since the Ford government’s announcement. Inviting members to sign a petition to reverse the cuts, CUPE 3902 is also encouraging members to write to their MPPs about these changes.

“We are looking into organizing townhalls and meetings with other leaders on campus and in Toronto so that we can continue to present a united front and to create a plan for loud, disruptive organizing that shows that Ontario residents do not accept these cuts and changes that will only saddle students and workers with more debt and worse working conditions.”

Students for Ontario, a group formed in response to the provincial government’s policy, organized a province-wide march on February 4 and has also provided resources to students on how to to contact their local MPP. The group also confirmed with The Varsity that it will continue to organize protests and marches, coordinating with other groups in the coming weeks and months.

On the topic of a student strike, Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) Chairperson Nour Alideeb said that “anything is possible,” but she wants to see any kind of movement come directly from the federation’s member student unions. Alideeb is currently examining the 2012 Québec student strike to identify potential unforeseen consequences of a similar strike in Ontario.

Alideeb also believes that the SCI will not be the end of the CFS–O, further saying that changes to the organization will depend on member unions and how those members wish to allocate funds.

Free pancakes changed my life

We need student organizations to create community on campus

Free pancakes changed my life

From the outside, UTSG is an odd collection of dissimilar buildings. It’s a mosaic of clashing architectural styles, filled with students and academics of wildly different disciplines.

Yet, on any given day, in any given building, you can probably find a fold-out table with buttons, stickers, and a cardstock sign that says “free food.” At Woodsworth College, you’ll find this table every Wednesday from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm, staffed with dedicated student volunteers flipping pancakes to hand out to their peers.

Student organizations are what bring university to life. With thriving clubs, course unions, and student societies, a collection of buildings becomes a vibrant campus.

It was a Wednesday at Woodsworth that I found out about the Woodsworth College Students’ Association (WCSA), and later decided to run for mental health director. I found more than free breakfast every week; I found a group of students who work to make our college a home for everyone.

The WCSA uses student fees to create social events, professional opportunities, wellness workshops, and so much more. When our $7.50 student levy each semester becomes a pizza party with a make-your-own sundae bar, a coffee social with free donuts and boardgames, or an open-mic night, it becomes conversation, friendships, and community.

The importance of free food to university students should not be understated, but the role of student organizations goes beyond providing snacks — they also advocate for and empower students. The WCSA provides professional development grants, funds clubs at Woodsworth College such as the American Sign Language club and the Woodsworth College Racialized Students Collective, and meets with administrators to lobby for student interests.

My position, mental health director, was added last year to further mental health advocacy on campus. Our equity director is spearheading the push for gender-neutral washrooms at Woodsworth College.

The WCSA dedicates funds to mental health and equity, not only to make our college a safer space, but also to signal to the administration that equity and mental health are priorities to us as students and to push the administration to dedicate further resources to these areas.

Being involved with the WCSA and The Varsity, I often receive questions about whether extracurriculars take away from academics or the ‘real’ reason for my being at university. But I can’t imagine school without these outlets. I’m developing skills I know will help me after I graduate, including email correspondence, teamwork, and project management.

Beyond professional skills, I’ve found my voice as an advocate. If it weren’t for joining the WCSA as mental health director, I would never have applied to be part of Plan International Canada’s Youth Advisory Council (YAC), where I work with young people from across the country to advocate for gender equality.

As trivial as it sounds, I’m simply a happier person because I’m involved on campus. Writing for The Varsity, serving on the WCSA, competing in moot tournaments, and being part of the YAC have all had a positive impact on my mental health. These activities provide me with a support network, structure, and a greater sense of purpose. It’s difficult to imagine succeeding in school without these communities.

But I’m worried for the future of student organizations in the wake of the recent announcement of the tuition cut and “non-essential” non-tuition fees becoming no longer mandatory. Involvement in student organizations and the student press is something I want to be available to every student. When tuition is cut, funds for student associations may be the first to go as they become optional.

By cutting these opportunities, the provincial government is doing more than putting free pancakes at risk — it is taking away our outlet, our community, and our voice.

Clarifying conservatism

Advocating for pragmatic and responsible policy can yield a more representative and balanced student government

Clarifying conservatism

There is a popular view that students are predisposed to left-wing agendas. Supposedly, student leftists are a mob of ‘social justice warriors’ who strive to indoctrinate campus culture and student government with their ideology, and shut down dissenting opinion.

This is false. Left-wing groups are simply more active on campus. They are the ones who show up, speak out, and vote. While it could be said that students generally lean left and are more progressively-minded, this does not mean that all students are far-left, let alone left-leaning at all.

The lack of conservative involvement in student politics not only means that some opinions are not heard, but also gives a false perception that students are in agreement with certain controversial political stances. In reality, students’ political opinions are diverse, and this apparent consensus is determined by a limited and unrepresentative number of participants.

This false picture was given fuel at the recent University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM). At the prompting of a Socialist Fightback U of T member, around 50 participants put the UTSU on record as “opposing the Ontario government’s anti-democratic ‘free speech on campus’ mandate.” In the surrounding discussion, words such as “Orwellian” were used. This creates an impression that student government is irredeemably in favour of the viewpoints of organizations like Socialist Fightback.

However, those with alternative viewpoints — namely, conservatives — do exist, but have shunned student politics, as evidenced by comments made by U of T Campus Conservatives President Matthew Campbell about the UTSU. Such disengagement impairs the necessary collaboration for the best and most representative policies.

The root of the reluctance

Conservatism is often associated with the alt-right or far right, especially on campuses. Because they do not want to be associated with the racist, xenophobic, and transphobic movements of recent years, conservative students prefer to disengage from campus discourse and politics.

A strong distinction must therefore be drawn between the majority of conservatives and the far-right. Take, for example, the recent attempt by some Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) activists to have the party condemn “gender identity theory” as a liberal ideology” at the Ontario PC Convention. This is deeply concerning — particularly for Ontarians and students who identify as transgender.

I believe that most conservatives on and off campus feel this way too. After all, it was unexpectedly introduced by a fringe social conservative wing of the party during a low-attendance period at the convention, and was later dropped by the premier.

Even though these views do not reflect the representative majority of conservatives, they nonetheless carry the burden and fear of being labeled as resentful, reactionary transphobes.

Defining the representative majority

The first step to overcoming the conflation of conservatism with the far-right is to understand that conservatism strives for pragmatic and responsible policy. In Michael Oakeshott’s words, it is the preference for “the tried to the untried… the actual to the possible… the sufficient to the superabundant.” Conservatives favour the gradual transition of established institutions, and reject utopian promises delivered by risky, abrupt change.

Conservatives also uphold the rights and freedoms of the individual — including of expression, assembly, and speech — as they are the underpinnings of liberal democratic society and the university institution.

Of course, this is a very broad program, and its specifics are subject to disagreement. Nonetheless, it very clearly excludes populist nationalist movements.

The PC government’s recent free speech mandate is therefore a justified attempt to protect a fundamental right that conservatives feel is increasingly compromised. This view was further vindicated by incidents surrounding the recent Munk Debate, featuring alt-right figure Steve Bannon. There was a campus-wide poster campaign condemning the debate, and an organized attempt to physically bar attendees from entering Roy Thompson Hall on the night of the event.

While most conservatives find Bannon’s views unsavoury, they hold that his right to speak is a fundamental democratic principle. Of course, free speech is not justified absolutely, especially for expressions that promote violence. But it is precisely through free and open discussion that the alt-right’s erroneous views can be challenged and exposed, as conservative David Frum did at the debate.

On this basis, conservatives believe that the government’s free speech mandate is not Orwellian, nor anti-democratic. But, counterintuitively, they don’t attempt to engage in free discussion to change campus politics — even when they had the opportunity to defend the free speech mandate at the AGM.

Toward a more representative student government

This mindset is unhelpful. Conservatives — who tend to focus on federal and provincial politics — should get more involved in student politics, where their input can lead to more representative and informed decisions on issues that affect everyone on campus.

Conservatives also advocate for the elimination of debt. While the current UTSU recently decided to implement balanced budgets, they are relatively uncommon. For conservatives, while other areas of student jurisdiction are debatable, debt reduction is not — it is a matter of necessity. This practice should be standard for every student government in every year.

There is also the need for more efficient spending: not merely allocating funds to avoid debt, but cutting categories that are inefficient or dysfunctional. This is the practice of making decisions on the basis of what works — not on the basis of theoretical ideals or lip service. Conservatives understand that there is no perfect fix to anything; problems can only ever be managed.

When it comes to salient issues like mental health or accessibility, conservatives acknowledge that the current system does not work. But as student governments strive to improve their services, which they should, conservatives must advocate for gradual change and financial accountability in order to keep policy reform more grounded.

Ultimately, conservatives should not only help to diversify representation in student government, but also help advocate for pragmatic and responsible discussion and policymaking. Clarifying what conservatism is — and what it is not — is the first step to securing its place in student politics.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

Op-ed: A wealth of opportunities

Student groups should take advantage of collaborative funding sources

Op-ed: A wealth of opportunities

When new executive teams take over at the end of each academic year, most find themselves peering into half-empty bank accounts and are forced to start scrambling for money in July and August to budget for events during the school year. Every September, when I return to my work-study position with the Hart House Good Ideas Fund, I find myself swimming in dozens of funding applications that were submitted over the summer.

The University of Toronto is as invested in student life as it is in academic success. Co-curricular initiatives are the bread and butter of every faculty. Students are encouraged to seek out safe spaces where they can plan and execute events, projects, panels, workshops, and conferences. Numerous organizations, including the Good Ideas Fund (GIF), the Student Initiative Fund (SIF), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), exist to help financially support student groups in their efforts to put on a great event.

More often than not, these student initiatives hinge entirely on the success of their applications for these funds. While these opportunities for financial aid are generously provided by the university, they are not meant to be the only source of revenue for student groups, especially since financial support needs to be distributed among many different applicants. Campus funds are the means to an end and should not replace the work that it requires to finance a group or event.

This means that the success of a student group’s initiative does not end with grant-writing. The funding process follows a chain of networking, connecting, and collaborating across the tri-campus community. By solely turning to GIF, SIF, and UTSU, student groups overlook fantastic funding collaborators around them — other student groups.

If only well-funded groups were able to afford to be creative, that would be a dire implication for diversity and inclusion.  

Groups are funding sources in and of themselves and partnering wisely has extraordinary benefits: being able to pool financial resources, share networking contacts, relay sponsors, and execute an event with multiplied attendance. Collaborating groups go beyond simply signing each other’s cheques. The most rewarding aspect of collaborating with both groups and funds is achieving the common goal of enhancing student life.

The best way to approach another campus group for a collaboration is with well-formulated ideas and realistic budgets, even if they are only preliminary. If making a convincing pitch proves to be challenging, consider looking at fund application forms; these questions are designed to be thought-provoking and to push students to think beyond the parameters of the conventional ‘elevator pitch.’

“Having to convey the purpose and objectives of your organization is a useful exercise,” notes an applicant from the Migration and Policy Coalition. “We learned how to draft a budget for events, to find new avenues for funding beyond our standard budget, and effectively express our objectives to funding groups,” says another applicant from the Association of Political Science Students. 

A successful GIF applicant from the student group Exercise is Medicine concludes that effective funding lends itself to “coordinating the help of others, renting the space, making a budget, and then using the collective sum of these plans to apply for funding.” 

Applying to U of T funds should be the last step in the financing process. If a gap still remains in a budget, financial resources on campus will gladly cover it. These organizations exist so that student groups with innovative ideas do not have to struggle to support a co-curricular experience and opportunities. If only well-funded groups were able to afford to be creative, that would be a dire implication for diversity and inclusion.  

For groups that need the extra help, GIF uniquely reviews applications on a monthly basis, while SIF, UTSU, and smaller college-based funds (like at Victoria or Woodsworth) convene each semester. Operating on a much smaller annual budget than its sister funds, GIF partners with student groups that demonstrate strong collaborative partnerships, financial need, and, most importantly, have uniquely innovative event proposals.

Mara Raposo is a fourth-year student at Victoria College studying women and gender studies. She has chaired and interned with Hart House’s Good Ideas Fund for two years, as its only non-voting member.