A principled defence of voluntary student unionism

Opt-out option for incidental fees could improve political participation, democracy

A principled defence of voluntary student unionism

As part of its omnibus announcement on changes to the postsecondary education financial framework, the Progressive Conservative (PC) government announced that students would be able to opt out of university-defined “non-essential” fees that are placed on top of their tuition fees, starting from the 2019–2020 academic year.

Subsequently, several groups have indicated that the policy will seriously compromise the effectiveness of student organizations and services. In being funded by student fees, these groups rely on a broad pooling of payments from all enrolled students. The opt-out option, in their view, would not only mean a significant decrease in available funding, but unstable and fluctuating yearly budgets.

This presents us with an intriguing question: whether students should be able to choose to not pay for a non-tuition service. Despite what seems to be a universal fightback against it, there are advocates of the move, at least in principle, in the campus community. Some perceive that many of these services are useless and a waste of money, or that some funded organizations act in ways antithetical to their mandate.

A primary argument among advocates is a moral claim, wherein students, as the rightful custodians of their money, ought to be able to pay for what they choose. I do not buy this argument. It assumes a consumerist logic that everything ought to be treated like a market.

Student representation cannot be framed within this relationship. It relies on the collective pooling of resources to work toward the broader benefit of students as a whole. You give expecting someone to benefit, even if that person may not be you. In deciding to not contribute, you must follow by not gaining benefit from it, lest you behave hypocritically.

But since student organizations will likely be open to all, regardless of contribution, a student who opts out would still be able to use and benefit from that service. This potential free-rider scenario weakens the practicality of this first argument.

I am instead supportive of a second argument: that in facing the possibility of losing funds, student groups will make a greater attempt to align to student needs, thereby increasing accountability and democratic legitimacy. With this would come regular attempts to convince students of the merits of spending decisions.

My main concern here is the degree of student apathy or dislike toward their representatives. The main benefit from this opt-out policy may be an increase in the average student’s sense of stake and interest in student politics. At this point, it should be clear that I am only speaking of elected student unions, because they claim to represent and advance the interests of all students.

This means that other fees, such as those for clubs, student media, and services should be exempt from the opt-out option. While these groups are in some sense democratic and service-based, they do not claim the same level of universality and authority as student politics.

The opt-out option of student union fees can be thought of as another democratic mechanism, much like slate elections and referendums. It is direct democracy at its purest: not just providing an option to reject spending allocations, but determining the amount of funding themselves.

It seems that, at least in theory, this would increase student union accountability. For these organizations, no dollar will be taken for granted. Instead, student representatives will have to justify all spending to the campus community.

This is given impetus by the recent scandal at Ryerson University, in which it alleged that up to $273,000 may have been spent by Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) executives on improperly authorized purchases. At UTSG in 2017, the St. Michael’s College Student Union collapsed after similar financial decisions were made public. And let’s not forget our own University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) quarter-million dollar scandal from a few years ago.

With an opt-out option, it is unlikely that student unions will receive significant funding from its students next year. Instead, they will slowly need to gain back student trust and respect, to the point that students feel the organization is using its financial power to invest in positive and student interest-based programs.

A potential objection here is that such a process will result in total instability. For instance, it would be difficult for representative groups to implement long-term goals, since they will have little knowledge of what will come in the future. My response is that democracy itself is inherently unstable.

However, an increase in accountability is not my main concern. Student representatives at U of T seem to have sufficient accountability mechanisms in and of themselves. These include annual elections and various membership-approval requirements in different organizations.

But these mechanisms have become defective and inefficient from a lack of student involvement. This academic year the UTSU drew criticism as it failed to maintain quorum through to the end of its Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Meanwhile, after failing to meet its AGM quorum, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) will be required to hold a special meeting for its membership to approve its draft financial statements. The UTGSU’s General Council also recently voted to reduce the special meeting’s required quorum from 300 to 150 members. In other words, rather than find ways to increase participation, they’ve opted to simply cut the required level of participation.

Election turnouts have also been abysmal year after year. The only reason that a remarkable 25.3 per cent of students voted in last year’s UTSU executive election is because students were concerned about the simultaneous U-Pass referendum. In other words, a vote on a direct allocation of money saw much more student interest than in any other student election.

Student representative decisions have been confined to a small set of campus activists who, although well-intentioned, are not always able to understand and voice the concerns of all students. In this year’s UTSU AGM, several important decisions that impact over 50,000 students — the split with the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, the ban on slate campaigning, and the condemnation of the provincial free speech policy — were decided by less than 250 people.

Voting, although seemingly simple, can often be overlooked and forgotten due to the busyness of student schedules. But the opt-out option will be done through tuition, and is therefore unavoidable. Students, in enrolling for another semester, must make a conscious evaluation of how they believe student groups ought to work, and the power they themselves have in the opt-out.

My hope is that the opt-out option can give students an opportunity to think about what their respective unions do, and the potential influence they can exercise over them. This will work against student apathy, and encourage participation in other democratic mechanisms. The result may be a snowball effect that sees substantial democratic returns in the years to come.

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

UTSU hires new General Manager after five months

Previous GM left after two months on the job for unknown reasons

UTSU hires new General Manager after five months

After five months, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has hired a new General Manager following the departure of Michelle Lee-Fullerton, who left the position after only two months on the job.

In a statement emailed to The Varsity, UTSU President Anne Boucher said that the new General Manager, whose name has not been disclosed yet, will start work on December 10.

“We’ve followed a thorough and extensive hiring process for the General Manager,” Boucher said.

“A General Manager plays an important role in the day-to-day and success of the UTSU,” Boucher said. “So it’s important to us that the position be filled not only by the most qualified & capable candidate, but by one who respects and works in line with the UTSU’s core principles.”

The reasons for Lee-Fullerton’s departure were not revealed “due to legal constraints, and out of respect for the individual,” Boucher said at the time.

The General Manager post was created this year to replace the Executive Director position and is meant to serve as a link between the student union’s executive team and the operations staff, as well as to help oversee special projects.

Tka Pinnock, the most recent Executive Director, left the UTSU at the end of the last academic year, after three years.

Since Lee-Fullerton’s departure in July, the regular duties and responsibilities of the General Manager have been taken up by Boucher and UTSU Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm in their capacity as members of the management committee.

The General Manager position is particularly important to helping the UTSU develop the long-awaited Student Commons, a student-run centre that is currently slated to open in April, after it was delayed twice from its original September opening. The Student Commons has been in the works for 11 years.

In the absence of the General Manager, former UTSU president Mathias Memmel was contracted by the organization for Student Commons planning and basic financial responsibilities.

“His financial responsibilities include payroll, record keeping, and the issuing of cheques — essentially ensuring that employees get paid, and clubs and levies receive disbursements owed,” Boucher explained.

“His Student Commons-related duties include preparatory tasks i.e. coordination of renovations, liaising with those active on the project (e.g. architects, consultants, etc), and producing operating plans that reflect the UTSU’s vision for the building.”

Memmel’s continued role within the UTSU past his presidential term raised questions from members at the Annual General Meeting, particularly because his role was not well-defined at the time.

“I understand the UTSU’s decision to contract out work to a former executive was met with skepticism at our Annual General Meeting, which alleged that it is improper for him to report to me,” Boucher said. “I don’t believe for a second that this would be a concern if I were a man. To question my authority and ability as a female President to manage a former leader is offensive.”

UTMSU AGM 2018: Online voting stirs debate

Motion rejected due to fears of inaccessibility, hacking

UTMSU AGM 2018: Online voting stirs debate

A motion to implement online voting for University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) elections was rejected after arousing lengthy debate at the UTMSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), with attendees questioning whether it was safe and accessible.

The motion was the only item submitted by a member outside of the executive and thus the last item on the agenda at the AGM, which was held on November 29.

Submitted by Ethan Bryant, the motion cited what Bryant saw as the “toxic nature” of past UTMSU elections, whose “competitive nature… [left] students open to being harassed by campaigners.”

The motion stated that “the openness and accessibility of elections should be a top priority for the UTMSU.”

Bryant called for the UTMSU to consult with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) — which already uses online voting — and implement the procedure in its upcoming April elections and every election thereafter.

“I put forward this motion because of accessibility,” Bryant said. “Online voting would increase voter turnout because instead of voting at polling stations on campus, students can vote anywhere on or off campus as long as they have a device and an internet connection.”

“Student elections for all positions, in the past, have been criticized for their toxic nature and have been negatively competitive despite the election officer’s best efforts,” Bryant continued. “Online voting would close the door on any harassment of voters or ballot system, which the current system does not do a good enough job of stopping.”

Bryant said that both Governing Council and UTSU elections already take place online, and that online voting is environmentally friendly since it doesn’t use a lot of paper.

UTMSU Vice-President Equity Leena Arbaji opposed the motion. “Easy and accessible are not the same thing. If we want to make voting more inclusive, then we should be working toward improving our current structure instead of starting from a new system.”

Arbaji added that online voting would bring up its own accessibility issues, as not all students have access to a reliable internet connection or devices.

Arbaji’s speech was followed by those of more than 15 students, some in favour of online voting, others against it.

Members in favour of online voting cited anxiety when confronted with in-person campaigners, the lack of access to voting by commuter students, and poor voter turnout as reasons to support online voting.

Members against the motion cited possible online hacking, the inability to verify voter identity online, the risk of online voting turning into a popularity contest, the effectiveness of in-person communication with voters, and the issue that not all students have access to laptops or smartphones due to financial implications as reasons to oppose online voting.

A 2011 study from Elections British Colubmia found that there have been “no documented cases of hacking of Internet voting systems in a public election” based off of studies of elections across Canada, Europe, the United States, Australia and India.

UTMSU President Felipe Nagata was also against online voting, saying that with in-person voting, candidates “have to convince [students] to get out of their way, go show their T-Card, go cast a ballot, and that’s a process.”

“That process comes with conversation, it comes with student engagement, it comes with a bigger and better thing that adds value to your vote as a student, as a citizen, as a student at UTM.”

“I don’t think this system is perfect. I think we have many flaws,” Nagata acknowledged. “I’m down to fix the system that we have in place. It’s been in place for a long time and I believe it’s working because students are voting.”

UTMSU elections have consistently had low voter turnout, with only 13 per cent of eligible students voting in the last election.

Ultimately, the question was called to end discussion and move directly to a vote. The motion was defeated and the meeting was adjourned immediately after.

Online voting has been a hotly debated topic among student unions at U of T. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union recently discussed the option before deciding to reject it, citing a risk of coercion and lack of research into the topic. The Canadian Federation of Students also rejected online voting at its National General Meeting in the summer for similar reasons.

SCSU AGM 2018: Long debates to fund student organizations clash with financial realities

Motion to donate to Muslim Chaplaincy fails, funds for Women’s and Trans Centre’s 2019 conference set at $2,500

SCSU AGM 2018: Long debates to fund student organizations clash with financial realities

At the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union’s (SCSU) six-hour 2018 Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 14, motions to fund the Muslim Chaplaincy, as well as the UTSC Women’s and Trans Centre’s (WTC) 2019 conference Making HERstory, were proposed and met with controversy over whether to donate money.

Muslim Chaplaincy

The motions for the SCSU to give $25,000 annually to the Muslim Chaplaincy for operational costs were struck down by members in attendance.

SCSU Vice-President Equity Chemi Lhamo said that although there are other religious groups on campus, none of them are funded by the SCSU. Some other religious groups at UTSC include the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Jewish Student Life.

A union member at the meeting said that it is unfair to other religious groups for the SCSU to fund only the Muslim Chaplaincy.

Union member and 2018 SCSU presidential candidate Ray Alibux proposed that the SCSU should instead donate $25,000 for a multi-faith chaplaincy in order to make the motion fairer to all religious groups at UTSC.

“Having a single fund for a single group may lead to issues like people feeling excluded,” said Alibux.

Another member opposed Alibux’s amendment, saying, “We have no money, that’s why we amended the [previous] motions.”

Alibux’s amendment failed and other amendments to strike out the motions asking for the SCSU to donate to the Muslim Chaplaincy passed.

The same motion also proposed that the SCSU provide a permanent space for the Muslim Chaplaincy. Members expressed concerns that this motion may create conflict between religious groups at UTSC.

Lhamo proposed to amend the motion to say that the SCSU will lobby for U of T to pay for it, and permanent spaces would be provided for both the Muslim Chaplaincy and other multi-faith initiatives.

SCSU President Nicole Brayiannis spoke in favour of Lhamo’s amendment, and said that future plans for buildings like the Instructional Centre II will provide “ample opportunity” to lobby for the spaces.

After a long discussion, the much-amended motion was finally passed.

Women’s and Trans Centre

Shagun Kanwar, the Finance and Safety Coordinator at the WTC, moved for the SCSU to contribute $7,000 to WTC’s 2019 conference, Making HERstory. The motion was amended so that the monetary support was lower, after concerns from students about where the money would come from and where it would go.

When asked why the WTC needed $7,000 more if it already had $40,000 in levies, Kanwar said that much of the levies were spent on honorariums for WTC coordinators.

Each WTC coordinator receives $8,000 for two semesters.

“The honorarium in there is not reasonable,” said one student.

Raymond Dang, the Director of Political Science on the SCSU board, disagreed and said that WTC coordinators deserved to be paid this amount because “a lot of the time a lot of these coordinators pass their hours [for their pay].”

WTC External Coordinator Leon Tsai presented the budget breakdown for the conference, which showed that out of the total cost of $30,000, about $24,000 was allocated toward speakers and performances, while $6,000 was for logistics. Of the $24,000, over $20,000 of that would be paid toward the keynote speaker, whom the WTC members said was a highly regarded #MeToo figure.

According to Brayiannis, since most of the surplus money is budgeted toward building maintenance like roof repairs, most of the donations to WTC would have to come from the donations line.

In hopes of being practical with the donations line, which has a limit of $5,000 for all entities, Lhamo said that access to funding is already difficult anywhere. She emphasized the SCSU’s role as WTC’s co-collaborator and wanted to change SCSU’s donation from $7,000 to $2,500.

Lhamo’s amendment to lower the SCSU’s monetary contribution passed. Kanwar’s motion for the SCSU to assist WTC in advertising the conference also passed.

Recapping the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union Annual General Meeting

Heated discussion on agenda, amendments, motions funding equity collectives

Recapping the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union Annual General Meeting

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union’s (SCSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 14 focused heavily on meeting procedures, extended debates on amendments, and several equity-related motions. The six-hour meeting was also a platform for discussion on the audited financial reports from the 2017–2018 year, executive reports, and questions about space issues at UTSC.

The AGM began with welcoming remarks by Wendy Phillips, the Indigenous Elder at UTSC. She acknowledged the mishaps at the previous AGMs in the past and requested that everyone “be kind to one another” and to work with the SCSU.

SCSU President Nicole Brayiannis made the first motion for the approval of the agenda, which was uncharacteristically followed by a long debate and hostility from a few students.

Anup Atwal, President of the Scarborough Campus’ Union Reform (SCU Reform) Club, led the debate, arguing that his motions in the agenda were “heavily amended, edited, and didn’t reflect what he needed to say.” The SCU Reform Club was started this year in protest of what students saw as the SCSU’s lack of transparency, engagement, and good governance.

Atwal called for his motions to be removed, which was followed by a heated argument between him and the speaker about the legality of the bylaw committee to amend motions.

Ray Alibux, who was involved in last year’s controversial SCSU elections, tried to add another motion to the agenda, asking to remove SCSU Political Science Director Raymond Dang. However, the speaker halted his motion, claiming that it was slander.

After the agenda was approved, the AGM moved on to the auditor’s report of the 2017–2018 financial year, which was presented by Yale and Partners. The auditor’s report passed quickly, and the discussion moved on to the executive reports presented by the SCSU.

Executive reports serve as a platform to show all the work that has been done by the SCSU so far and give students a chance to address any concerns. Students asked questions about the lack of recreation rooms on campus, overcrowded study rooms, and the lack of 24-hour food options on campus.

The SCSU acknowledged that these problems existed and said that it was working with the university to find solutions.

The equity-related motions submitted by students included increased funding to the Muslim Chaplaincy and the UTSC Women and Trans Centre.

The motion for the former proposed funding $25,000 a year to the Muslim Chaplaincy, which students opposed because they said that it was not fair to favour one chaplaincy, and that funding should be the university’s responsibility.

This motion passed with extensive amendments, including striking the proposal for funding just the Muslim Chaplaincy, making provisions to open up discussions to give more support to all chaplaincies at UTSC.

The next motion, regarding changing the period for the Fall and Winter General Meetings, passed quickly with hardly any debate or opposition. This motion included presenting a revised operating budget at every meeting and including director updates in the upcoming Winter General Meeting.

Similarly, after five hours of discussion at the AGM, the Board of Directors-related motion made by Raymond Dang was directly called to question and passed quickly. This motion included the election of a Vice-President Campus Life and the introduction of one elected international student representative as a voting member on the Board of Directors.

Around 10:00 pm, the AGM finally arrived at the last motion of the day, which proposed a $7,000 donation to the UTSC Women and Trans Centre for its 2019 conference, “Making HERstory.”

Discussion was heavily focused on where the money would come from as well as what it would be used to buy.

SCSU Vice-President Equity Chemi Lhamo made an amendment to reduce the amount of funding requested by the Women and Trans Centre, as the SCSU usually has a cap of “$5,000 for all entities.”

Brayiannis agreed with her and said that “$2,500 was the most reasonable amount they could allocate to the conference.”

The amendment was passed and the contribution was decreased from $7,000 to $2,500. Subsequently, the AGM was adjourned, having run for six hours.

Keeping your financial house in order

To prevent theft, fraud, and mismanagement, student leaders must enact changes to policy and institutional culture

Keeping your financial house in order

Over the past few years, stories of financial mismanagement within student societies at U of T have regularly appeared in the pages of The Varsity. For example, it is suspected that money was stolen from the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) office twice in two years, and money was recently believed to have been stolen from a locker rented by the Undergraduate Earth Sciences Association. Alongside these alleged thefts, there have been concerns over potential misspending and discrepancies in financial disclosures by the Cinema Studies Student Union, as well as ongoing concerns regarding the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU).

Student societies are not treating finances with sufficient professionalism. Much attention is often understandably focused on the most egregious allegations; stories about hidden bank accounts and lawsuits over $277,000 in alleged fraud are exciting, while petty theft of $500 is not. However, the repercussions of ignoring more minor issues of mismanagement are just as pressing as those stemming from higher-profile stories.

During our tenure on VUSAC in the 2016–2017 academic year, we investigated the theft of revenue from the Code Red semi-formal event, and we implemented financial management policies in response. We believe that theft and mismanagement can be countered through strong policies and professional culture, both of which are often lacking in student groups.

The recent suspected theft from the Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) from within the VUSAC office is similar to last year’s theft of ticket revenue from Code Red. VCDS is its own autonomous group at Vic, and thus it is not bound by VUSAC’s new policies. However, the repetitiveness and similarity of these occurrences, both at VUSAC and elsewhere, have led us to believe that there are root causes of financial malpractice across all student societies, with solutions that are equally applicable across campus.

After investigating the Code Red scandal, in which roughly $500 in ticket sales went missing, we concluded that there were two central problems with money management at VUSAC. First, the fact that money was stolen so easily from a cash box demonstrated fundamental flaws regarding how money was stored after events. Second, poor record-keeping resulted in our inability to identify exactly how much cash should have been on hand given the number of tickets sold.

To ensure money was handled more responsibly, we put together a policy document mandating that the member of council in charge of any given event be responsible for the storage and security of cash revenue generated, and we laid out a step-by-step process for how to secure cash generated through in-person sales. We also put together record-keeping guidelines for ticket sales in order to ensure accountability and accuracy if theft does occur.

The lessons we learned at VUSAC last year have broad applicability, even beyond issues of petty theft. In 2017, the University College Literary & Athletic Society (UCLit) was faced with a budget shortfall after unpaid expenses from their orientation week were discovered. UCLit dealt with the outstanding expenses via a contingency fund designed for precisely that kind of financial misstep. Better record-keeping may have prevented these expenses from being unpaid in the first place, and, at minimum, could have allowed for the people involved to recognize their mistake earlier.

The UC Orientation Co-Chairs took responsibility for their actions and should be commended for their accountability. Despite the numerous precautions that can prevent deliberate malfeasance, mistakes will inevitably occur, and it is thus important for those involved to be accountable and transparent when mistakes happen.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as prepared as UCLit appeared to be. From our time at VUSAC, we learned that even well-intentioned people can make mistakes. With so many moving parts of a large organization, it took a few weeks for us to find out about the theft and investigate. We also found that the budgeting process was inflexible to unexpected changes from individual components within the budget, resulting in little room to manoeuvre when reconciling the budget projections with the financial realities.

This is not, however, to suggest budgeting processes should be looser. Rather, constraints on the ability of students to reallocate money are essential, as they ensure financial transparency throughout the budgeting process. Student leaders at other societies should expect these limitations, and they should plan for the eventuality of financial complications.

Moving beyond policy, student societies faced with financial mismanagement also require a culture shift to actually achieve the operational changes we have highlighted. Ideally, a more engaged student population can hold its leaders accountable. The reality, however, is that students lead busy lives and often do not have the time to pore over budgets and policies. In absence of more extensive student involvement, it is incumbent on student leaders to create an institutional culture that promotes financial accountability and best practices.

Enforcement of student society policies remains weak, and student leaders face few — if any — repercussions for breaching them. But firmly establishing operating policies can have positive effects in terms of institutional culture and allow future generations of students to learn best practices and establish norms that carry over year to year.

Losing or misplacing student funds should always be taken seriously. If mismanagement escalates, the repercussions may range well beyond the financial. Student societies that continue to engage in financial malpractice may see a loss in their independence. One need only look as far as SMCSU to see the result of continued malfeasance: the requirement of co-signing authority of administration on all financial decisions over $500. If student societies hope to retain their independence, it is essential that they keep their financial houses in order.

Peter Huycke is a graduate student in the School of Public Policy and Governance. He graduated from Victoria College in 2017 and served as VUSAC’s interim Finance Chair from January 2017 to the end of the 2016–2017 academic year.

Stephen Warner is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science. He graduated from Victoria College in 2017 and served as Vice-President External of VUSAC during the 2016–2017 academic year.

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

Keeping politics aside, U of T must globalize in spirit, practice, and implementation

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.

To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.

Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.

This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.

With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.

One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.

Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.

I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.

For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.

My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.

 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Cost-cutting for the Student Commons has lost support from the UTSU constituency

The union's position of the project as a burden amplifies student frustration

Cost-cutting for the Student Commons has lost support from the UTSU constituency

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) took place on October 30. What was made clear to attendees was that, understandably, the UTSU is focused on the future — which means reigning in the Student Commons and the financial deficit stemming from it.

However, if the UTSU wants to maintain students’ trust, it must accept that the impassioned population that actually attends UTSU meetings may not entirely agree with campaign promises. This is especially the case when efforts to preserve financial security come at additional costs to students.

The UTSU finds itself scrambling to cut costs to salvage the Student Commons, a project it has referred to as a “dumpster fire.” There is no question that the Student Commons is putting the UTSU in a difficult financial position. At the same time, according to a blog post on the UTSU site, if the Student Commons continues to run a deficit four years after opening, U of T will reclaim management of the building and possibly force the UTSU to vacate it. The UTSU is not forever bound to maintaining this building — and it will inevitably run a deficit, regardless of the services and executive positions it cuts.

The UTSU’s attitude toward this project amplifies students’ frustrations with the project itself, given the financial sacrifices students are forced to make to construct and maintain a building that apparently no one wants. At the end of the day, it is student money that continues to go toward this project, and the UTSU’s apparent cynicism is discouraging.

Really, the union has an attitude problem. If it continues to position the Student Commons as a burden, then why should the student body be willing to support it, especially at a cost to student services? Let’s remember that the Student Commons is not just a “dumpster fire.” There are benefits to a new student space that the current UTSU team is not clearly explaining to students. It is important for students to understand why exactly it is necessary to make budgetary cuts to accommodate the Student Commons. 

This is all the more important given the UTSU’s apparent failure to consult with its constituents, which was a source of criticism at the AGM. One proposal was raised to merge two executive positions, Vice-President University Affairs and VP External, into a VP Advocacy position — largely to cut costs. There was concern among those opposing the proposal that combining these two positions would sacrifice student services to finance the Student Commons, a project that the current UTSU does not even seem to support. The UTSU had no contingency plan should the VP Advocacy proposal be voted down, but given the opposition from students, this proposal should not have been the only option.

Additionally, despite the UTSU also being responsible for representing UTM students, only four UTM students were in attendance at the AGM. University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union President Salma Fakhry pointedly reminded UTSU executives of the exclusionary nature of scheduling proxy sign-up during UTM’s reading week. UTSU President Mathias Memmel, in turn, explained that the online sign-up process was specifically meant to improve accessibility for all students. Fakhry reminded Memmel of the UTM community’s preference for face-to-face interaction, which the UTSU did not seem to consider.

But it is too early to say whether the new UTSU purposely excludes dissenting groups or if it is just having a difficult time connecting with them. However, it is evident that important voices are not being heard.

It is unacceptable to blame a lack of UTM student turnout on the UTMSU’s failure to organize; the AGM was a UTSU event, and it was necessary for the UTSU to adequately promote it on both campuses. The UTSU encompasses UTM students — they must be afforded the same level of access to UTSU meetings as UTSG students.

While the financial toll of the Student Commons greatly affects students, the UTSU needs to do a better job of communicating why it is such a significant issue to both UTSG and UTM students. Otherwise, the project will continue to be perceived as a mistake that we are forced to pay for.

Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying History and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.