Administration addresses student concerns at UTMSU mental health town hall

Revamping syllabi, scrapping sick notes among possibilities discussed

Administration addresses  student concerns at  UTMSU mental health town hall

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) invited students and panelists to have a conversation around mental health on campus last week, sparking discussion on classroom policies that negatively affect student mental health.

UTM Assistant Dean, Student Wellness, Support & Success Andrea Carter started the conversation by detailing her team’s efforts to provide mental health resources to students.

“We implement a step model of care which identifies chronic, immediate, urgent, and non-urgent needs for care, and engages in the appropriate next level options,” said Carter.

Her team’s goal, she said, is to simplify care through services such as a multilingual after-hours program through U of T’s recently released My Student Support Program service for free text and call support. Text service is offered through the app in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, and Korean. If scheduled in advance, call service is offered in 146 languages and immediate call service is available in 35 languages.

The move toward equitable classroom policies

As the panel progressed, the conversation in the room shifted away from the mental health resources UTM offers its students and moved toward classroom policies that some students reported were detrimental to their mental well-being.

Fiona Rawle, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and UTM Assistant Dean of Students, said that she has been in talks with various departments and professors to determine stress points, and how course policies can be adjusted accordingly.

“There’s one thing in particular where I see I can help address mental illness. And that’s in the teaching and learning collaboration,” she said. “This is how faculty and instructors get trained on how to teach effectively, have effective assignments, active learning classrooms and whatnot.”

Later in the semester, UTM students will be able to fill out a survey so that Rawle and her team can gauge what kinds of changes would be helpful to students. So far, her team’s data indicates that students who request exceptions to course policies often come from privileged backgrounds.

“If you’re granting exceptions, you can be reinforcing that privilege,” she said. “And I think a lot of professors might not be aware of this.” She also noted that there is research showing that male students are more likely to ask for and be granted grade changes.

Rawle and her team’s work aims to address these classroom policies to make them more equitable for students from all backgrounds. She also acknowledged that UTM is a commuter campus with its own particular challenges, and said that there is an ongoing discussion surrounding office hours, and whether to provide online office hours for students unable to remain on campus.

Revamping the syllabus

“Have professors ever said to you ‘that’s on the syllabus’ if you ask a question?” asked Rawle to the students in the town hall. Most answered in the affirmative.

Rawle explained that research suggests “students will often ask a question that’s on the syllabus, because it’s safe territory. They might not know how to start talking to their professor.”

Her team also hopes to implement various changes to syllabi, including using a less aggressive tone of writing and listing alternative assignments. One such example, said Rawle, is to offer students the option of filming and submitting a presentation versus presenting in front of a class.

Self-reported illness forms

Rawle and the UTMSU also discussed changes to the current sick note policy, potentially modelling a new system after UTSC reported “positive results” when it implemented self-reported sick notes in 2018–2019.

Currently, students are required to submit a Verification of Student Illness or Injury form to receive academic considerations on the basis of their illness or injury. The form requires a signature from a licensed health practitioner, such as a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician, or surgeon.

Students expressed concerns that some clinics charge a processing fee to complete the forms, and that this burden could be even greater for international students who do not have provincial health coverage.

The self-reported illness forms were first introduced during a UTM Campus Council meeting last May. At the time, Professor Amrita Daniere noted that the self-declared illness form would allow students to submit incomplete coursework for up to three consecutive days without worrying about providing official documentation, and that the form could be used up to two times per semester.

Additionally, Rawle noted that there have been discussions around flexible grading schemes that would eliminate the need for sick notes altogether. In fact, Rawle noted that “there’s a lot of professors who don’t want [sick] notes at all.” 

She offered an example of what a flexible grading scheme could look like: “If you have a reading assignment due every weekend, why not just take the best eight of 12 and not worry about [sick] notes?”

Her goal, she said, is to “give all the professors the same background knowledge so they understand what the options are [on setting the grading scheme].”

“There is no University of Toronto policy saying the late penalty has to be this, or even saying that you have to have a late penalty,” Rawle said. “Some departments have policies and some professors have their own policy.”

Carter also acknowledged how inaccessible the landing webpages of services at UTM are. “I Google everything that I need to find related to UTM because the web presence is difficult,” said Carter. “So we’re working on that.”

UTM principal suggests over-enrolling international students to make up for tuition revenue losses

City of Mississauga to vote down funding for Innovation Complex, UTM to increase non-tuition fees

UTM principal suggests over-enrolling international students to make up for tuition revenue losses

In a wide-ranging UTM Campus Council meeting on January 30, UTM Principal and U of T Vice-President Ulrich Krull suggested over-enrolling international students to act as a “buffer” against the loss of revenue following provincial tuition cuts that are a part of recently announced changes to postsecondary education funding.

Further ideas to offset the changes included getting involved in the real estate market, reducing the rate of hiring faculty, delaying building openings, and cutting other investments such as faculty and staff housing.

Krull also made the announcement that the City of Mississauga is likely to vote down the upcoming year’s funding for UTM’s Innovation Complex in an unexpected move, leaving the university on the hook for $5 million.

Furthermore, Krull announced that the university will be going ahead with professional graduate program proposals, even though it does not have “express permission” from the provincial government yet, though it was expected that they would be approved.

However, since the council meeting, the university has decided to postpone the launch of the program by one year, since the lack of government approval means that students would not be able to receive support from the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

The council also voted in favour of increasing parking, meal plan, and retail fees for the upcoming academic year.

Changes to postsecondary education funding

University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union Vice-President External Atif Abdullah spoke on how the union might be put in jeopardy based on the provincial government’s plans to mandate an opt-out option on “non-essential” fees, known as the Student Choice Initiative.

“As a student union, our autonomy and our operations are at stake with voluntary ancillary fees,” said Abdullah. “We don’t know what next year is going to look like for us as a student union.”

Krull agreed with Abdullah, saying that there is a “lot in the balance” and that U of T would be “in front of the politicians” to “make a case for universities overall.”

“We’re in the same boat,” said Krull to Abdullah, adding that he intends to work together with all affected parties to ameliorate these changes.

“We looked at the financial plans of the U of T in total across all three campuses and other areas,” said Krull. “The kind of impact that that 10 per cent domestic tuition reduction has [is] something on the order of $200 million over two years.”

According to recent estimates from U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr, the university expects to lose $88 million in the first year, and $113 million the following year, based on these cuts.

Krull maintained that the university does not intend to “take this out” on international students, and instead proposed that UTM “over-enrol” international students, like it did this academic year, to compensate for the loss in revenue.

However, he acknowledged that the over-enrolment “was not something that was planned.

It put us under a great deal of strain this [past] year, and part of that strain is because we didn’t have time to react to it… If we can take on some more international students, then we have a way of starting to create some revenue generation to buffer some of the cut.”

Krull also said that U of T has plans to participate in the real estate market to generate revenue to buffer it against the incoming changes in funding.

Explaining that U of T has many property holdings that are not being used for academic purposes, Krull said that one possible plan is to partner with realtors and construction companies to build, for example, faculty and staff housing in a “shared risk situation.”

“We know more changes are coming,” remarked Krull. “All you need to do is look at the record of the government funding over the last 15–20 years, and you recognize operations funding has been going down almost linearly.”

Krull further noted other ways that the university could buffer against the imminent revenue cuts.

“We can reduce the rate at which we hire faculty, we can reduce… the amount of money we put into capital. Maybe the ACT [Arts, Culture, and Technology] building will open one or two years later,” he said. “Whether it’s faculty, staff housing, or other types of investments we’re looking at.”

Krull assured the council that the university “can afford to slow down a little” because it is doing quite well in terms of faculty hiring. He noted that the university has almost met its student-faculty ratio goal.

“It’s not to stop, it’s simply to give us the breathing space so that we can pay it down over a period, and we can move to a new state of operations.”

“The end result will be if we’re going to take this particular cut, we’re going to try to spread it, and we’re trying to keep it from hitting the academic budget as much as we can,” said Krull.

Increases to non-tuition fees

Following Krull’s report, the council discussed and voted on increases to UTM’s non-tuition fees.

These included a 10 per cent gradual increase to the parking permit for the Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology Building parking garage, four per cent increases to most student residence fees with the exception of a seven per cent increase for the MaGrath Valley residence, and a 15 per cent increase for the newly renovated Putnam Place.

The Campus Council also voted to approve a two per cent increase to meal plans pricing, as well as an increase in retail prices between two and three per cent.

The increases will be presented to the University Affairs Board on March 4, before confirmation by the Executive Committee on March 26.

Funding cut from City of Mississauga

Krull informed the room that the City of Mississauga, which supports UTM’s Innovation Complex with $1 million in annual funding, will likely vote down the funding for this year.

According to Krull, the city’s budget committee voted against the funding, and although it still needs to be put to City Council for final approval, it does not seem likely to be overturned.

“We now have to find another $5 million to cover off of what we’ve already built, what we’ve already hired,” announced Krull.

When asked why UTM would not just halt the project, Krull responded that “UTM is a city builder in this community. We have been for decades. We will, in a sense, take a leadership role in spite of the city.”

When construction of the building first began in 2013, much attention was also paid to how the university would continue to fund the project moving forward.

Professional graduate programs going forward without “express permission”

Krull also announced that UTM would be running its professional graduate programs, such as the Master of Urban Innovation (MUI) program, without the “express permission” of the provincial government, although this decision has since been reversed.

During the meeting, Krull suggested that the program’s proposal was pending approval because the government was running behind.

“If we’re going to start it in September and we don’t recruit and advertise now, then we cannot start in September. Yet we’ve made commitments to people,” pointed out Krull. “I am loathe to pull [the program] after all of the three to four years of work that people have done to get us to this point of launch.”

Krull acknowledged that the decision came with a financial risk, in case the government rejects the plan and leaves UTM to fund the entire program.

However, he said that it was a “worthwhile risk,” given that it was a “strong program.”

In a statement to The Varsity after the meeting, Krull wrote that the university has decided to delay the launch of the MUI program because “the interest of the MUI team is to ensure that as much as possible, all students can compete for positions without financial wherewithal being an overriding factor.”

The next UTM Campus Council meeting takes place on March 5.

Editor’s note (February 12, 2:18 pm): This article has been updated to include information on the delay of the MUI program launch.