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UTSU in consultation with Ontario government on designing opt-out option for fees

Union intends to leverage rare lobbying position, some directors argue at cost of showing stronger support for students

UTSU in consultation with Ontario government on designing opt-out option for fees

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) presented a lobbying-based strategy for responding to the provincial government’s changes to postsecondary education in an emergency meeting held by its Board of Directors on January 24.

This is in response to Premier Doug Ford’s government announcement last week that it would give students the option of opting out of “non-essential” fees, cut free tuition for low-income students, and cut tuition by 10 per cent.

At the emergency board meeting, UTSU President Anne Boucher said that the union was one of the few across the province to be meeting with the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU), and was thus in a rare position to lobby the provincial government.

The UTSU’s strategy emphasizes making the most out of its unique position to be consulted by the MTCU, the ministry responsible for designing and announcing specifics for these policy changes. The UTSU itself is largely funded by incidental fees and is therefore in a risky position if its currently mandatory fees are deemed opt-out.

Boucher specified that representatives from the University of Waterloo, Western University, and perhaps only a few more universities have been in consultation with the MTCU, during a Varsity interview after the meeting.

These student union consultations come after The Varsity asked TCU Minister Merrilee Fullerton at her January 17 press conference whether her office had met with student groups in developing these policy changes, to which she was unable to give a clear answer.

Who the UTSU is speaking to and what it is negotiating in favour of

In a question period, University College (UC) Director Lina Maragha asked Boucher about the direction that she is taking in lobbying and what the UTSU is trying to advocate for.

Boucher responded by saying that the UTSU was taking a “two-prong approach.”

The first priority is for the UTSU to concentrate on talks with the MTCU. The second priority is to speak with local MPPs. While they have limited influence on the legislative process, noted Boucher, the UTSU does wish to “see if there’s any way that they can help.”

Boucher said that the UTSU’s goal regarding the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) is to have students “see the same support that they had before the announcement, as much as possible.”

Addressing the opt-out option for non-tuition fees, Boucher said that the UTSU is aiming to “make recommendations to the [legislative] framework directly that would essentially safeguard our groups,” which include clubs on campus that directly affect student life.

Boucher noted that this seemed to be the UTSU’s best option to negotiate and compromise, as it would be unrealistic to ask the MTCU to reverse its position on OSAP and non-tuition fees entirely.

The UTSU had met once with the MTCU before the emergency board meeting, “and it’s one of many meetings to come,” said Boucher.

Aims to reach students with social media campaign

Boucher noted that, in focusing efforts on lobbying, the UTSU’s efforts have not been as visible to students, as there are obstacles to transparency regarding negotiations.

To combat this, Boucher said that the UTSU is initiating a social media campaign named “UTSU With You,” aimed at giving its membership updates on the negotiation process and a platform to share thoughts.

Boucher mentioned that the UTSU has been using stories it received in conversations with the government, and that “case studies are something that really speaks to them.”

Boucher also noted that Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin will be in consultation with U of T, as the university will “have some discretion over what this will look like.

She reiterated that the goal of Grondin’s talks will be to “make sure that the student fees and the student levies are protected through all of this.”

Opposition among directors

Boucher’s top-down approach was faced with opposition by directors favouring a greater focus on student engagement.

Directors took specific concern with the perceived weakness of the UTSU’s January 17 statement against the government’s announcements.

Maragha said that UC students visiting her during her office hours have felt a “disparity between their vocalized concerns with the OSAP’s cut and the UTSU’s response.” She specifically remembered a student calling the statement “robotic.”

In response, Boucher acknowledged that the wording of the statement had been “very diplomatic,” but said that this was a conscious choice “with reason, and not because we don’t care about the issue.”

Maragha followed up by saying that a more “aggressive approach” was important, because “the Ford administration did decide to… throw us under the bus.”

“I think it’s really important to consider their voices, and they’re not happy with the strength of our approach right now.”

Boucher responded by agreeing that the UTSU has to take students’ perceptions into consideration since, if the fees do become opt-out, the UTSU’s actions in the present may influence students’ choices to remain opted-in.

However, she said that the key question for the UTSU was, “Do we want to have the opportunity to make change, or do we want to seem supported?”

“It’s one thing to take more direct action, but if the effects of that is that we lose that seat, then sure, we’re placating people who are upset with us for not being as visible, but we lose that opportunity to make that change.”

Woodsworth College Director Octavia Andrade-Dixon also noted that “from being on the ground, the UTSU isn’t necessarily fully understood by students or even very popular,” and advocated for increased “direct engagement” to address that.

She recommended an active approach of reaching out to club executives to communicate progress on the UTSU’s advocacy, which Boucher supported.

UC Director Tyler Riches also noted from his interactions with UC students that the UTSU is “being perceived as passive,” and requested that the executives share progress on MTCU negotiations as soon as possible for wider dissemination.

Likely outcomes for the UTSU

A likely outcome of the MTCU consultations will be of the UTSU splitting its fees into several categories to become more “transparent” for students, which Boucher described as “one of the few common-ground points that we actually have with the government right now.”

Boucher told The Varsity that, in the best-case scenario resulting from consultations with the MTCU, the UTSU and campus groups may not have their fees and levies affected by the government’s opt-out options for students.

In this case, campus groups that “directly serve” students, such as those that are a part of Hart House, Student Life, and student societies, would also not be affected. However, external groups and other groups that “don’t directly serve” students would see their fees become optional for students to support.

In another scenario, Boucher said that only part of the UTSU’s fees and levies may become optional to students, while others would continue to be mandatory.

Grondin noted in the meeting that he thinks “it’s safe to assume that the part of our fee that could be most at-risk is the lobbying, advocacy type of campaigning work that we do.”

He advocated for directors to help with the UTSU’s archive project, which aims to document a “concrete list” of initiatives that the UTSU had previously lobbied for, in order to better communicate to students what advocacy work the UTSU does.

Finally, in the least-favourable scenario to the UTSU, students would be able to opt out of all fees broken down by the UTSU.

Parliamentary Assistant to the TCU minster David Piccini told The Varsity that the government plans to continue consultations with students.

Opening of Student Commons building delayed to June

January board meeting sees UTSU scathingly criticize Canadian Federation of Students, review motion to protect journalistic rights

Opening of Student Commons building delayed to June

Another delay to the opening of the Student Commons building, a report on the National General (NGM) meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS), and a motion to protect independent press coverage were highlights of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) January Board of Directors meeting.

UTSU President Anne Boucher wrote in her executive report that “unforeseen architectural challenges” reported by the UTSU’s contractor have pushed back the most likely opening date of the Student Commons building to June, rather than April — itself a delay from January, which was a delay from September of  last year. 

The Student Commons is a planned student-run hub to be located at 230 College Street.

Social Sciences Director Joshua Bowman moved to externalize Boucher’s note on the delay in her executive report, in order to discuss it in greater depth. “I’m not going to blame the current executive for that,” said Bowman. “I do believe that the majority of this is out of their hands.” 

He did, however, request further information on the causes behind the delay, and whether the projected June opening is a rough estimate or guarantee.

Boucher clarified that reports that she has made on the projected opening date of the Student Commons have “always been a projection,” rather than a promise. She said that June is a “reasonable opening date,” but noted that the projection may change again closer to June.

She reported that the UTSU’s contractor said that the delay is because of unanticipated “structural changes” due to the building’s age, such as piping in the basement.

UTSU scathingly criticizes CFS

Boucher, Bowman, and Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm also summarized a report on the UTSU’s attendance at the NGM of the CFS, a national student union that represents post-secondary student unions across the country.

Reporting a positive outcome of the meeting, Bowman said that the UTSU’s delegation submitted a resolution for the CFS to reaffirm its stance against antisemitism, in light of the October shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The resolution, noted Bowman, called for a revamping of the campaign against antisemitism and reprinting materials. The motion passed unanimously.

However, the UTSU delegation gave a scathing overall review of the CFS. In its report, the UTSU wrote that the CFS “has a limited tolerance of alternative viewpoints” and that it “exhibits partisanship in the rules and conduct of its meetings.”

The UTSU delegation took specific issue with the perceived support the CFS has given to the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), the embattled student union of the University of Ottawa, which has been faced with allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement.

The SFUO is facing a referendum in February by University of Ottawa students, to decide whether a new student union should replace it as a representative body.

“Despite what is happening at the University of Ottawa,” said Bowman, “members of the SFUO still felt the need to come to the CFS and essentially propose a thinly-veiled attempt to get bailed out by the Canadian Federation of Students.”

The UTSU delegation interpreted the SFUO’s request for support as a bid for the CFS to gain the ability to “step in when a member local is in danger of losing funding from is administration,” said Bowman, which is the case for the SFUO. The delegation asked “if this would allow the CFS to interfere with the upcoming student referendum at UOttawa,” despite their belief that the fate of the SFUO should be left in the hands of University of Ottawa students. 

Bowman reported that there was a lack of response from “a lot of people who had authority in that room,” which the delegation perceived as a “silent affirmation of the CFS’s support of the SFUO.”

In response to the UTSU’s criticism, the CFS told The Varsity that they do not “comment on particular matters relating to debate during National General Meetings.” 

“However, we would like to note that delegates are encouraged throughout the meeting to maintain decorum and express their support or lack thereof for a motion through debate and their vote.”

In regards to the SFUO, the CFS wrote that “Due to its debate exceeding the time allotted for our meeting, the motion was referred for recommendation by the National Executive. The CFS therefore does not have a current stance on it.” They will be discussing it at their April meeting.

Another criticism by the delegation addressed perceived favouritism at the CFS. 

“One person following the party line would receive a sort of raucous applause immediately after their statements because they fall within an allowed scope of opinions,” said Biswurm. “The the next person, ostensibly classified as voicing critique, would receive dead silence.”

“We saw the CFS as enforcing a political agenda established by its national executives,” he said. “And certain other student leaders who seem to have a close relationship with those in power in the CFS structure, generally.”

In direct response to this criticism, the CFS wrote, “The direction of the [CFS] is determined democratically by its member locals. General meetings are chaired by a third party who is mandated to conduct the meeting in accordance with CFS Bylaws, Standing Resolutions, and Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Director proposes motion to protect journalistic rights to cover UTSU meetings

Innis College Director Lucas Granger also moved to protect the rights of student journalists to cover UTSU board meetings.

“I want to replicate what we already do,” said Granger. He specifically moved to amend the UTSU’s policy manual to guarantee privileges granted by the UTSU to members of the student press, in writing.

Granger noted that, in the UTSU’s policy on board meetings, the only reference to the press is a guarantee that the board “may be filmed, recorded, and/or livestreamed only by members of the media.” 

He further noted that, in the UTSU’s policy on its Annual General Meeting, guarantees for campus journalists are limited to permission to attend regardless of UTSU membership, and a requirement for the press to register for the minutes.

Granger moved to pass a resolution that would guarantee in writing that “members of the campus press” are allowed to attend both board and annual general meetings “regardless of their membership status,” that they are “permitted to report meeting proceedings in whatever medium they deem fit,” that they receive notice of meetings and access to meeting materials in a reasonable timeframe, and that they are required to allow meeting attendees to opt out of photography.

These proposals come after moves by both the Graduate Students’ Union and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union to limit open media access to meetings.

In response to Granger’s proposal, Boucher moved to send the resolution to the UTSU’s Governance Committee, which discusses UTSU policies and presents recommendations to the Board of Directors.

While noting that she does “appreciate the motivation behind it,” Boucher said that further inquiry was necessary to probe the consequences of the resolution in its current form. She cited concerns of “allowing any kind of recording media” by student journalists as an example.

Granger agreed, continuing that his motivation for presenting the resolution at the board level was to recommend interim guidelines for allowing journalistic coverage to the board, as the proposal is reviewed by the Governance Committee. The Board then passed a motion to send the proposal to the committee for further review.

UTSU board strikes committee to replace resigned directors

Open positions at UC, Transitional Year Programme, Engineering

UTSU board strikes committee to replace resigned directors

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors held an emergency online meeting on October 22 to ratify the results of an election for a New College Director, as well as to strike a committee to replace three directors who resigned in October.

Elected New College Director Arjun Singh won an internal election for New College students held from September 29 to October 4.

The board called for the election following the resignation of a former New College Director, which it accepted on September 15.

Singh, uncontested, won 141 votes, or 73.8 per cent of the vote, against 50 spoiled ballots, or 26.2 per cent of the vote. The result of Singh’s election was ratified by the board during the online meeting.

The UTSU board also accepted the resignations of Kirsten Stevens, Justine Huyer, Joanna Zhou, and Sabrina Brathwaite, for the respective positions of University College Director, Transitional Year Programme Director, Engineering & Applied Science Director, and University College Director.

To “pursue the occupation” of the vacant offices, the board struck an Ad Hoc Director Shortlisting Committee during the online meeting, which will operate until November 30. The four directors on the committee are Lucas Granger, Lisa Zaher, Marawan Sadek, and Chris Dryden. The three executives on the committee are Josh Grondin, Yasmine El Sanyoura, and Yolanda Alfaro.

As per the agenda, Bylaw X.5.b requires that these vacancies be filled by the board appointing “a replacement after soliciting applications from the membership for no less than fourteen (14) days.”

The alternative is for the board to pass a two-thirds supermajority vote to “leave the position vacant for the remainder of the year.”