All posts by James Flynn

Managing Online Editor 2015–2016 News Editor 2014–2015 Associate News Editor 2013–2014

Big news

Campus services & student welfare

Widespread dissatisfaction with U of T’s lack of effective services for students with mental illnesses and for the survivors of sexual violence triggered several student-run campaigns and initiatives which aimed to create issue-specific policies and improve student access to resources. As the demand for support increases, students are beginning to work with and push the administration to better address these issues.

CAPS, Koffler Student Services Centre. Jennifer Su/THE VARSITY
CAPS, Koffler Student Services Centre. Jennifer Su/THE VARSITY

Federal Election

The country will head to the polls on October 19 to decide our next government. With the recent passing of the Fair Elections Act, an Elections Canada-driven initiative that will see special voting events held at up to 100 post-secondary institutions, and the new option of registering online, it remains to be seen whether students will vote in higher numbers than ever before.

Aerial view of Parliament Hill, Ottawa. TSAIPROJECT/FLICKR CC.
Aerial view of Parliament Hill, Ottawa. TSAIPROJECT/FLICKR CC.

UTSU Board of Directors structure reform

One of the UTSU’s biggest challenges this year will be to see the union through its legal transition from the Canada Corporations Act to the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act. The act involves passing a new structure for the UTSU Board of Directors. Students voted down a controversial board structure proposal in October 2014 and UTSU has until October 2015 to pass a new one. The debate over how best to represent marginalized students, UTM, professional faculties, and colleges, continues. Students will be able to vote on a new structure at the Annual General Meeting in September 2015.

Students vote at the 2014 UTSU AGM. Sarah Niedoba/THE VARSITY
Students vote at the 2014 UTSU AGM. Sarah Niedoba/THE VARSITY

Fossil fuel divestment

Local environmental awareness and activist group Toronto350 holds many of its open meetings at U of T and has attracted an increasing amount of student involvement. The university faces mounting pressure to sell their stock holdings in the 200 fossil fuel companies with the largest reserves, a move that Toronto350 argues is not only financially sound, but would uphold U of T’s values. Toronto350 has held Divestment Action Week events and circulated a petition at U of T as part of its on-campus campaigns.

A protest occurs at Simcoe Hall. Jennifer Su/THE VARSITY
A protest occurs at Simcoe Hall. Jennifer Su/THE VARSITY

Who’s who on campus

Yolen Bollo-Kamara

UTSU president

JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY
JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Yolen Bollo-Kamara will serve a one-year term at the helm of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). She will work with a team of appointed and elected students, a small elected executive, and a few permanent staff. The UTSU, which is the second-largest students’ union in Canada, funds the many services and opportunities it offers with fees collected from students. Some of the services it provides include health and dental services, as well as sales of TTC Metropasses and discounted entertainment tickets. The UTSU allocates a portion of its student fees to the funding of campus-wide clubs and initiatives. It also engages in post-secondary advocacy, lobbying the provincial government and the university administration on student issues such as tuition fees and student debt. The events of last year’s Student Societies Summit, along with international students’ tuition and fees and addressing mental health issues on campus, will be key concerns for Bollo-Kamara during the course of her presidency.

Cheryl Regehr

Provost

DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY
DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

Cheryl Regehr, who was formerly dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, assumed the post of provost on September 2, 2013. As provost, Regehr oversees academic matters as well as the university’s budget. Regehr’s 18-month term will end in February 2015, at which point she will be eligible for reappointment.

Meric Gertler

U of T president

8 - Meric Gertler, President by Jennifer SuEDITED
JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Meric Gertler assumed the presidency of U of T for a five-year term on November 1, 2013, succeeding David Naylor. He previously served as dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science awnd is U of T’s sixteenth president. He oversees all university operations, including the function of its governing institutions and its finances. He also develops long-term plans for the university’s development. An urban theorist and geographer, Gertler plans to increase cooperation between U of T and City Hall. Gertler contends with low levels of provincial education funding and meeting the needs of a rapidly expanding university, the latter of which includes accomodating the university’s growing population of students, staff, and faculty.

Jill Matus

Vice-provost, students

8 - Jill Matus, Vice-Provost, Students Courtesy of Jill Matus

Before being appointed in 2008, Matus served as vice-principal and acting principal of University College. She oversees the Division of Student Life Programs and Services — which, among many other responsibilities, grants approval to campus-wide clubs and coordinates training for student leaders. Matus and her office play a key role in student recruitment and the international student exchange program. She and her office are largely responsible for the student experience at U of T.

Scott Mabury

Vice-president, university operations

Scott Mabury and his office are responsible for overseeing the functioning of U of T. Mabury served as vice-provost, academic operations, before being appointed to the position in 2012. His office coordinates a number of university divisions, including Facilities & Services, Planning & Budget, Information Technology Services, and Ancillary Services.

 

Campus issues

Fee diversion

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is locked in a conflict with student groups on campus who want to divert their fees from the union towards their own student societies. Two years ago, Trinity College and members of the Engineering Society voted to leave the union; Victoria College also voted to leave, but was unable to achieve the necessary voter turn out. Some students consider the union’s election system to be unfair. Prior to this year’s election, an incumbent Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)-backed slate had been re-elected for 10 years in a row. This year’s election saw opposition candidate Pierre Harfouche elected vice-president, university affairs. Harfouche has long been a proponent of fee diversion, and his election is seen by many as a sign of a desire for change within the union.

Student Commons

The Student Commons is to be a student-run facility containing space for studying, clubs, and various other student activities. First proposed in the 1960s and funded by a levy approved in a 2007 referendum, the commons was expected to open in fall 2015. However, in light of the fee diversion controversy, the executive council of U of T’s Governing Council postponed the construction on the commons. Resuming the council’s discussion about beginning construction of the commons seems to rest on the resolution of the ongoing controversy in student politics.

Student Societies Summit

The Student Societies Summit was a year-long initiative by the university administration intended to facilitate discussion among campus organizations. The summit focused on fee diversion, the governance of student societies, and the Student Commons. It included a number of controversies: the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) left, citing both petitions from its members and concerns of its own. The UTSU also exited, citing the exit of the UTMSU and a survey of 1,200 undergraduate members. The summit faculty representatives released a report in May with seven recommendations, including increased involvement of the Governing Council and university administration in overseeing student societies. Many CFS-backed student unions have sent letters speaking out against the report, while some opposition student groups hold that the report has valid points, including a recommendation for stricter election regulations.

Provincial government funding

Ontario’s post-secondary education funding levels are the lowest in Canada, and the student-to-faculty ratio is the worst of any jurisdiction in the country. Since 2002–2003, both universities and colleges combined have seen a 36 per cent increase in enrolment. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, Ontario Undergraduate Student Association, and Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations have all called on the provincial government to increase post-secondary funding. Although the Liberal budget included $500 million over 10 years to address deferred maintenance on Ontario’s campuses, it is unclear whether provincial government funding levels will change.

The cost of being here

In his first year at the University of Toronto, Dan (name changed) was a model student. He had a 4.0 GPA, wrote for a campus newspaper, and was on his way to earning a history degree and beginning a career in education. However, due to struggles with student debt, Dan was forced to drop out of university. He is still paying off $18,000 in loans that he incurred while in school.

Dan attributes his struggles with student debt to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Under the program, financial aid is allocated based on a formula that takes into account the student’s income, tuition, and book costs. It also considers parental or spousal income, if applicable. The maximum amount a student can receive is $560 per week.

Dan asserts that this figure does not properly take into account cost of living. In his second year at U of T, for example, OSAP only offered a loan of $5,000, but his tuition was more than $6,000. “[I was] going into debt every month,” Dan says. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

According to the U of T Governing Council’s 1998 Policy on Student Financial Support, “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means.” To this end, U of T provides non-repayable grants to students whose financial needs exceed the capabilities of OSAP. Yet some students, like Dan, still drop out of university due to financial concerns.

Today, a record 48 per cent of U of T’s undergraduate students receive OSAP funding. By graduation, these students owe over $20,000 to the government. On average, it takes these students nine and a half years to pay off student debt, at a market-like interest rate of 3.5 per cent. That amounts to $6,448 in interest over the course of the repayment period. Student debt is a reality of education in countries around the world. In Canada, outstanding student loan debt currently stands at over $15 billion. In the United States, outstanding student loan debt stands at over $1 trillion. This is more than their outstanding credit card debt.

 

Different effects

Provinces

According to University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Arts & Science director-at-large Ben Coleman, “the point of OSAP is socioeconomic mobility — an opportunity, through education, to do better than your parents. Where’s the equal opportunity when you have to start your adult life with a debt burden and richer students don’t?”

Student debt limits opportunity, causes stress, and inhibits educational attainment. Many students with high debt loads are forced to take on jobs that limit extracurricular involvement and academic achievement.

Student debt also has spillover effects into other areas of a student’s life. Students with high debt loads are often forced to delay important life decisions. For example, they are less likely to start a small business or pursue further educational opportunities, such as graduate school. They are also more likely to delay home ownership and retirement saving.

 

Advocating change 

“Students see the worst effects of student debts after graduation. Students who end up repaying their loans after graduation end up paying a lot more than students who end up paying up front,” says UTSU vice-president, equity, Yolen Bollo-Kamara.

Bollo-Kamara advocates increased provincial funding for post-secondary education. At the moment, Ontario’s spending on post-secondary education per student is the lowest in the country, while Alberta’s is the highest.

Bollo-Kamara also advocates changes to U of T’s institutional interest on tuition fees. “Under the current system, students have to pay 60 per cent of fees up front to be enrolled in classes. After November 15, they start incurring interest on the balance of their tuition,” Bollo-Kamara says. “If students are unable to pay tuition fees up front, they end up paying almost credit-card level interest rates for their tuition.”

Under OSAP, students are allocated financial aid in two installments: in September and in January. According to Bollo-Kamara, this system penalizes disadvantaged students who are unable to pay their tuition fees up front.

Coleman, referencing student debt data for the U of T St. George campus which he received after filing a Freedom of Information request, advocates the implementation of per-semester, per-course tuition. U of T currently operates under a flat-fee model, in which students pay the same tuition whether they take three, four, five, or six courses. Coleman believes that changing the current model will “help OSAP students greatly.”

Dan agrees: “If I was able to take and pay for three courses, I could work a part-time job while attending school.” Under the flat-fee system, this is not feasible.

Another option is to change the interest rate charged to students. At the moment, both the federal and provincial governments charge interest on student loans. In Newfoundland and Labrador, where tuition fees have been frozen since 1999, and in Prince Edward Island, students pay no interest on student loans. A similar system is in place in other countries such as New Zealand.

 

Benefits of widespread access to education

Debt Graph 2

Allowing widespread access to education promotes innovation and economic growth. More people have the opportunity to attain the skills necessary to fill labour gaps and shortages. According to Statistics Canada, there are currently 5.3 unemployed people for every job vacancy in Canada. Many of these people cannot afford to attain the skills necessary to fill the vacancies. Education also promotes economic mobility. Students with higher education are more likely to determine their own economic outcomes, as opposed to simply taking on the economic position of their parents.

Ontario asserts that it is committed to making post-secondary education accessible to all families, regardless of financial position. To that end, the Ontario Student Access Guarantee offers bursaries, scholarships, work-study programs, and summer employment programs to students who are unable to fully cover their expenses under OSAP.

Still, student debt is a difficult reality of life for many Canadian students. “All I wanted was the chance to get an education,” says Dan. Under the current system of student loans, this goal is unattainable for many Canadian students.