In light of the release of the Ontario government’s discussion paper “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge” this past summer, UTSU and UTMSU held town halls at their respective campuses to provide a forum for students in which to discuss the postsecondary education issues presented in the paper.

Released in June by Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, the paper proposes “efficiency-focused strategies” for making university and college systems stronger. Through a consultation process, it “seeks to identify ways to improve productivity through innovation” at Ontario institutions. Proposed suggestions include “labour-market-focused” three-year degrees (which are common in Europe), year-round classes, standardized first- and-second-year courses across Ontario (to facilitate transfers between institutions), and increasing the availability of online undergraduate courses by up to 60%. The paper stresses that the government hopes these proposals will lead to discussions that will transform the postsecondary education sector.

To encourage a greater turnout, UTMSU promised a cash prize of $200 to the person who brought the most people to their “Emergency Education” town hall. They held it in the wake of UTSU’s own town hall the night before. It took place last Wednesday afternoon in one of the Instructional Centre’s main auditoriums, with about 40 people in attendance. Caitlin Smith of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, an interest group of which more than 80 university and college student unions across Canada are members, moderated the town hall. Smith made it clear that the purpose of these town halls is to hear students’ feedback.

Christopher Thompson, the president of UTMSU, and Linda Kohn, a U of T Faculty of Association (UTFA) executive and UTM biology professor, led the discussion, and encouraged students to make their voices heard.

Kohn mentioned the lack of attention given to research, one of U of T’s specialties. “The white paper doesn’t even mention research,” Kohn said. “This research aspect of your education should be recognized by the province. They see us as a K–12.”

The concerns brought up by students included the three-year degree proposal; one student was of the opinion that the quality of education would decrease. Another concern was year-round classes, which, it was argued, would impede students’ ability to work during the summer to afford their tuition.

UTSU’s own “Emergency Education” town hall, which about 100 students attended, featured a discussion led by Cheryl Misak, the provost of
U of T, Shaun Shepherd, the president of UTSU, and Scott Prudham, the president of UTFA. The discussion was moderated by Munib Sajjad, UTSU’s VP university affairs and academics.

Murray had been invited to the event and had confirmed his attendance, but it was withdrawn the night before the town hall after Murray’s office discovered that he would not be allowed to speak during the town hall. Many students expressed their regret that the minister was not present, calling his absence “unfortunate” and “disappointing”.

“Let me, first off, say that it’s really heartening to see the student government and the faculty association and the administration—although I must confess to loathing that word—can come together so beautifully, really, on a unified front,” Misak said. She talked about what she thinks are the fundamentals of the paper and how she thought they were “not good ideas”. Misak said that U of T will consider the proposals in the discussion paper and ensure that the quality of a U of T degree is not compromised.

Misak also talked about the three-year degree and said it will not help students trying to apply to graduate programs outside of Ontario, because it would not have the same merit as three-year degrees elsewhere, such as in the UK.

“When you graduate with a four-year degree from the University of Toronto, that means something to the world,” said Misak. “That’s a passport to fantastic graduate and professional programs around the world.”

The good side to the three-year degrees is that for people who know what they want to do, they will be able to pursue a full 20-credit “three-year fast-track degree” at U of T (an option currently in development), which will be easier to earn than the proposed alternative—a four-year degree compressed into three years—would be.

Another issue Misak brought up was the “easy and unproblematic transfer” between all Ontario institutions, which Misak says will not work because institutions are not alike. Dropout rates are high when universities allow these transfers so easily. She said that sometime next week, it will be announced that we will have credit transfer consortiums to make it easier for students to take courses at other similar institutions whose credits have been deemed transferable.

The third thing Misak brought up was the number of online courses proposed in the discussion paper.

“You chose the University of Toronto, so you’re in labs and in lectures with the best people in the world, and we’re not going to require you to take one third of your courses online,” Misak said.

Misak conceded that if a student has a scheduling conflict and can’t take a certain course, but finds a quality course online with faculty-student interaction, the university “should make that available to [them]”.

Prudham said that the government should safeguard academic freedom, an issue not mentioned in the paper.

Students and faculty took turns criticizing the discussion paper after the opening remarks by Misak, Prudham, and Shepherd.

A few students said they agreed with Misak’s views. One student pointed out that U of T is a unique institution, and said that while the proposals in the paper might work for other universities in the province, they wouldn’t work for the U of T and need to be “massaged out” for us because “not all universities are created equal”.

Another student’s question, directed at the absent Murray, was about
U of T’s role in this discussion paper. The student said it doesn’t seem to be represented at all.