Push the question back a stage

To avoid policy lock-in, we should not be satisfied without asking why


UTMSU’s approach to the town hall last week was unusual. They strategized the questions they would ask the administrative staff beforehand and expressed concern about our reporting on the meeting, lest the element of surprise be lost. In my experience, if you want good answers to questions, the element of surprise is not a benefit; to see the question period as a duel is a little wrongheaded.

At the town hall when answers to questions submitted in advance were being read out, UTMSU asked for the prepared answers to be posted online instead, a suggestion that was accepted. This part does actually make some sense to me: reading out answers isn’t an instantaneous thing, and to have a meeting consist of public readings rather than active discussion is indeed a waste of time.

But if they wanted to use the direct question period to catch the admin off-guard, they could have done better than to ask about high parking and tuition fees for the billionth time…

That said, the questions did provide some points of interest.

One thing I’ve noticed in my years at The Medium is that experienced adults are far better than students at giving half-answers and doing things by the book; administrators are harder to catch making bad decisions, not because they don’t make them but because you have to push the questions back and ask “Why?” more often.

For example, take the parking fee question. Chief administrative officer Paul Donoghue pointed out that they have to charge what they do because parking is an “ancillary operation”, meaning its budget is self-contained rather than subsidized by the university itself. We have to pay $5 an hour to make sure they break even (or rather, break even and save up for a new parking deck). UTMSU raises a new point: students pay lower rates than staff for other services. Donoghue: if we did that with parking, the staff would have to make up the balance.

The answer I didn’t see in the notes I received from our reporter, though, is why? Why should be parking be an ancillary operation? And even if it has to be, consider the pub, which is audited separately from the union but is still essentially run by them and often receives a subsidy to cover shortfalls. Is this not possible with parking?

There may be a good answer to this line of thinking or there may not, but the question should have been asked. After all, things do change over time on university campuses. What is now isn’t how it always was and isn’t how it always has to be, so it’s not enough to say this is how it is.

Similarly, when student reps inevitably brought up tuition, Principal Deep Saini (that’s Saini Claus to you) responded that it’s the provincial government who’s not doing their duty subsidizing costs for universities, and that the admin are “on the same page” as UTMSU but convey the message to the government in “complementary ways”—hilarious code for “We don’t march around Queen’s Park chanting ‘fuck fees’ like you do.”

But what doesn’t come up is what the university is (or should be) doing to avoid throwing us under the bus by offloading those costs on us. There’s the UTAPS grant—however reliable it proves to be—and constructive ways of paying students, like Work-Study, but I don’t hear the overall strategy discussed a lot.

One suspects that the bigger cash inflows, like commerce, management, and the new accounting centre that just opened, are being counted on to carry the weight of less profitable programs, but the implications rarely come to a public forum. When I was at a friend’s grad reception last month, the promo video I saw almost exclusively featured local entrepreneurs commenting on UTM’s economical contributions. (I concede that it had some words from cancer researcher Patrick Gunning & co. at the end.)

Is our identity in flux because of money issues? Are these ideas way off? In any case, can we talk about it?

The list goes on. UTSU VP internal Cameron Wathey—for some reason paying UTM’s town hall a visit; maybe he stopped by after coming to see the deer—raised the question of how to deal with international student fees.

This is a tough topic. As Saini pointed out, the government doesn’t sponsor them, and it’s unclear who should bear the cost. For now, the students do.

But he also said something interesting about OHIP: “If I had my way, everybody would get that service.”

Well, the university provides its own health insurance policy, UHIP, whose website describes it as “comparable to OHIP”. The argument is that international students have to give the university what they would otherwise pay the government (in taxes), and which would be forwarded to U of T (as subsidies). Hence, U of T offers UHIP as a comparable service to OHIP.

So do the numbers not line up? How is it that Saini can’t “have his way”, as vice-president of U of T, and try to put the cost/coverage ratio of UHIP on the level of OHIP?

As long as we’re using our audience with the admin to ask tired old questions, let’s at least go somewhere new.

And now, on one last note… Merry Christmas and happy holidays!