The students’ union announced on Monday that its referendum to expand the Student Centre has failed. Of the 3,195 students who chose to vote on the issue (a 24.77% turn-out), 1,621 students, or just over 50%, voted against the expansion. While I was personally surprised by the outcome, it certainly did not exceed the limits of imagination. I had seen many students voice their opinions against the plan to expand the building, both in person and on Facebook. Of particular concern to many of these students was the incongruence between UTMSU’s stated goal of reducing student tuition fees all while arguing for substantial increases on fees paid to the union to support the building and maintenance of the expansion. This is not the first time that I had seen many students voice their skepticism of the expansion, and indeed the union’s effectiveness as a channel through which students can have their opinions heard. When this very same referendum was held last year, student opposition was present, if more subdued, and when elections for the student’s union executive team were held, I could sense some wind of cynicism wafting through any discussion of the voting.
Defeat of this referendum signals two things to me: first, contrary to the cliché, UTM students do care what happens at their school, and they don’t need someone to tell them to participate on campus. Opposition to the expansion was an organic movement whose members were not organized in any formal manner. There were no Facebook pages or posts. There were no posters, flyers, or any other campaign materials. If you had walked through campus throughout the past few weeks, you would have predicted that the motion would pass almost unanimously. One of the big criticisms levelled at UTM is the lack of school spirit and disinterest in university affairs and so this spontaneous movement signals that students do actually care about what is happening on campus, even if it is only likely that they are doing so because it relates to how their tuition is spent. Second, I think this indicates a general skepticism of the students’ union and its goals. Despite the lack of apparent opposition to the manner in which the students’ union is generally run, defeat of this referendum signals that many students do not believe the union’s goals are aligned with their own, at least on this issue.
So does this signal the start of perhaps more competitive and, by extension, more democratic student representation on campus? I don’t think so. The general poor opinion of the performance of UTMSU and a movement that would seek to put an opposition team to oppose the so-called “caucus” that seems to churn out UTMSU execs every year are not the same thing. There were no campaigns organized to vote “no” to the expansion. The referendum failure was the result of students individually voicing their opinion through voting. By contrast, opposing the current slate effectively would take organization, campaigns, and commitment, which I suspect is presently too isolated to gain momentum in an election. The last time two full slates ran for UTMSU executive positions was in 2009/10, and I think it is still too soon to talk about the return of such competition to student elections, no matter how unhappy students are with the same group of students that runs year after year.
The result of this vote will not by any means be the end of the union’s crusade for an expanded Student Centre. I am quite confident they will return in the near future to argue the need and supposed want for a bigger building. But I think this result will serve to highlight to UTMSU that perhaps they are not fully in tune with students’ wants. And perhaps, just perhaps, this might lead to better student engagement.
4th year, commerce