An open letter: repeal U of T flat fee - Macleans.ca

An open letter: repeal U of T flat fee

“I will not be allow myself to be priced out of an education,” writes incoming student

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Actor Andrew Hachey graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada in 2004, and is set to start this fall in the University of Toronto’s faculty of arts and sciences, majoring in sociology and political science. The following is an open letter he recently sent to the university in protest of its plan to institute a flat fee in the department. For more on U of T’s proposed flat fee, click here.

My name is Andrew Hachey, and I will be entering the Faculty this fall as a first-year student in the social sciences. I am one of the thousands whom your recent decision to change the manner in which full-time undergraduate fees are levied in the Faculty of Arts and Science will most directly affect.

For the past five years I have lived and worked as a professional film and theatre artist. Even after achieving modest success, I find myself in a precarious financial situation and, given the current economic climate, prospects for future work are grim. Like so many others I have chosen to pursue further post-secondary education in order to position myself better in the emerging creative jobs market and the “knowledge-based” economy. Given that 70% of new listed jobs require some form of post-secondary education, it is vital to maintain its accessibility for all Ontarians regardless of socio-economic background and standing. The roughly $1000 per credit (and rising) the University of Toronto currently charges already represents a barrier to my attendance. But now, having received the Faculty’s email dated May 21 containing the update on the tuition fee structure change for full-time students in Arts and Science I am simply outraged the University administration has only now divulged this information, having ostensibly considered its implementation for some time. Though I have had the benefit of being aware of this proposal prior to their official notification (if only for mere weeks), I am angered that so many were not and that, therefore, those who will be directly affected by this policy unknowingly made decisions without complete information.

Without consultation or adequate warning, thousands of students have now turned down offers of admission from other institutions in favor of the University of Toronto. According to the Ontario Universities Application Centre: “Applicants may have only one acceptance of an offer on file at a time. Before applicants can accept a subsequent offer online, they must first cancel the previously accepted offer.” Although some of these decisions may not be officially final, many are and due to the appallingly last-minute notice given by the Faculty, most canceled offers which are not will now be virtually impossible to regain as deadlines have since passed and limited program spaces now filled up. The Dean’s claim regarding these offers, that “nothing is set in stone,” as told to members of the Governing Council is, at best, disingenuous. Given these realities, students are now left with two choices: agree to a fee structure that will, ludicrously, charge us for services we will not use if we, like 50% of Arts and Science undergraduates, do not take five courses, or stay home this fall. Given current economic realities, the latter may simply not be an option.

By adopting a program fee structure in this manner, the University has effectively chosen to create a two-tiered post-secondary institution that is unloading debt accrued from bad investments and a lack of adequate government lobbying onto the shoulders of unsuspecting students. Furthermore, taking this action despite broad-based opposition from faculty, staff, students and alumni reveals that the University of Toronto is becoming increasingly undemocratic in its governance by marginalizing perspectives of those whose interests are most at stake.

This was perhaps most clear on the afternoon of May 20 on the University of Toronto at Mississauga campus when the meeting of the Governing Council was convened to discuss and ultimately decide whether the new fee proposal would be implemented. Section 2(18) of The University of Toronto Act, 1971 states:

The meetings…of the Governing council shall be open to the public, prior notice of the meetings shall be given to the members and to the public in such manner as the Governing Council by-law shall determine, and no person shall be excluded therefrom except for improper conduct.

Despite this, community members, including myself, were met with a strong, visible, police presence comprised of campus and municipal police, and plainclothes officers who unilaterally decided to bar our entrance from, not only the council chambers, but the entire floor on which they were located. When confronted with students who read out the statute above, the campus security officers agreed that we were lawfully allowed to attend the meeting, but insisted that we would not be admitted until such time as the Manager of Police Services gave permission to the officers to let us pass. When pressed, the Manager revealed his reasons for these actions to be simply that “we have decided that we do not want you up there” and “there are no seats available,” even when this was obviously not the case. He even went so far as to threaten to have us barred from the building without cause. This blatant attempt at intimidation was clearly planned and directed solely at students and community members attempting to show opposition to the motion in a civil, respectful and collegial manner. We had caused no disruption, were guilty of no crime but were nonetheless refused entrance until the meeting had been in session for approximately forty-five minutes, it was clear that the remaining thirty seats were not in fact filled, and we had threatened to inform the media.

The reasons so many students within the Faculty take fewer than five courses have been summarily dismissed by this administration and these reasons will not disappear simply because the Faculty administration has decided to change the way it assess its fees. Some students, like myself, can only afford to take three courses per year, since they find they need to hold jobs to meet the high cost of living in Toronto and pay for the already-high tuition fees. Many others are parents or caregivers and need to take fewer courses in order to attend to the other responsibilities in their lives. Students with disabilities may not be able to take five courses. For many of these students, Faculties that already charge a program fee are not realistic financial options. So is it any wonder that those Faculties report few complaints regarding their fee structures (ex. experiencing inability to access outside employment) since their student populations are vastly comprised of those who are already positioned to afford them, and students are fully aware of the costs before they enroll in these programs?

While it is true that this Faculty of Arts and Science is not the first in Ontario to adopt this fee structure, the case studies we have seen tell a very informative story. For instance, using many of the same arguments that the University of Toronto has, the University of Guelph decided to implement a flat program fee in Arts and Science. Citing the need for a more stable revenue stream, they began charging students the equivalent of a full course load. The University of Guelph has just announced it is cutting eight programs in their entirety due to a budgetary crisis. Is this the model the University of Toronto seeks to emulate?

There is no doubt that Ontario universities suffer from chronic under-funding by the Provincial government thanks to cuts first introduced under the government of Mike Harris, and that members of the Legislature share responsibility, in part, for the financial situation the University of Toronto finds itself in. But what this administration has chosen to do, instead of actively, publicly and effectively lobbying the government for adequate funding, is put the onus onto its incoming students to do this work for it. Once again, the administration has found it more expedient to download its financial shortfalls onto the backs of its already indebted students and, in essence, let government off the hook.

While it is unfortunate the University administration has chosen to pursue this change in the manner it has, it is nonetheless a reality that I, and thousands of other first-year students will have to accept, pending the results of a current legal case. Despite the best efforts of the University administration, I will not allow myself to be priced out of an education at the University of Toronto. Despite the falsehoods, omissions and distortions presented to the members of the Governing Council, Business Board and Faculty of Arts and Science Council, the University will not stop me from attending this publicly-funded institution. Instead, I remain committed to joining thousands of students at the University of Toronto who oppose and will continue to fight against this exclusionary cash grab. I will see to it personally that as many students as possible are made aware of the statements and actions of the University administration in general and Faculty of Arts and Science administration in particular and use any means available to have this unfair, inequitable and regressive system repealed. If the goal of the Faculty administration in this was to unite thousands of students in their anger, then I congratulate them on their stunning success. I feel confident in saying that come this fall, having outraged so many, they will indeed have a fight on their hands.

Looking forward to it,

Andrew Hachey