U of T students down, not out over flat fee loss

By MURPHY BROWNE

The administration at the University of Toronto, obviously bent on reverting to the good old days when the student population was overwhelmingly rich White people, has passed their flat fee policy. On Wednesday, May 20, the members of the Governing Council, the University of Toronto’s highest decision-making body, made this unpopular decision in spite of vehement opposition from students, faculty and alumni.

There has been an unseemly rush to push this policy through, even though students are so opposed to this cash grab that they have taken legal action against the university’s administration.

Under the flat fee policy, students must pay for five courses, regardless of how many courses they take. Which means that a student taking three or four courses will pay the same fee as one taking five or even six courses.

The apparent mastermind behind this plot that some students have described as “horrifying” is Meric Gertler who, on November 13, 2008, was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science from December 1, 2008 to June 30, 2014 and has reportedly said: “We made a decision in the first week of March, when it became clear that our financial situation was quite severe, and wasn’t going to get any better.”

With an annual salary of almost $300,000, Gertler probably does not understand why students are vehemently opposed to paying $5,000 for $3,000 worth of courses. According to information contained in a press release from the University of Toronto Students’ Union, “the University has lost over $1.3 billion in risky ventures this year.”

Student groups have calculated that they will be forced to pay an unprecedented 66 per cent increase in tuition fees.

The university has acknowledged that the flat fee will push students to finish their degrees quickly and enter the workforce faster. In this time of economic crisis where workers are losing their jobs in spite of government bailouts to certain industries, the university administration is rationalizing that forcing students to take five or more courses a year will urge them to graduate faster and find jobs. The university’s administration is obviously seeking to recover, on the backs of the students, the millions it has lost. As one student protestor pointed out on May 20, the flat fee implementation will make the university a factory and the students similar to the widgets that are made in some factories.

When the Faculty of Arts and Science Council, led by Gertler, made the first steps towards the hasty and undignified cash grab on Monday, April 6, students organized a protest outside 27 Kings College Circle (where the meeting was being held in the council chambers). Students and staff also spoke against the implementation of the flat fee at the meeting. In response to cell and systems biology professor Mounir Abouhaidar’s cautious tone encouraging Gertler to reconsider imposing the flat fee, Gertler very pompously and arrogantly responded that Professor Abouhaidar’s expressed concern was “unhelpful” and presented a “false dichotomy” between academics and finance. Abouhaidar was not given an opportunity to reply, he was silenced by a seemingly rigged process. Ignoring written and verbal pleas not to pass the flat fees proposal, the members of the Faculty of Arts and Science Council rubber-stamped Gertler’s proposal.

The next step was the April 27 meeting of the Governing Council’s Business Board to consider whether or not the members would support Gertler and the decision of the Faculty of Arts and Science Council. Students again organized a protest outside 27 Kings College Circle as the Business Board met and students and faculty made an effort to encourage its members to vote against the flat fee proposal. On this occasion, physics professor and president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association, George Luste, spoke at length in opposition to the flat fee proposal.

“I fail to see how the proposal will help,” Luste said. “What the proposal clearly does promise is a rather naked, unseemly and undignified cash grab from a population who should hardly be expected to shoulder the responsibility of bailing us out of our financial troubles.”  

He demolished Gertler’s argument of “more money, smaller class sizes” and even described the flat fee proposal as “unethical”. 

There was a palpable air of disappointment when, despite the evidence that the flat fee would be a heavy burden for students, the members of the Business Board rubber-stamped the decision of the Faculty of Arts and Science Council. However, students vowed to continue the struggle because there was one more step before the decision was final. The members of Governing Council had the final say before the flat fee proposal could become policy and there was still hope that its members could be made to see reason.

Of the 50 members of the Governing Council, eight are students, which does not give students much of a voice in decisions that affect their learning experience or anything else on campus. In spite of their overwhelming advantage by sheer numbers, the university was not going to take any chances on having their plans of instituting the flat fees policy derailed.

The administration made several clever decisions to thwart students during this entire flawed process. They sprung the surprise flat fee proposal when students were busy studying and writing exams. Then they delivered the coup de grace by moving the Governing Council meeting, where the final decision about the flat fees policy would be made, from the downtown St. George campus to the Mississauga campus. Still, they were not taking any chances; after all, students could get on a bus and take the protest to Mississauga. So campus police were stationed at the foot of the stairs leading to the meeting room and even more security – complete with a list of names – at the entrance to the meeting area.

In the meeting room where Governing Council members sat, the atmosphere was oppressive with several questions by student members of the Governing Council being ruled out of order. Those who tried to speak against flat fees were rudely interrupted and even mocked while university administration who spoke in favour were given extra time. It was a farce, even though the students and their allies – to their credit – tried valiantly to work within that system.

The students may have lost that skirmish but they are not defeated. They are determined to continue fighting to overturn the decision to institute a flat fee.

This is not 1827 when the rich White Family Compact ruled Ontario; this is 2009 where we at least have some human rights. The legal challenge is still in place and the students can take some comfort in the fact that they kept their dignity in the face of provocation and in that sense they were all winners.

tiakoma@aol.com

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