Thursday, November 05, 2009

U of T Continues Attack on Accessible Education and Marginalized Programmes

BASICS #16 (Nov / Dec 2009)
by Noaman Ali

Huda is a 22-year-old young mother with a disability who intends to study Sexual Diversity Studies, Creative Writing, Visual Arts and French at the University of Toronto. “It’s a lot, but I’m focused because of the support that TYP provides me.” In an educational system and society that repeatedly fails working people, the Transitional Year Programme (TYP) is one initiative that reaches out, usually to people who haven’t finished high school, and gives them support in an intensive one-year programme to transition to a more conventional university education.
Brandon, 23, grew up in Toronto Community Housing in Scarborough and was first arrested when he was 14. Caught up in “guns, drugs, and crime,” he made an attempt to turn his life around at 17. Now in TYP, he wants to be a teacher.

On Monday, October 19, administrators at U of T attempted to pass a proposal at a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Science Council that would have weakened the program, according to students, alumni and faculty who have formed the TYP Preservation Alliance. Over fifty of them –almost all people of colour from working-class communities – showed up at the meeting to protest the move. The proposal sought to merge TYP, administratively, with Woodsworth College, but the Alliance argued that the merger was a cost-cutting measure that would result in staff cuts. In addition, Ahmed Ahmed, a recent TYP graduate, noted, “Three faculty members will have retired by the end of December, and they are not being replaced.”

Joe Desloges, Principal of Woodsworth College, effectively confirmed the fears of the TYP Preservation Alliance about funding cuts. The University “can’t guarantee staff positions. TYP faces identical challenges regardless of where it’s located,” he said. Ultimately, the Faculty of Arts and Science Council voted to delay the vote on the proposal after seeing the mobilization of the TYP Preservation Alliance and its solid arguments. “Programmes like TYP must be inflation- and recession-proof,” said professor and council-member Harry Fox. U of T Provost Cheryl Misak said in an e-mail sent the next day that because of the Alliance’s organized opposition, the move was “off the table.” In this sense, the TYP Preservation Alliance won a victory, but a partial one.

The Alliance will still have to fight further funding cutbacks. Meanwhile, other programmes at the university, particularly in area studies and equity studies, are also facing cuts. On October 29, over forty students and faculty gathered at New College at a town hall meeting held by the Equity Studies Students’ Union in order to organize against the cutting of a faculty member in Disability Studies. There is only one other faculty member at U of T who focuses on disability, even though people with disabilities make up over 15% of the Canadian population and are far more likely to live in poverty.

These cuts come after U of T’s administration recently introduced a “flat fees” system for the Faculty of Arts and Science. This means that students who might have taken three courses because they could not afford the full fee now have no option but to take five courses, and they cannot work part-time to fund their studies. This move came after U of T’s administration had fourteen students and activists arrested in 2008 for protesting increased tuition fees—the trumped-up charges were all eventually stayed or withdrawn.

There has been a broad pattern to restructure universities to more intensely cater to the needs of private corporations and wars instead of to the needs of public welfare and working people. Students are going to have to continue to organize in order to roll back cuts to programs that are already marginalized, to eliminate all fees for postsecondary education and to make university relevant and accessible to working people in Canada.