By Rochelle Raveendran
Many students at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) are against a proposed increase to the student wellbeing fee which will be voted on this week in a student referendum.
If passed, the student wellbeing fee will increase from $3.93 to $38.83 every semester for all full-time undergraduate and graduate students. The fee will be adjusted for students taking part-time course loads.
Voting will be open from Nov. 1 to Nov. 3 on the my.torontomu (formerly my.ryerson) portal.
Collected funds will go toward constructing a student wellbeing centre on campus, according to a town hall meeting in the Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre (SLC) on Oct. 25.
The centre, planned to open in fall 2025, will centralize existing wellness services, including the Medical Centre, Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) and the Centre for Student Development and Counselling, according to the referendum’s website.
Third-year early childhood studies student Anson Hung thinks he will vote against the fee in the referendum. He said he doesn’t personally use the university’s mental health resources often and he doesn’t want his tuition fees to increase.
“If the school is trying to improve students’ mental health and promote mental health awareness, it shouldn’t be on the students,” Hung said.
He said the school should fund that in other ways. Shayna Sule, a first-year business management student, had similar concerns about the proposed fee. Though she is still debating her vote, she said the increase “is not…rather exciting,” on top of her international student tuition.
International student tuition at TMU can range from $31,749 to $38,472 according to TMU’s website. Domestic tuition fees for students range from $7,050 to $11, 986.
In an email to The Eyeopener, Jen McMillen, vice-provost, students said the fee was calculated with student input from focus groups, surveys and a student referendum committee that discussed “the future of wellbeing at TMU” and the concept of the wellbeing centre.
During the town hall, McMillen said the fee increase would be a “really good return investment” for students.
On top of the wellness centre, she said at least 25 per cent of the generated funds from students would go toward immediately improving counselling services, including hiring more staff and reducing wait times.
Wait times vary across all TMU services, according to the referendum’s website. “We try to prioritize the most urgent student needs first. We know we can do better, though,” read the site.
Sydonnae Simon, a 2021 TMU’s film graduate, said she wishes mental health resources were more accessible and better publicized on campus.
“When I was a student here, it was like hell to get any sort of counselling sessions,” she said.
If she were still a student, Simon said she would likely vote no in the referendum.
She said existing mental health services should be funded instead of the proposed wellness centre. “Why can’t you improve what’s already in place rather than making a whole new building?” she said.
Simon added that if she was still a student, the prospect of an additional fee would impact her support for improved campus mental health services.
“The reality of it is that I can’t afford to pay that $30 extra, because that could be lunch, that could be travel money,” she said. “That could be anything else.”
Psychology student Emily McKinnon said she sees only positive reasons to vote yes. As a first year student, she said she hasn’t had much experience with the school’s mental health services.
Still, she said everyone can benefit from having access to counsellors on campus.
“[Mental health is] always something that I think is worth putting money toward.”
At the University of Toronto, health and counselling fees for the winter 2021 semester ranged from $60.15 to $81.47, depending on the campus, faculty and college, according to the school’s website. Western University students pay $196.28 for health fees, which include wellness, as part of their ancillary fees.
TMU currently invests about $105 per student each semester for health and wellbeing services, according to a presentation shown during the town hall.
With the budget for this year including an increase of about $2 million in university funds to improve frontline care, this number will go up to $130.24 per student each semester.
These funds will go toward hiring additional clinic, care coordination and AAS staff, as well as providing 24/7 counselling services, according to the presentation.
Third-year entrepreneurship student Shak Qalandari, who attended the town hall, is unsure how accurately the university is identifying key stressors for students.
For example, he said students are largely anxious about the pressure to find employment.
Funding should go toward programs that connect students with employment opportunities, he said.
“Right now, students feel like they’re just on their own,” Qalandari said. “Come to class, do the exams and then we don’t care what’s going to happen to you.”
Qalandari said TMU should provide “hardcore numbers” about how many students have benefited from wellness services so far. “If the students are still stressed, your program is not working.”
Based on a 2021 Front Psychol study, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased post-graduation uncertainty and job anxiety.
According to a 2022 study in Healthcare (Basel), a university can implement job-seeking programs and a counselling centre to alleviate undergraduate employment anxiety.
Sheryl Boswell, executive director of Youth Mental Health Canada, a charitable non-profit organization, said the pandemic has challenged the idea that only a small number of people are affected by mental health challenges.
“We opened up that conversation and we realized at some point all of us struggle,” she said. “It’s part of the challenges in living.”
Boswell said universities should consider how they can build community supports for students and staff that build mental wellness.
Beyond counselling services, she said this could include a mandatory mental health course and workshops that help students build skills in career development, problem-solving, goal setting and decision-making. “These are skills for life,” Boswell said.
With TMU being a commuter school, she said commuting students might find it difficult to find a sense of community.
A building like the proposed wellness centre could be a “community hub” that helps normalize conversations about mental wellness, she said.
Though he wouldn’t mind seeing another “beautiful building” on campus like the SLC, Qalandari is against paying for the proposed student wellbeing centre.
“If the students are still stressed, your program is not working.”
With files from Prapti Bamaniya