The fundraising campaign hit a roadblock following an outcry by a substantial number of University of Toronto law students who felt it was unfair to ask them to shoulder even more financial responsibility without any benefit.
“In terms of pulling back the campaign all together we are not in the process of doing that, but we are also not moving forward until we have a better sense from students, if that’s what they want to do,” Natalie Lum-Tai, president of U of T’s Students’ Law Society, told Legal Feeds.
While it is a nice idea in theory says Lum-Tai, the reality is that many students don’t like the idea of being asked, because most of them are already dealing with a large amount of their own debt. The issue truly comes down to whether it is OK to ask students to shoulder someone else’s financial responsibility.
Elle Henry, a third-year law student at U of T certainly said it’s not OK.
“I think that it is the wrong target,” said Henry, “we should be targeting the really high, increasing tuition fees, we should be targeting employers who are not paying summer students, and we should be funding . . . legal aid.”
Henry underlines that U of T law students already pay about $30,000 per year for a three-year program; on top of that they are expected to pay to support the LPP program.
“People are frustrated that these costs are continually being downloaded onto students instead of people with the ability to pay.”
Besides school costs, students also need to account for living expenses. Henry said she is lucky enough to have her parents help take on most of her costs, “but I am still going to have about $70,000 of debt.”
The general implication that students should borrow more and more money, sometimes with high interest rates, while working for free and donating the income they do manage to acquire, does not agree with many law students.
“This year what the faculty has done is actually re-negotiated with Scotiabank so that the limit on your line of credit for students can be up to $150,000, that’s on top of the provincial student loan, that’s on top of maxing out the OSAP or other provincial student loans,” said Henry.
Re-distributing debt at the margins is not the solution. Students would rather see employers who are asking students to work for free be held to account.
“Targeting things like the enforcement of employment standards that require employers to pay minimum wage, things like provincial and university funding or legal aid and summer jobs,” suggested Henry.
While the campaign has been mainly focused on getting student donations, students are not the only ones being asked to do so.
“It’s not just students being asked, we are putting pressure on the faculty, so the advancement office is contacting established alumni and trying to find a class year that this resonates with to match student donations,” said Lum-Tai.
“I believe that it’s a great idea, but at this point we are having discussions with other students and we want to make a decision together about whether or not this is actually a positive thing for our community,” said Lum-Tai, whose idea it was to launch the campaign with the approval of the faculty.
While there has been a pushback against the campaign from frustrated students, others are of the view that public interest work has always been and always will be everyone’s responsibility.
“Debt loads are high, tuition is an expensive undertaking at the University of Toronto, and unfortunately that places the opportunity to engage in public interest or social justice positions beyond the financial means of a lot of students” said recent U of T law school graduate Ashvin Singh.
“I think it’s a good initiative,” said Singh. “Nobody can change the entire legal profession but I think we have to start one small step at a time in making sure that Bay Street is not the only option.”
The program is meant to promote the work that is being done by fellow students said Lum-Tai, “to give them an award for the volunteering that they are doing with not-for-profits, the awards, the way that it breaks down, it’s definitely not a wage.”
Singh said the campaign is being misinterpreted in saying that by allowing students to help each other they may somehow be facilitating unpaid work.
“I think that there is a misunderstanding of the program and there might also be a false dichotomy. The false understanding is that this is used to encourage or perpetuate unpaid internships at corporate, for profit positions, but in reality, this program is more about the public interest programs that don’t have the funds or resources to pay students,” said Singh.