Round two to the students

Post-secondary student organizations in Ontario are celebrating the recent Divisional Court decision to overturn Doug Ford’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

Introduced last January, the SCI allowed university and college students to opt out of a long list of non-academic fees that support a wide range of university and community initiatives.

At Queen’s University, for instance, these non-mandatory fees supported such organizations and services as the student government ($52.38), campus newspaper ($8.96) and radio ($8.22), an on-campus soup kitchen (.50), student food bank ($2.00), the student legal aid clinic ($5.50), a community women’s shelter (.85) and sexual assault centre ($1.00) and much more. The total amount per student amounted to $184.98 per term to support an 11-page list of 90 services and programs. That averages out to $2.05 per service/organization.

These fees have been in place for decades and, at most institutions, were voted on through a referendum process.

The total of mandatory non-academic fees at Queen’s, which have not been affected by the SCI, is much higher, at $594.42, fully half of which ($295.82) support the university’s athletic centre.

The argument, often made, that students should not have to support programs and services they won’t use falls apart when non-mandatory and mandatory fees are compared. Why should a student have to pay almost $300 to support an athletic centre if they won’t use it compared to spending $2.00 to support a student food bank they just might need?

Immediate impact

The impact of the SCI was immediate. Organizations and services that stood to lose money if students opted out of paying the non-mandatory fees organized campaigns to educate students and raise awareness about the value of the fees while also beginning to cut their budgets, lay off staff, reduce programming/services and increase fundraising efforts.

All of this is complicated because students make their decisions about which fees they want to opt out of semester by semester, making long- and even medium-term planning impossible.

It is difficult to analyze how the SCI has played out at different universities for a number of reasons. The process of informing students about it has been very different from school to school: in some places the opt-out form was given to students when they registered; in others, it was posted on a website which all students may not have seen. While universities were required to produce a listing of which fees were mandatory and which non-mandatory, the explanations of what each fee supported varied considerably in the amount of detail provided. Because students opt out fee by fee, it’s hard to know whether students even make it to the end of the list when indicating which fees they are willing to continue to support.

Upholding academic freedom

Following passage of the SCI, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the York Federation of Students launched a court challenge, claiming that the legislation was politically motivated and would threaten the autonomy of universities. They relied, in part, on a PC fundraising email from Ford, in which he referred to the “crazy Marxist nonsense” of student unions.

Last week’s Divisional Court decision struck down the SCI. While the government argued that it had jurisdiction to impose the SCI as part of its prerogative to make spending decisions, the CFS took the position that the government did not have the jurisdiction to interfere in the relationship between universities and their students.

The court agreed with the students and found that the SCI was

“inconsistent with the universities’ autonomous government. . . . A cabinet decree will not be lawful if it is inconsistent with the law, whatever merit or lack of merit there may be to the policy choice underlying the decree.”

The court called the autonomy of universities “fundamental to the academic freedom that is their hallmark” and said that the SCI was

“not authorized by law and [is] inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities, bedrock principles on which Ontario universities have been governed for more than 100 years. There is no statutory authority authorizing Cabinet or the Minister to interfere in the internal affairs of these student associations.”

Bad choice

Kayla Weiler, the Ontario representative to the CFS hailed the decision:

“Doug Ford’s attempt to wipe out students’ unions under the guise of giving students ‘choice’ has been exposed for what it really was: an attempt to silence his opposition.”

At Queen’s where the student newspaper – The Queen’s Journal – has published uninterrupted for 147 years, the reaction was one of relief. Co-editors, Meredith Wilson-Smith and Iain Sherriff Scott said:

The Queen’s Journal is tremendously relieved . . . . This means that, barring a successful appeal, next September, every Queen’s student will pay the mandatory fee and ensure [our] 147 years of autonomous and ethical reporting and role as Queen’s de facto journalism school continue.”

The question now is whether the government will appeal this decision. Let’s hope Doug Ford shows some sense. He can prove he is really committed to student choice and accessibility to post-secondary education, by not appealing and, instead, reducing tuition fees.

After all, the $184.98 per semester a Queen’s undergraduate student would save by opting out of all the non-mandatory fees – fees that support programs and services that are critically important to the most vulnerable and marginalized students at the university — pretty much disappears in the overall bill of almost $20,000 to attend the university for one year.

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