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Ontario court strikes down controversial Student Choice Initiative

The government policy resulted in a widespread loss of funding for student services and activities.

BY SHAUNA MCGINN | DEC 10 2019

On November 21, an Ontario court unanimously struck down the provincial government’s controversial Student Choice Initiative (SCI), writing in the decision that the policy’s directives “are not authorized by law and are inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities.”

Announced in January of this year, the SCI was a directive that categorized fees charged to postsecondary students as either essential or ancillary, with ancillary fees covering an array of services, like student union dues, student media or campus food banks.

The SCI required schools to make students aware of these changes, and have a way for them to view and opt-out of ancillary fees. Both the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) challenged the directive in court in May, and many student advocates felt that it unfairly targeted vulnerable student populations.

Architecture students at York University.

In a statement posted to the CFS-Ontario website, national chairperson Sofia Descalzi called the decision a “historic moment” for the student movement. “The Student Choice Initiative was a clear attack on student organizing on campuses by the Ford government. Students will not back down and will continue to fight for their right to represent the interests of students on campus and beyond,” Ms. Descalzi says.

Though approaches and results varied across the province, the SCI resulted in a widespread loss of funding for many student groups and services, with campus media taking a particularly hard hit. Even at schools like Brock University, where the undergraduate opt-out rate was a relatively low 20 percent, there was still nearly $500,000 in lost funding. Bilal Khan, president of the Brock University Student Union, says although the ruling is a positive development, he’s not aware at this point if or how the lost funds will be recuperated.

Katlyn Kotila, vice-president of education at Laurentian University Students’ General Association, echoed this sentiment, adding that she was surprised by the ruling. “I personally have never seen something like this happen where a group of students challenges the government and wins.”

She says moving forward, the SGA is concerned with balancing students’ interests. “I know there are some students on my campus who may have liked what the directive had to offer. But I also know that there are many groups that were disproportionately affected by the changes.”

Ms. Kotila says that one of the good things that came from the SCI was that it gave her and her colleagues the opportunity to re-evaluate what students want, and how their services are provided. “I think we as an organization are going to be stronger and more accountable because of it,” she says.

This week, the Ontario government began the process of appealing the ruling, arguing that overturning SCI impedes the government’s authority to decide on the conditions for providing funding to public colleges and universities. The government has also positioned SCI as an initiative that helps to make postsecondary education more accessible.

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  1. Helen / December 15, 2019 at 08:15

    This ruling was so irresponsible and ill-informed. It’s ironic that opponents of the SCI admit that they’ve been forced to re-evaluate what they’re doing and the positions they’re taking in order to be more consistent with what the student body believes is important. That right there suggests that they’re not reflecting students’ values. In a free and democratic society which guarantees the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of association, forcing students to fund clubs and initiatives which do not represent their values and beliefs is a violation of their human rights.

    This problem is nothing new. It existed when I was in undergrad in the ’90’s. My student union used our funds to provide a bus trip to students specifically to protest some initiative at Queen’s Park. I forget what the initiative was but do recall that I supported it and was incensed that I had been compelled to contribute to facilitation of the protest twice – by being required to contribute to CFS, which was also promoting protest of the initiative and to the student union, as a requirement to obtain my degree (which had nothing to do with politics).

    This problem has gotten worse over the years. Those who don’t share the political values of these groups shut their mouths and keep their heads down, just focusing on getting their degrees and getting outta there. They’ve learned that they will be shamed and mischaracterised publicly if they speak up or advocate for equal airtime of their perspectives. It is disgraceful that in a democratic society, a justice of the peace would rule in favour of forcing students to pay to support groups whose values and beliefs conflict with their own. Over time, this creates a very unsafe learning environment.

  2. Rick Welland / December 19, 2019 at 13:20

    I wonder, Helen, if you would also support a provision that would allow citizens to opt out of paying taxes based on whether or not the use of those tax dollars matched their personal values? I would hope that your answer is, “no”, because the result would be chaos. In free, just, and democratic societies, there must be a balance between the good of the whole and the rights of individual citizens. Moreover, as I’m sure you know, democratic societies operate on the principle that majority rules. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that this gives the majority the inherent right to ignore (or worse) the rights of those in the minority. As I said, there must be a balance between what benefits society as a whole and individual rights. Finally, in free, just, and democratic societies individuals have both rights and responsibilities. This is no different in student societies.

  3. Helen / December 20, 2019 at 22:50

    Rick Welland, there’s no comparison between the two issues. Post-secondary institutions are already tax funded. Their parents (and in many cases, they) have already paid over and above the base tuition fees for the schools to exist. Within those institutions there are already researchers pursuing research which they will support and that which they will oppose. Why should students, who are struggling to be able to eat and are going to be saddled with astronomical student debt, have to subsidise their peers’ political beliefs? It is perfectly possible for students to become involved in politics in the community in which their schools are located without squeezing students for money to support causes they don’t believe in. In fact, by doing so, they would also gain skills which would increase their marketability upon graduation. There is no need to force students to fund political movements they don’t believe in when those who want to support a particular political movement can do so within the local community. The irony is that the absence of involvement by young adults in community-based movements is a major concern in Canadian society, yet here you are, advocating for forced spending on initiatives which segregate students from the local community in preference for participation in contrived settings. That only perpetuates the very problem of absence of youth in community-based movements.

  4. Helen / December 20, 2019 at 23:05

    Rick Welland, your query fails to make its point because in the “real world”, we do get to choose our priorities every time we vote. How our tax dollars are spent (or not spent, depending on who we choose to represent us) is determined by us. Are you suggesting that students should not get the same opportunity to indicate their funding priorities, using their own money?