Student groups across Ontario have taken to the streets and social media to voice their concerns regarding a new provincial policy that would make certain ancillary fees that students pay –including student union fees – optional rather than mandatory.
Calling it a matter of transparency, Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton announced on January 17 that postsecondary institutions would have to allow students to opt out of non-essential, non-tuition fees starting this fall. Fees related to “health and safety initiatives” and “athletics and recreation” would remain mandatory.
The announcement comes alongside a package of other changes for Ontario colleges and universities, including a province-wide 10-percent tuition cut and a revamp to the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
Some campus organizations say the move to make fees optional will have a devastating impact on services that benefit students. Ancillary fees fund many campus activities, including student clubs, student media, orientation activities, food banks, and equity and peer support services.
“A lot of these fees go towards funding groups that support student life, and they provide opportunities for students to have a holistic postsecondary education,” said Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario. “I think it would be a great loss for students to miss out on this because of the opt-out feature.” CFS Ontario receives about $4 in dues per semester from each of its 350,000 student members.
Less funding from student fees could also mean fewer job opportunities, said Jacob Dubé, an Ontario representative of the Canadian University Press. “Not only is it affecting student jobs, it’s also affecting potential experience that would be valuable for students in future jobs,” said Mr. Dubé, who is also the editor in chief of Ryerson University’s student newspaper, which employs around 20 student volunteers.
He said campus newspapers rely heavily on student levies in addition to their advertising revenue. Without knowing how much of a financial cut they might face under the new policy, Mr. Dubé said it’s difficult for student-run media to prepare for the potential impact. “It’s leaving us and other student groups in a position where we can’t really plan. It’s basically, we get what we get, and we have to deal with it,” he said.
That uncertainty is also a concern for student governments as they figure out how to represent students with potentially less staff and funding. “Student governments are the voices of students that speak out to decision-makers,” said Danny Chang, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which represents eight student associations in the province. “There are so many ways that we represent students and a lot of it is in jeopardy with this announcement.”
While the government gave few details on what will be classified as essential under the new rules, a recent article by The Varsity student newspaper appears to show a leaked presentation by the ministry on the policy’s protocol. Among the services listed as essential are health and counselling, athletics and existing transit passes. The document also indicates that institutions will have to develop their own mechanism to allow students to opt-out of services that don’t fit within any of the categories outlined.
Higher education consultant Alex Usher said it’s clear that money heading to student unions is on the chopping block. “This is ideologically motivated,” said Mr. Usher, president of the Higher Education Strategy Associates. “The government is being quite deliberate in what kinds of services they consider unimportant, and they are setting up a mechanism to defund those services.”
In a fundraising email sent to Progressive Conservative party members on February 11, Premier Doug Ford wrote: “I think we all know what sort of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So we fixed that. Student union fees are now [optional].”
While students could save a couple hundred dollars by opting-out, Mr. Usher said less funding for services that create a civil society on campus would harm the nature of the student experience. “Everybody knows that what goes on outside of class is at least as important as what goes on inside of class,” he said. “That’s actually where a lot of the soft-skills development in postsecondary education happens.”
Supporters of student choice argue that students should decide which organizations have access to their money. But Mr. Usher said the reason all students pay fees is so that all students can benefit from at least some services. “That’s why we don’t make taxes optional,” he said.
Ms. Alideeb said groups that serve marginalized communities will likely feel the biggest impact as they struggle to gain support from external groups. “It causes a lot of problems for different players, and overall, I think students will always have the short end of the stick,” she said.