Court quashes Tory plan to undercut student union fees

In a stunning rebuke to the province’s Conservative government, Ontario’s Superior Court has quashed the Tory’s Student Choice Initiative. Under the scheme, instead of students being charged a single student union fee set by their university or college student association, they were presented with the choice of opting in or out of fees for clubs or activities.

Student associations offer a range of services and clubs, such as those of LGBTQ students, student newspapers and radio stations, and even student support for visible minorities.

“We lost a total of 65% of our expected revenue,” said Masoud Manzouri, president of the Lakehead University Student Union, “which reduced our operating budget to well under CA$2.5 million [US$1.8 million].”

The cabinet directive that ordered universities and colleges that collect the fees when students pay tuition, to allow students to opt out or opt in to club or union fees, was not announced or defended in the legislature.

Instead, as the court noted, the explanation for it was found in a fund-raising letter to supporters. “I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So we fixed that. Student union fees are now opt-in,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford in a letter asking for financial support.

Ford’s animosity to higher education dates back decades, to when he dropped out of Humber College in Toronto after only two months.

Shutting down debate and action

Kathleen Wynne, the former Liberal premier of Ontario and member of the Provincial Parliament for a downtown Toronto riding, believes that the Student Choice Initiative or SCI was more about shutting down student debate and political action than it was about saving students money or choice.

“Students would see the opportunity to save a few pennies, but they certainly didn’t think their campus radio or newspaper would have to shut down,” she says.

The government did not give the universities or colleges instructions on how the opt in or opt out regimen was to work, and different institutions established different systems.

At Lakehead, after paying their tuition on-line, another web page opened up with a list of the clubs and activities, and the fees for each. Students then had to click on the fees they were willing to pay. Other institutions had the reverse system.

Wynne said that "since the systems across the province were not the same, the implementation was uneven”.

"Some schools and, therefore, students were more affected than others,” said Wynne. At Lakehead, for example, only 35% of students clicked on the tab to pay non-essential fees.

“I think there was some confusion as to what students understood 'click on this or that' meant,” said Manzouri.

Programmes close

There is no confusion about the effect, however. The hundred student clubs that used to receive CA$200 now receive no financial support at all.

The student association had one full- and two part-time staff to help run a food bank (for students), a multicultural centre, a Pride office, and programmes supporting gender equality and Aboriginal Awareness. Now there is only one part-time position devoted to these activities. “We have had to close our sustainability centre,” said Manzouri.

There was the loss of the CA$2 each student used to contribute to the annual Pow Wow which for 30 years has built links between students who study at Lakehead University and First Nations people who live in northwest Ontario.

The cuts even threaten a programme that has been run with University World Service of Canada to sponsor refugee students to go to Lakehead. “Students used to pay CA$5 a semester. This would allow us to sponsor two refugee students. At least for this year, the university has decided to waive their residence fees. But we know we have a shortfall for next year,” said Manzouri.

At the bilingual University of Ottawa, only one in four students opted out of paying for the university’s English language newspaper The Fulcrum, a significant loss but one the paper can for now deal with. By contrast, the French-language paper La Rotunde, which has been publishing several issues a week for 87 years, lost CA$30,000 and plans on shifting to an online paper.

The ruling

Ross Romano, the minister of training, colleges and universities, refused to be interviewed before the court’s ruling came down and has said since that the government is studying it.

The three judges at the Superior Court quashed the cabinet directive because it had no basis in legislation.

Absent legislation giving the government this power, the court argued, the fact that the student associations are private corporations means that the government had no power to determine how they would decide on how to fund themselves. The boards of student associations are elected by students and these boards have the power to ‘tax’ the students.

A secondary part of the decision was that, since universities are also corporations in their own right, absent legislation, the government did not have the power to require them to institute an opt-in/opt-out option in the collection of student fees. The province’s 24 community colleges are owned by the government, so this second part of the ruling does not apply to them; the first part does.

The SCI can best be seen as part of the premier’s attack on ‘elites’. This, in his government’s first budget, undergirded the decision to cut 50% from the province’s library fund. One result of that cut is the cancellation of inter-library loans among libraries that are run by cities and towns.

When Ford was a member of the Toronto City Council and his brother Rob Ford was mayor, the future premier complained that Toronto had too many libraries and he would close them “in a heart-beat”. When he was publically criticised for this by award-winning author and well-known Toronto resident, Margaret Atwood, he responded: “I don’t even know her. If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.”

When I asked former premier Wynne about the fact that the government deemed athletics to be an essential service, she answered: “This government does not feel threatened by sports activities. But a club where students can come together to talk about the issues of the day would threaten them.”

Since the deadline for paying tuition and fees for the winter semester is fast approaching, universities, colleges and student societies are trying to figure out what to do going forward.