Strike Two For Student Choice Initiative

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In the baseball-ish game of politics, “Strike Two” has been called on the provincial government’s error of attempting to implement a policy that would make many postsecondary student fees optional, threatening the operation of student governments at Ontario’s universities and colleges.

Last week, the Ontario Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling, finding that the Conservative government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) was both legislatively untenable and potentially damaging to essential programs and services at the province’s postsecondary institutions.

The Ministry of Colleges and Universities introduced the policy in early 2019.

The Student Choice Initiative would make many currently mandatory ancillary student fees (“tuition-tack-ons”) – instead – optional. Students would be able to “opt-out” of paying them in whole or in part, if they feel they aren’t going to use the associated services, or if they have some sort of objection to the organizations or “causes” supported by the fees.

The basic effect of this new policy would be the designation of student organizations – such as student councils – as “non-essential” to the operation of colleges and universities, eliminating what had long been mandatorily paid base-funding.

It appeared that the government was spurred to introduce the SCI by a group called the “Campus Conservatives” – formerly the “Young Conservatives” – youthful adherents of the party who have chapters at a number of postsecondary institutions.

In early 2019, the Campus Conservatives issued an endorsement of the government’s intentions, including this extremely informative paragraph:

One of the most important changes to the legislation concerns ancillary fees. For decades, students have been forced to fund third-party advocacy groups known for controversial agendas and financial mismanagement. Organizations like the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) have consistently used student fees to promote radical political causes, for example abolishing capitalism and boycotting Canada’s ally, Israel. Furthermore, the CFS would commonly use their funding to interfere in student union elections and sue unions which attempt to remove their fee. While everyone has the right to choose to contribute to a political group, no one should be forced to fund political activism against their will.

Translation: All of the day-to-day, strictly-on-campus, daily-life-related services offered by the province’s student organizations were put in jeopardy, primarily because a number of student councils have chosen, over the years, to join (and pay membership fees to) large-scale advocacy organizations. Not surprisingly, those groups often adopt anti-government-policy stances that may irritate politicians and bureaucrats.

Disregarded by the SCI was the fact that many student governments now provide such essential campus amenities as health plans, food banks, property development and management, food services, and counselling. Delivering many of those services also provides thousands of essential on-campus employment opportunities to students who are hired by their student governments.

St. Clair’s Student Representative Council (SRC) and Thames Students Incorporated (TSI) are classic examples of that situation. During the past decade, they have taken the lead role in delivering many of those sorts of campus services – and, indeed, have assumed those managerial responsibilities (and costs) from the college’s administration.

When the SCI came into force at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, the SRC’s and TSI’s base-funding was reduced to a nominal fee, while the college’s administration adjusted and redefined other service-related fees (making them mandatory), and turned over their revenues (in whole or in part) to the student governments to maintain their operations.

Simultaneously, the student councils launched an information campaign (“It’s a tiny investment for HUUUUGE benefits”) to convince students not to opt-out of the base-fee payment – and noting that they would, personally, lose access to many services if they did so.

Ultimately, only a tiny minority of St. Clair students did take advantage of the SCI and opted-out of their SRC and TSI fee payments.

Finally, after challenges by student organizations throughout the province, the Ontario Divisional Court rejected the propriety of the SCI in late 2019. The court ruled that the government’s action had trod on the independent operation of both student associations and the schools themselves, and had exceeded its statutory authority by implementing the policy.

The provincial government appealed that ruling …

… Unsuccessfully. Last week, the provincial Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

It agreed that the government had gone about the implementation of the policy improperly. It could not unilaterally alter the fee system, the court stated; but, rather, would have to amend the Colleges Act, and the individual pieces of legislation which govern each university, in order to implement the SCI.

In addition to that technical glitch, the Supreme Court also called into question the government’s fundamental philosophy, contending that – contrary to the Conservatives’ opinion – most of the programs and services provided by student organizations should in fact be viewed (and protected) as essential to the operation of postsecondary institutions.

The government is now reviewing the most recent court ruling, and deciding whether it may appeal it to the federal Supreme Court, in order to preserve the SCI.