Court Strikes Down Student Choice Initiative

student choice

The Conservative provincial government’s “Student Choice Initiative”, which made many previously mandatory postsecondary student fees optional, has been struck down by Ontario’s Divisional Court.

If the government appeals that November 21st decision, the policy will probably remain in force for the time-being (that is, during the winter semester starting in January of 2020) as subsequent legal hearings run their course.

The implementation of the Student Choice Initiative had been the subject of a lawsuit filed by York University’s student government and the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students lobby group (representing a number of other universities and colleges in the province).

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 Student Choice Initiative was introduced by the Conservative provincial government in January of 2019.

The edict arose from some complaints by members of the “Campus Conservatives” (the youth wing of the party that exists at many universities) about the tacked-on-to-tuition fees that exist at their schools – many of which support purportedly “radical” student councils, and even more “radical” provincial/national political lobby groups.

The Campus Conservative critics argued that students-at-large shouldn’t have to pay such mandatory and permanently entrenched fees to support such groups, if they aren’t supportive of their aims and programs.

But by threatening the funding-security of such organizations, student leaders – and many postsecondary administrators – argued that the Conservatives were jeopardizing the delivery of many essential and relied-upon campus services, and the student employment opportunities associated with them.

St. Clair dealt with the imposition of the Student Choice Initiative in this manner:

• Because the Student Representative Council (SRC) and Chatham’s Thames Students Incorporated (TSI) now act as property developers and managers of various facilities at the college, funding associated with those operations was designated as essential, and will be subject to mandatory, “Essential Non-Tuition Related Incidental Fee” payments.

In Windsor, for instance, in 2019-20, a full-time student will be paying $125 for the operation of “student buildings”. Those include the SRC-developed-and-managed Student Centre and Student Life Centre at main campus, and the downtown TD Student Success Centre.

They will also pay $100 annually into the “Student Buildings – Academic Tower/Student Centre Expansion Fee” fund. To be in place until 2027, that fee will pay for a joint administration/SRC project to construct additional floors atop the existing Student Centre.

• The SRC and TSI will also receive 65 percent of the mandatory, $175-per-year Academic Support Fee. This funding recognizes that they are the “lead agencies” for such campus services as the operation of open computer labs, Orientation staging, and various academic support systems;

• The long-standing, SRC-administered health insurance plan for domestic students remains an initially-mandatory-payment fee, with an after-the-fact opt-out-able option. The $300 annual payment serves as a premium providing students with life insurance, prescription drug coverage, and vision and dental care. Students with alternative coverage (a health insurance plan of their own, or coverage as a dependant) may opt-out of the plan and receive a rebate of the fee.

• Also now covered by a separate, stand-alone, mandatory fee ($35 per year) is something which the SRC used to partially fund: physical and mental health services and counselling.

• Not reflected in the Fee Structure is this financial situation: With the closure of the college’s cafeteria (no private-sector company came up with a bid to operate the caf at the end of 2018-19), the SRC is, now, the chief provider of all food services on campus. It owns-and-operates the Griff’s Cavern licensed restaurant, is a franchisee of Tim Hortons and Subway, and has leased Student Centre space to Capri Pizza and Hamoudi’s Shawarma. It bears all of the expenses – and draws all of the profits – of those food service operations, and provides substantial part-time student jobs through them.

All of which brings us to what is “left-over”: services which are now technically defined as “non-essential”; and now covered by non-mandatory, opt-out-able “membership fees” for the SRC, TSI and Alumni Association.

In the SRC’s case, that means the $50 per year optional fee will be funding such services as:

• entertainment and awareness programming;

• copy centre operations;

• seed-money and special event funding of three dozen campus clubs;

• student publications and social media communications (those departmental costs are partially offset by advertising sales);

• give-aways and promotions;

• advocacy on postsecondary issues at the provincial and federal levels;

• consultative assistance for students’ disciplinary hearings and grade appeals;

•  the operation of a student food bank;

• services and assistance to student-parents and their families;

• community outreach (including the support of local charities); and

• multicultural activities ...

... In short, everything that happens at the college that does not pertain to strictly academic purposes or functions.

Those who balk at paying the optional fee, and who do wish to forego all of those services (and SRC-provided employment opportunities), have to deliberately withdraw from the otherwise automatic membership in the organizations. All students will be charged the $50 SRC/TSI fee (and the $50 Alumni fee) at the beginning of their educations. If they choose to do so, they must opt-out, on-line, within the first ten days of their intake-semester to receive a refund. Failure to do so by that deadline will lead to a retention of membership.

The advantage of membership is that a student will have full, guaranteed access to all of the organization’s services. (http://stclair-src.org/news/need-know-news/optional-student-fees-unveiled-students-can-save-money-theyll-sacrifice-servicing)

This September, after the SRC’s “It’s a tiny investment for HUUUUGE benefits” marketing program, only four percent of students at main campus and six percent of those at the downtown campuses opted-out of the fee payment.

Stay tuned for details of what happens next – if the government appeals this initial court decision in an attempt to maintain the Student Choice Initiative.