Student Choice Initiative: Penny-wise But Pound-foolish

The Saint Scene

OPINION

By E.P. Chant,

Managing Editor, Student Publications

As we await further – and firmer – details from the Conservative provincial government about its proposed tuition rollback, OSAP alterations, and “Student Choice Initiative”, we, at least, have determined the likely origin of that last item.

According to the preliminary description offered by Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton during a January 17th media conference, 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 their now mandatorily paid base-funding.

What generated this policy – this philosophy – in the ministerial mindset?

The answer, it would appear, comes from a group called the “Campus Conservatives” – formerly the “Young Conservatives” – youthful adherents of the party who have chapters at a number of postsecondary institutions.

Shortly after Fullerton made her preliminary announcement, 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 are now 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.

Look, we entirely agree that the positions taken on many issues by the CFS can be downright nuts. We’ll even concur with the Campus Conservatives’ use of the adjective “radical” with regard to some of CFS stances.

But there are several mitigating factors to take into account with regard to this situation:

• When a school-based organization does choose to align itself with such provincial and national groups, it must (based on most student councils’ bylaws) hold a referendum in which the majority of students must vote in favour of joining the advocacy agency. So, membership is, initially, determined by a democratic, “the-majority-rules” process.

“I shouldn’t have to be a member of what-is-in-effect a union, if I don’t want to be,” argue CFS opponents.

Really?

In June of 2018, Premier Doug Ford’s Conservatives won their majority government in the provincial election with 40.5 percent of the popular vote. So, it wasn’t even a “the-majority-rules” scenario – not even close. Can the remaining 59.5 percent of the population justifiably say, “He’s not my Premier. It’s not my government. I’m not supporting it with my taxes until I receive a ‘do-over’ vote every single year.”

Um, that’s not the way it works. We’ve all signed on to this sometimes-less-than perfect idea of democracy. And we accept the fact that the best we can do, as critics, is to gird ourselves for battle every few years, to revamp our little corner of the world by casting our election ballots.

Maybe that sort of scenario would be more amenable to our Conservative friends, young and old … That a student government’s decision to align itself with a national/provincial advocacy group cannot be “carved in stone in perpetuity” – but must, instead, be re-affirmed every few years by a new, full-student-population referendum. “Do the students of University X in the year 2020 wish to retain the 2017-era membership in the CFS? ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’?” …

•  … Because, in their collective wisdom, students should have the right to seek out and obtain such advocacy, if they so choose.

Both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park meddle with the lives of students – especially their financial status – on a regular basis.

Students can either respond to federal and provincial legislative initiatives individually; in small-scale collective fashion via their on-campus student councils; or through a large-scale, Ontario-/Canada-wide voice provided by advocacy agencies.

By means of whichever of those formats they choose, students are exercising their right to participate – individually or collectively – in the political dialogue that affects them, using their fundamental right of free speech.

“Free speech”? “Free speech”? Where have we heard that phrase before? …

… Oh, yeah. Just a few weeks ago, all of the postsecondary schools in Ontario had to implement formal policies recognizing and defending the tenet of free speech on their campuses … because they had been ordered to do so by the provincial Conservative government!

So, a month ago, the Tories were adamant about instilling free speech at colleges and universities … Followed up, a couple of weeks ago, by the Student Choice Initiative – which would, to a degree, curtail it by impinging on the political input provided by advocacy groups.

Ford, Fullerton and the Campus Conservatives may want to examine that discrepancy.

• As is often the case when policies pertaining to postsecondary education in this province are under discussion – and, eventually, implemented – the unique circumstances of the two dozen colleges are always lumped in with that of the 21 universities. That is the case even though there are often quite different and disparate behaviours, financial considerations and mind-sets involved in the two educational formats and their respective student groups.

This situation is a classic case in point. For whatever reason, few colleges – their student populations or their student governments – are as deeply, widely and vehemently involved in ferocious political debates and contentious “causes” as their university-based counterparts.

Of its 37 chapter affiliations in Ontario, for instance, only two – yep, two – colleges are members of the “radical” CFS: Boreal and George Brown.

The student governments of less than half of the two dozen colleges are, instead, affiliated with the much more “staid”, education-focused College Student Alliance.

That leaves the final part of the equation: The majority of Ontario college student governments have NO connection with any provincial/national advocacy organization …

… Yet the Student Choice Initiative “tars all student governments with the same brush” – those of universities and colleges, those with affiliations with “radical” advocacy groups and those without any such ties – and puts all of their good works and their essential services in jeopardy by threatening the stability of their funding. It is the equivalent of using a howitzer cannon to do battle with an irritating mosquito, of blowing up one’s entire home because the occasional buzzing annoys you.

An ancient, 500-year-old saying from England fits this situation perfectly … The Student Choice Initiative sees the government being “penny-wise but pound-foolish”. It is irked about a relatively tiny bit of perhaps contentious, contestable spending. But instead of concentrating on developing alternatives to that specific matter, it is eliminating all of the funding for essential campus services and otherwise unfundable capital/building projects.

• One other item was raised by the media as a possible rationale for the Conservatives’ attitude about student fees: namely, that some of that cash may be put towards supporting on-campus LGBTQ organizations. The argument, in this case, is that those who, for whatever reason (religious belief or otherwise), may have an objection to the “politics of gay/gender identification rights”, should not have to financially support such groups.

Maybe there’s some merit to that argument and maybe there’s not. But, again, it is hardly the be-all and end-all of everything that student organizations do. And, as such, it hardly merits the shelving of all of their base-funding in order to deal with one miniscule budgetary item.

I did some rough math to analyze the Student Representative Council’s/SRC’s involvement in gay rights at St. Clair. As it does with all campus clubs, the council annually provides a couple hundred bucks in “seed money” to the college’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) to help it get underway. Above-and-beyond that, for most of its programs and projects (again, like all campus clubs), it must bankroll itself with bake-sales and other fundraisers.

The seed money accounts for .0002 percent of the student council’s annual budget. Under the Conservative’s Student Choice Initiative, if a student was to vehemently object to the existence of the GSA and seek to opt-out of that portion of the SRC-designated Activity Fee, he/she would be entitled to a proportionate refund of .0002 percent of that fee. He/she would receive a refund of three cents – I suppose five cents, given that pennies have gone out of circulation.

Hmmm … That appears to be a literal example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish, doesn’t it? … Saying a student organization (like the SRC) shouldn’t receive its base-funding to manage and provide student-employment as it operates food services, computer labs, a print-shop, student centres, a health insurance plan, etc. – and to act as the financier and developer of new buildings on campus – all in retaliation for the fact that it has asked for three pennies to support an LGBTQ group.

• Being sceptical about a government’s wisdom is one thing. Being cynical about its motives is quite another, but that negatively suspicious mood has poked its way into my mind as I’ve mulled over this matter. Nobody could really be as financially impetuous – almost petty – as the damaging Student Choice Initiative might indicate, could they?

Maybe there is something else afoot? The ol’ “political smokescreen” manoeuvre, perhaps?

You get student governments all up-in-arms and discombobulated by threatening their very existence, they feel they must divert all their energies to defending themselves and protecting their funding. And, in doing so, their attention is diverted from lobbying against the new restrictions being placed upon OSAP.

Hmmm … Could the Conservatives really be so sneakily Machiavellian? Or is the diversion from an intense focus on OSAP just a coincidental effect of the Student Choice Initiative? Maybe a bit of both.

The end result of all of this: By permitting students to save a few pennies as they opt-out of this or that service or program, the Student Choice Initiative has the overall potential of gutting dozens of student services at colleges and universities, eliminating thousands of on-campus student jobs, and eradicating what has become one of the only stable sources of funding for building projects at the schools.

• And the doomy and gloomy scenario depicted in that previous paragraph really could come to pass because of the timing of the other aspect of the Minister’s January 17th announcement: the ten percent tuition reduction, slated to take effect this fall.

That, alone, is expect to cut the revenues of the 24 colleges by $80 to $100 million.

Eliminating the mandatory student fee funding of student organizations could lead to several more tens of millions of dollars being withdrawn from the system – a significant portion of which is now funding academic and non-academic services that are used on a daily basis by students.

Because the schools’ administrations will, already, be struggling to make ends meet due to the tuition cut, they won’t have the financial capacity to replace the services now being provided by the student organizations. Potentially, it’s a double-whammy monetary disaster for postsecondary institutions …

• … And that’s actually somewhat surprising, because we had had the impression that the Conservatives were more fiscally pragmatic than is indicated by the potential fall-out of the Student Choice Initiative.

A couple of months ago, the Tories reversed a policy of the previous Liberal government, which would have put an end to public/private college partnerships – such as the revenue-generating one that has existed for the past half-decade between St. Clair and the Ace Acumen Academy in Toronto. The latter is an English language training school for immigrants, which now features a half-dozen St. Clair-offered postsecondary programs to the Toronto-based students – providing St. Clair with about $7 million annually in tuition revenue.

The Liberals had ordered the cessation of such partnerships, saying (vaguely) that they weren’t providing the students involved with the “full college experience”.

A couple of months ago, the Conservatives scrapped the Liberal directive, allowing such public/private partnerships to be maintained.

In a story about that announcement (http://stclair-src.org/news/need-know-news/partnerships-are-out-mothballs), The Scene suggested: “Part of the Conservatives’ thinking is, no doubt, financially based. If colleges – especially small- and medium-sized ones such as St. Clair – can generate their own new revenue sources by innovative methods such as these partnerships, that reduces the ‘general’ funding that the province would (otherwise) have to provide to the schools.”

If that supposition about the Conservatives’ motive was correct, the (in contrast) system-funding-killing nature of the Student Choice Initiative is politically surprising. If the many valuable and valued campus services currently provided by student organizations drop by the wayside due to en-masse opting-out, college administrations are almost certainly going to be clamoring for additional, government-paid grant-funding to maintain those services. They likely won’t get it, but the Conservatives are certainly going to look dopey for having eliminated services that had been operating extremely well and student employment that was (and remains) desperately needed.

“Penny-wise and pound-foolish”. “Cutting off your nose to spite your face”. “Throwing out the baby with the bath water”. A whole bunch of old adages can be attached to the lack of political and fiscal wisdom and practicality of the Student Choice Initiative.

It surely deserves a re-think by the Conservatives – and, ultimately, either its abandonment or, at the very least, a fine-tuning so that student organizations continue to enjoy a stable base-level of mandatorily paid fee-funding.

MORE STORIES ON THIS TOPIC:

http://stclair-src.org/news/need-know-news/student-organizations-object-governments-proposed-changes-osap-and-fees

http://stclair-src.org/news/need-know-news/student-organizations-jeopardized-tories-students-initiative

http://stclair-src.org/news/need-know-news/news-opinion-ten-percent-tuition-reduction