NEWS, ANALYSIS AND OPINION
We may have been premature – or, at least, too optimistic – regarding one topic in yesterday’s long article about the provincial Conservative government’s ten percent tuition rollback for domestic college and university students (http://stclair-src.org/news/need-know-news/news-opinion-ten-percent-tuition-reduction).
That story also described a simultaneous “tightening” of student aid eligibility and allocations, and a Conservative plan called the “Student Choice Initiative” which would make many tacked-on-to-tuition mandatory student fees optional in the future.
It is in the latter section that our analysis may have been inaccurate.
Contrary to our initial understanding of the somewhat vague outline provided by Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton during her January 17th press conference, it now appears that the government could define the student activity fees that support student councils, athletic organizations and alumni associations as “non-mandatory” – enabling students to opt-out of paying them.
Maybe that is not actually the government’s intention; but it has not, yet, clarified whether the funding of such organizations will be protected or not under the newly proposed policy.
Student organizations erupted with both fear and anger in response to this portion of the Minister’s announcement.
The Toronto-based College Student Alliance, a lobby group representing slightly less than half of the student governments at Ontario’s two dozen colleges (St. Clair used to be a CSA member), issued this press release:
The provincial government has effectively destroyed student representation at the college level and made postsecondary education less affordable by making student association fees optional and financial assistance less accessible.
Student associations represent their student body at a local, provincial, and federal level. Elected student leaders are the driving force behind advocacy that directly affects college and university students. The Student Choice Initiative, announced today by Minister Fullerton, was designed without consideration of, or consultation with, student leaders who represent their campuses.
“The academic experience has been negatively transformed as a result of today’s announcements,” said CSA President Brittany Greig. “Without student associations, there is no one to hold institutions accountable for decisions surrounding fee increases, programming, or strategic plans.”
By making student association fees optional, post-secondary students could lose access to:
• Fair and transparent academic appeals;
• Access to on-campus food banks, breakfast programs and food cupboards;
• Scholarships and bursaries;
• Student clubs and groups;
• Student employment opportunities;
• Federal, provincial and local advocacy efforts.
The government also officially announced a tuition reduction of ten per cent for all domestic students, and they will now charge interest during the six-month OSAP repayment grace period. The government implied this tuition reduction would help students, however, combined with the OSAP changes, low- and middle-income students may have to pay more money out of pocket.
“Ontario students already receive the least per-student funding of all Canadian provinces,” said Greig. “By expecting colleges and universities to absorb a $450 million funding cut, the government is telling students, faculty and institutions alike that accessible, quality education is not their priority.”
Today’s announcement will harm Ontario families - not help them. As a non-partisan government partner for over 40 years, College Student Alliance (CSA) should have been involved in the decision-making process. We urge the government to reconsider these changes, and we offer our assistance in the creation of a program that truly puts students first.
St. Clair’s Student Representative Council (SRC) is echoing those sentiments, and is reaching out to student government colleagues throughout the province to generate a response to the ministry’s proclamation.
In addition to the brief list of student-organization-provided services cited by the CSA, the SRC notes that it currently provides these services to St. Clair students:
• the administration of a student health plan, providing prescription-drug, vision-care and dental-care coverage to students;
• a food bank to assist cash-strapped students;
• awareness weeks and fundraising to assist a variety of charitable causes;
• the representation of students in academic and non-academic disciplinary matters and grade appeals;
• the management of food services throughout the college;
• providing student publications and social media communications;
• the employment of several hundred students annually in part-time, on-campus jobs;
• the management of several college facilities (among them, three student centres and all of the college’s computer labs);
• funding several scholarships and bursaries;
• leading all Orientation activities for new students;
• entertainment programming;
• overseeing the administrative services of over 30 clubs tied to academic programs;
• liaison with the college’s administration on all policy-and-procedure issues affecting students, including fee negotiations; and, most recently and most importantly,
• entering into partnership with the college as the “lead agency” on property developments. Within the past several years, the SRC has secured the mortgages to build such facilities as the new Student Life Centre and Sports Park, and committed its fee revenues to repay such loans.
All of those services and facilities would be jeopardized if the SRC was to lose its funding base (the revenues generated by the college’s Student Activity Fee).
The Student Choice Initiative infers that a student shouldn’t have to pay for a service if he/she isn’t going to use it, or if he/she has some sort of “objection” to a student organization’s spending allocations.
“I’m never going to use the campus Food Bank, so I’ll just opt-out of that,” a student might say.
But that’s not the way it works because the fee structure is not that specific.
The SRC – and the Student Athletic Association and Alumni Association – receive student fees revenue in a general, comprehensive manner, and then allocate that “lump sum” through the internal budgetary systems administered by their boards of directors.
If a student was to opt-out, he/she would be opting-out of the ENTIRE fee payment – and, thus, would subsequently be denied ALL of the services listed above, and denied access to all of the campus facilities that those groups developed and/or manage. Basically, he/she would be going to class, but having few other services provided at the college.
Is that really the government’s intention when it suggests that what student organizations do is “non-essential”, and that their fees should be non-mandatory?
Student organizations – especially student councils – thought that their “right to exist” – and their innate importance to their institutions – had been entrenched in 2002, when the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act was revised with this specific recognition:
Section 7. Nothing in this Act restricts a student governing body of a college elected by the students of the college from carrying on its normal activities and no college shall prevent the student governing body from doing so.
The withdrawal of funding which could result from “fee opt-outs” under the Student Choice Initiative, however, would clearly and disastrously “restrict a student governing body from carrying on its normal activities”. A recognition and right to exist is meaningless if such organizations have constrained – or no – financial wherewithal to provide services.
Stay tuned as this dispute between student organizations and the government runs its course over the next few weeks. Again, the Minister’s announcement just constituted a “policy intention”. Everyone is awaiting more clarity when the actual legislation is introduced … and, even more important, the regulations attached to the legislation. It is the latter which will, truly, depict how these changes will impact every party – students and the colleges as institutions – in a practical, day-to-day manner.