The Student Choice Initiative – Why it’s bad

There is a lot happening in Ontario right now. Services that thousands of people use are being cut. Structures of support are being torn down in healthcare. Education is being stripped in so many ways.

I’m frustrated, as I know many are, but I’ve also been inspired to hope by the incredible showings of collaborative outrage that have filled Queen’s Park so many times in the past year.

Former Ontario Minister of Education speaks at a press conference.
Unknown/The Varsity

For me, there’s one issue that needs to continually be pushed back on to our timelines. It’s the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) that was included in the Post-Secondary education cuts from January 2019.

I’ve explored before how it was swept under the rug. Headlines covering the announcement focused – understandably – on the 10% tuition cut or the fact OSAP (Ontario Student Accessibility Provision) grants reverted to loans a la 2015.

Those of us who are paying attention to the incredible damage this government will have on our province are looking to replicate the success of other policies that have been walked back by the provincial government (cancelling retroactive cuts to municipalities).

We need victories. The Ford government has proven time and time again that it is not doing its due diligence as a governing party. It is not asking questions or doing the leg work to find true efficiencies in the system it is attempting to strong arm.

I think more folks should focus on the SCI. It’s simple, and is another area the people in the province could see a breakthrough in provincial-second-guessing – if we push.

Some history:
For decades, students at post-secondary institutions have paid ancillary fees on top of their tuition. These additional fees were decided in two main ways. Either the institution would introduce new fees to fund some sort of service or the student body would vote on a referendum question that would be recognized by the institution and be charged alongside tuition.

Primarily, student fees voted on by students funded something student-focused. Oftentimes, this meant that new services not being offered by the institution or clubs that students recognized the need for would be able to form (health insurance, transit passes, legal/tenancy help, music/speaker events, student space, insurance for clubs, on-campus restaurants, student food-banks, DIY bike centres, SafeWalk programs, equity-based clubs, and Student governments to name a few things).

The fees voted on in referendum routines could (and still can) be revoked in an equally democratic vote.

This is a bone I always want to pick with folks who complain that they “have to” (or “had to”) pay for a universal bus pass while in school. Pretty much across the board, the U-Pass structures in the province are contracts signed with the transit system but informed by one of these referendum votes. Students could vote to not re-sign the contract. They never would, because a vast majority of students tend to use – or see the benefit of using – transit compared to those who don’t. And this is the crux of the problem.

Not all students use all of the stuff they pay for. The likelihood that the stuff they do use on campus couldn’t sustain itself without the financial input of the whole student body is very likely.

It’s not a mystery that the price of post-secondary tuition has been steadily increasing over the past fifty years, but ancillary fees were not, and still aren’t, the primary issue affecting the affordability of education.

With the SCI, the Ford government is not actually making it easier for students to save money. Those students who use the services provided through the funding that comes from optional ancillary fees are being set up to suffer financially or socially. Additionally, the system that informs ancillary fees is the most democratic system I have ever experienced. It needs a clear majority of a percentage of the population, and each fee can be reversed equally as democratically.
Basically, vote yes = pay, vote no = don’t pay. There’s a cynical or sarcastic comment in there somewhere about taxes and how that system works.

I’ve also suggested before that if the government was honestly looking for “efficiencies” in this system, they could have mandated that the fees are not indefinite, and encourage students to vote on them repeatedly over a period of time to maintain the support (I suggest a four or five year period that would refresh the fee with the next true cohort who wouldn’t have had the chance to vote on the fee initially). However, this would still be problematic, because this isn’t their jurisdiction.

The primary issue I have with this policy is the fact that this is not public money. Unlike almost all of the other pots the Ford government has put their fingers in. The student-voted fees are student money, decided upon by and for the students it affects.
Tuition? Government. OSAP? Government. Ancilliary fees? Student.

Want to know more?

Most of my experience comes from the University of Guelph, so here are some resources outlining what exactly might be at stake.

Here’s an FAQ about the SCI. It includes a list of the fees potentially on-the-line and how much a proposed opt-out student might save. These numbers are not fully accurate because the schools will be changing their fee structures dramatically by September:
Central Student Association:

The Ontarion at the University of Guelph did a good breakdown of the “what is” and “what ifs”:
The Ontarion:

And what can you do about it?

Support the CFS-Ontario’s lawsuit publicly. Let people around you know that there are people trying to go through the system to get at the Province. Not all protest should take place on the lawn in front of parliament. However, with the most recent Budget Bill passed in the legislature, they CFS will need help.

The Varsity:

CFS-O Press Release:

Sign the petition:

Help support Ontario’s post-secondary students in maintaining their system of autonomy, and help show the government that just because they were elected, they don’t have the right to squash those who disagree with them without reason.

Written by
Jack Fisher

Jack Fisher is an independent journalist. He holds a BAH from the University of Guelph, and a post-graduate certificate from Sheridan College in journalism.
@Jack_Fisher_4 on Twitter and Instagram

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Written by Jack Fisher