By Brad Evoy
On January 17, the Ontario Government announced several changes which were meant to dramatically shift the dynamics of university and campus life in Ontario. While changes to OSAP and a fairly hollow cut to tuition have been given a great deal of focus in the wider press, the third major announcement — the so-called Student Choice Initiative — has not received the same level of analysis.
What Students Have Been Sold
On the surface, this initiative seems like a straightforward one. Students will be given a choice to opt-out of all student fees through an online portal.
For students placed squeezed by capitalism generally and cuts made to OSAP specifically, this choice may appear like an easy one. Who wouldn’t want to ease an increasingly dire financial burden in any small way?
The Ford government wishes to silence student and campus voices that articulate alternative narratives to that of their party. To them and their campus Conservatives acolytes, this isn’t about students interests in general, but their own.
This idea of a simple opt-out to get back money is the notion provided to students by the Conservative Party and their youth acolytes. At Carleton University, the Conservative Youth wing describes this initiative in a statement as one which will “allow students to opt-out of non-academic ancillary fees.” It will “leave more money in the pockets of students while also ending the unfair practice of funnelling large sums of money into the hands of radical student groups that don’t represent the true interests of students.”
But is this really what students are being given with the student choice initiative? What are the consequences going to be?
What We Now Know
As reported first by the University of Toronto’s The Varsity on February 5, leaked documents provided to university administrators give a clearer picture of the initiative’s actual mechanics.
The first area of clarity concerns classifications. The government’s initial announcements broadcast the notion that some fees would be exempt from this opt-out process and that universities would have a great deal of flexibility in determining this.
But instead, there are strict categories for what is exempt (including co-op fees, Athletics, Career Services, Student Buildings) and what are partially exempt fees (transit passes, health and dental plans, if there is no alternative).
And then… there is simply everything else, which is optional.
The second area of clarity regards timelines. In addition to being online, every fee must be itemized to their respective service and available to opt-out at the point of billing.
What does this mean for the university environment?
Well, students are billed for their studies at the moment of registration. Let’s imagine how this would have played out last year, had the opt-out policy been implemented at Carleton.
The opt-out period would have run from 26 June 2018 (the start of first year registration) until as late as 30 September 2018 (the last day to withdraw from courses running that fall and get your money back).
This would have meant an opt-out period of three full months for students. This would likely create significant delays in funds being given to student organizations.
It’s hard to predict exactly how this would play out for everyone, since the way fund remittance to organizations differs between universities. Some universities give funds in uneven chunks throughout the year, or based more clearly in per semester cheques.
At Carleton, the existing process for receiving funds is already notorious for delays with the existing system. For example, OPIRG, didn’t receive it’s Fall remittance until December.
However this plays out in its deeper details, what is clear is that an added layer of calculations, corrections, and bureaucracy won’t speed these funds along to organizations.
Creating Budget Chaos
In addition to funds being further delayed, the overall budgeting processes of many campus organizations will be thrown into chaos by this initiative.
Let’s look again at OPIRG Carleton, which is an independent chapter of the campus-based Ontario Public Interest Research Group network. OPIRG drafts budgets (both locally and across our network) for an upcoming year primarily in June, with edits and revisions being prepared until the start of the new budget year on August 31.
Ford’s changes set this budgeting processes adrift in a sea of unknowns. There is no way we can accurately budget without a clear sense of incoming funds. In previous years, we could expect a value that was relatively close to that of the immediately preceding year. But now, such estimates are useless.
Instead, we are left with a number of questions:
- What programming can organizations like OPIRG or the Graduate Students’ Association continue to offer?
- How many centers can the Carleton Undergraduate Students’ Association continue to keep open for marginalized students?
- How many issues can publications like The Charlatan or The Leveller reasonably expect to be able to afford to put to the presses?
- And — most importantly for the workers and families that survive based on working in these semi-autonomous university spaces — will there even be a place for us on campuses like Carleton in a few months?
All this points to the real reasons behind these changes as a whole — and also of how hollow the claims of helping students’ pockets are.
These changes aren’t about bringing funds back to students, but destabilizing the organizations and supports that students have built themselves to organize politically and have their voices heard. These organizations have a whole ecosystem of campus workers, programming, and physical spaces that — if eliminated — will fundamentally change campus life in Ontario.
But before we get into the shape of campus to come, let’s look more closely at the monetary claims of this new policy a bit more closely.
If we look at the exempt fees versus those which will be subject to the opt-out, we can see an interesting pattern.
Large fees for services run by university administration tend to be exempt. Small fees for student-run services are not. For example, for Carleton undergrads the Athletics fee of $195.68 is exempt, while OPIRG’s $7.38 fee is not.
There are some exceptions, but if you look at the student-run exempt fees at Carleton, many of these services could easily be run by a university in another context — like the health plan or transit pass. Moreover, if general fees for the student unions who administer these programs collapse, some of these services may need to be taken over by the university.
Adding up the numbers at Carleton, out of the $1,105.04 in ancillary fees full-time undergraduate students in most programs are currently charged, $978.47 will remain mandatory. The remaining $126.54 per student is what funds everything else in campus life for your average undergraduate that isn’t either a) run by the university or b) a transit pass or health plan.
With this in mind, we see that many of the largest fees are not returned to students’ pockets, but rather mostly those which fund a broad array of groups run by students and campus workers.
Similarly, if we look at the timelines for opt-out fees, this will not largely impact the university’s services. After all, the university administration has wider, tuition-fueled budgeting processes. But student organizations don’t.
Instead, as already described, organizations like the GSA, OPIRG, and even The Leveller itself will not have a full sense of their annual budget for 2019-20 until sometime in early October — or considerably afterwards, if funds are released some time later.
This organizational chaos is compounded by the fact that all these organizations have no real way to reach out to incoming students about what they actually do.
If students are primarily opting-out from June through August, how can these organizations actually inform students outside of coordinated high school visits? In turn, can students really make informed choices about these services and spaces?
The stage is set then for September 2019, where students will still have to pay for large, university-run ancillary fees and may have opted-out of small but important fees to operate organizations they direct. These campus organizations will not have been given an opportunity to describe their work and will not know what budgets will actually look like for the given year.
As such, these changes are not particularly focused on saving students money, then, but rather on destroying student organizations.
The Real Radical Agenda
As the Carleton Conservatives themselves state, this policy shift can be attributed to their feelings against other student organizations. These folks claim that the fees put “large sums of money into the hands of radical student groups that don’t represent the true interests of students.”
Now, the “large sums” aspects of this claim has already been called into question by the fact that majority of ancillary fees remain mandatory.
Moreover, while even smaller fees can add up to a decently functioning budget, these pale in comparison to the funds leveraged in opposition to many of these groups by corporate donors, political parties, and the university itself — groups that often target these student organizations.
But what about the question surrounding the “true interests of students”?
Doug Ford confirmed the political interests of these changes in a fundraising letter, stating: “I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to.”
This kind of red-baiting — and saneism, for that matter — reveals what is actually at play here. The Ford government wishes to silence student and campus voices that articulate alternative narratives to that of their party. To them and their campus Conservatives acolytes, this isn’t about students interests in general, but their own.
Moreover, the “nonsense” of fighting for social justice and questioning the government has already been under threat with the (equally Orwellian) anti-protest policy called the “Free Speech Directive.” This directive threatens campus organizations that protest or dissent in any way that could be conceived as disruptive to the operations of the University.
Further, much like with the aforementioned directive, the only student group that has come forward to admit being consulted outside the party are far-right students associated with anti-trans professor Jordan Peterson in the organization Students in Support of Free Speech.
These same students utilize red-baiting rhetoric as well to demonize all progressive work done on university campuses and to justify their own violent actions against marginalized communities.
In the end, then, this entire policy is constructed to fundamentally change how student life operates without actually providing students with any real financial relief. In its quest to destroy progressive organizing on campuses, the Ford Government seeks to sacrifice the student press, wellness centres, independent research offices, and student unions.
But if the Conservative Party is so set on clawing back student organizing funds, it speaks also to how deeply they fear the power of campus-based organizing.
Brad Evoy is the Volunteer, Outreach, and Programming Coordinator of OPIRG Carleton and the Co-Chief Steward of CUPE 1281, the union which represents campus workers at OPIRG, GSA Carleton, CUSA, and other student-run organizations and small non-profits across Canada.