What is the future of the Student Choice Initiative?

(Courtesy of The Canadian Press / Colin Perkel)

The Ministry of Colleges and Universities’ appeal to the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) was heard on March 23 and 24 in the Ontario Court of Appeals. 

The SCI policy, first introduced in January 2019, would allow students the option to opt-out of “non-essential” (and previously mandatory) student fees. This would include funds for on-campus media, student clubs and societies, as well as certain student support groups. 

According to Kayla Weiler, national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O), student unions and groups have acted as major supports for students during the pandemic, and argues that the SCI puts this student work in jeopardy. 

Weiler explains that the SCI would threaten student democracy, especially hurting “student unions (who operate the fees/services that were determined essential even when their fees were not), pride/LGBTQ2S+ centres and women’s centres, as well as cultural groups and clubs, campus media, and other democratically determined fees on campus.”

In November 2019, a unanimous decision within the Ontario Divisional Court ruled that the SCI was unlawful. The Ford government requested an appeal to the ruling in December 2019, which was just heard at the end of this past March.

Student unions across the province have continued to fight back against the recent appeal. According to Jaskarn Duhra, vice-president of campus life for the York Federation of Students (YFS), the arguments made in court by their representative council primarily focused on the autonomy of student associations and universities.

Duhra adds it was argued that the SCI undermines student autonomy by deeming what services deserve to be essential or non-essential, “when these organizations, fees, and mandates, since their inception, have been governed and introduced by students via referendum.”

“An argument made was about universities and the provincial legislation that established each institution,” says Weiler on the CFO council’s arguments made in court, “stating that the SCI policy was overstepping those pieces of legislation. Our last argument was in regards to the Colleges of Ontario Act, which underlines the ministry’s limits in meddling with students’ unions and groups affairs.”

Weiler continues that the minister does not have the authority to direct relationships of post-secondary institutions while “ignoring the legislation, which makes them autonomous.”

When first introduced in 2019, Ford asked for this initiative to be implemented within Ontario colleges and universities, otherwise funding for said institutions would be reduced. Duhra claims that Ford’s financial attacks on students wasn’t an issue solely introduced with this initiative, going on to say, “If the Ford government really cared for supporting students and saving students money, it would prioritize making education free and accessible to all students while supporting the organizations that students enjoy.”

So what is the future of post-secondary education within the province and on-campus life for York students if this initiative is approved?

Duhra infers: “Significant cuts to funding would require the shut down of support services such as the YFS Wellness Centre and Food Support Centre. Student services that contribute to campus life, including our radio station and newspaper Excalibur, would no longer exist while clubs and college councils would be operating at a minimal capacity.” 

“Overall, I would hate to see all the amazing services that made my experience as a student so much better be taken away as a result of the Ford government’s actions,” Duhra concludes. 

When Excalibur reached out to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, press secretary Scott Clar stated that as the matter was currently in court, it would be “inappropriate to comment further at this time.” 

They did, however, provide the following statement: “Our government will continue to promote affordability and transparency for Ontario students and their families, and is appealing the court decision from November 2019.”

This is a developing story. The court’s decision is said to be made within two to four months. 

About the Author

Sarah Garofalo

By Sarah Garofalo

Assistant News Editor

asstnews@excal.on.ca

Sarah is in her third year of Film Studies at York University. She is passionate about using writing as a tool to educate herself and introduce others to hidden stories and new ideas. In the future, she hopes to continue her studies in film and merge it with her love of writing and journalism. You can always find Sarah sketching, painting or endlessly watching films while waiting to get back into movie theatres.

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