Premier Doug Ford just delivered his greatest blow to free speech so far.
Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton announced that his government would end mandatory fee remittance for college and university students.
If implemented, this would severely weaken, if not kill students’ unions, clubs, associations, services and campus media like radio or the campus press.
When a student enrolls in college or university, there are various fees that they must pay in addition to tuition. Fees are governed by protocols. When a student initiative seeks to introduce a new fee, a referendum must happen on campus to approve it. Sometimes, the fee is approved by a governing body, like the Board of Governors. The idea is that money pooled together can pay for services that students either need, or support, as demonstrated through a vote.
At Carleton University for example, there are dozens of mandatory fees, including the athletics fee, the “career development” fee, fees for the student newspaper, the student union fee and program-specific fees like Engineering Without Borders. Some fees are optional, like the health and dental plan fee.
While the Progressive Conservatives have promised to make mandatory fees optional, Fullerton explained that it won’t actually apply to all mandatory fees, just the ones controlled by students, it seems. Fullerton said that universities and colleges “will have to give students the option of what additional fees they pay,” except that “some will remain mandatory … including walk safe programs, health and counseling, athletics and recreation and academic support,” according to The Canadian Press.
Fees approved via student voting
Every student fee in Ontario is approved within a democratic framework. The amount and whether the fee is mandatory or optional, is determined through campus-wide votes. These fees fund organizations that do important work. For example, the campus press not only trains young journalists, but also investigates issues on campus and in many cases, rivals the quality of their local mainstream newspaper. Many of Canada’s best journalists got their start at their campus paper. This is only possible thanks to a stable student newspaper fee.
Student unions run events, hand out materials like day planners and swag and operate not-for-profit services like bookstores, cafés, bars and print shops. They fund groups that bring students together to practice a religion, celebrate a culture, learn about different issues or unite on a common concern. They also fund service centres, like centres for students with disabilities, racialized student collectives, women’s centres and food banks. They’re job creators and they train people for future employment. They do students’ taxes. They coordinate the bus pass. They offer free legal advice. They do graduation photos. For many, their services are a lifeline.
Student groups also perform critical advocacy, and making their fees optional will make it much harder to challenge campus administrators. It will make it harder to support students who challenge their grades, who face unjust decisions related to courses, who demand to have a ramp built in a particular building, or who want to advocate for improvements to their course offerings.
Ford has granted these same administrators the power to decide which groups should be defunded. The worst administrators must be salivating.
Average student union fees $100
The Canadian Federation of Students estimates that student union fees average about $100 per student, per year. Most students get back what they pay by accessing only a few services and attending an event from time to time.
Even though this announcement was wrapped up with an unfunded tuition fee reduction, this isn’t about saving students money. This is about eliminating one of the few locations of opposition in society at-large.
Doug Ford knows that a united and effective student movement can topple a government, like they did in 2012 in Quebec. Ford knows that students can stop bad policy, as students at Ryerson stopped their institution from implementing a new free speech policy. A movement that has space, resources, legitimacy, history and stable funding is a threat to Ford. He’s working hard to eliminate the threat.
Unsurprisingly, the politician has chosen to eliminate a threat through an attack on free association and a free press.
I know this world well. In 2011, I co-wrote a private member’s bill with Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi that intended to stop something like this from happening. Despite the fact that it was proposed by a Liberal, the government didn’t push the bill through, and it died on the order paper. But during that process, it was clear that there are other legal protections for these fees: student unions and newspapers are not-for profit corporations that are totally independent of universities. Universities hold funds in trust only because they collect all student fees. Is it legally possible to tell universities to decide that a fee is optional when students voted to make it mandatory, wholly separate from their institution?
In addition to hurting student organizing, Ford is also testing the waters to make union fees optional. In North America, voluntary union fees were first passed to allow white workers to refuse to be in the same bargaining unit as Black workers, in 1944. This fee model is increasingly the norm in the United States. It has crushed union power and decimated the labour movement. Introducing voluntary student fees is, without a doubt, a signal to unionized workers that their fees are next.
Ford is ignoring the democratic will of students and handing power and control of their autonomous fees to administrators. It’s a despotic and anti-democratic move that will have brutal repercussions both on campus and off. Ontarians, student or not, must fight this with everything they have.