Public outrage over Doug Ford's claim his Ontario government cut funding to student unions to fix "Marxist nonsense" is growing, with politicians and education unions decrying an expected hit to a broad range of services.
Ford delivered his complaint about students earlier this week in a fundraising email that called for Progressive Conservatives to send money in support of his government's efforts to stifle the free speech of students. The email specifically noted that the government was making it optional for Ontario university and college students to pay some fees that were previously attached to their tuition. Ford said that this change would help his government stamp out the expression of some political ideas.
“I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So, we fixed that. Student union fees are now opt-in,” said the pitch for political donations, signed by Ford himself.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner suggested that Ford was getting carried away by his imagination.
"We can’t allow the premier’s irrational fantasies of a red scare on campuses to lead to cuts to student services, attacks on student democracy and cuts to university and college budgets," Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Ontario Green Party, said on Twitter.
We can’t allow the Premier’s irrational fantasies of a red scare on campuses to lead to cuts to student services, attacks on student democracy & cuts to univ & college budgets. @fordnation’s attack on post secondary education will hurt our economy and quality of life. #onpoli— Mike Schreiner (@MikeSchreiner) February 12, 2019
Asked about the language used in the email and the intent behind the policy move, the Tories said the initiatives referenced provide "greater transparency and choice to students when making financial decisions about their post-secondary education."
"Ultimately, students deserve the final say in how their money is spent," party spokesman Marcus Mattinson said in an email. "Students as a result will choose the groups and services they wish to support."
But critics are skeptical about the governing party's explanations.
“It was a revealing if rather clumsy moment for the PCs,” said Gyllian Phillips, the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which represents around 17,000 academic staff in the province.
“The characterization of student unions is patently incorrect," she said in an interview. "Student unions are democratically constituted and maintained.”
They are also an integrated part of student life on campus, she said, providing services ranging from food banks, sexual violence support services, academic support, student newspapers and radio stations, representation in university governance, and advocacy.
“For a small price, students have an enormous resource at hand,” she said, adding that universities and colleges will scramble in the months ahead to make it possible for students to choose which of those services to support by a voluntary contribution.
While it is not clear exactly how much of their operating budgets each university's student union will lose as a result of the move, Phillips said that a similar move in Australia two decades ago had a “devastating effect on student unions” there.
“This is an unfounded, unwarranted attack on young people who are serving their fellow college and university students," the NDP's higher education critic, Chris Glover, said in a statement on Monday.