There is no question that the January 17 announcement from Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities Merrilee Fullerton, regarding post-secondary education has caused a stir amongst students across the province, but what is uncertain is how much of that conversation is around the Ford government’s introduction of an opt-out system for “ancillary fees.” Most recently, Ford has taken to pointing to rare examples of student unions fraudulently mismanaging funds as a means of justifying this proposed system as being ‘for the students.’ This past weekend, the Premier took to Twitter to hold up Ryerson’s Student Union’s recent scandal – a story broken by a student newspaper – as a shining example of why students should have “the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.”
I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.
That’s why we’re giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.https://t.co/XYC8G4jaZ0
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) January 26, 2019
Disguised as a means of saving students money, the Ford government’s insidious proposal would effectively gut university and college campuses of the organizations that make them vibrant spaces for learning and growing in community with others. The policy would create an online system that students could use to opt-out of paying for certain fees that are deemed ‘non-essential’ by university or college administrators – such as President Leo Groarke.
To understand how Ford’s latest announcement would affect Trent specifically, we have to take a close look at the longstanding tradition of collecting and distributing levy fees. Every year, students enrolled in 1.5 credits or more (per semester) are required to pay levy fees that have been previously democratically decided upon by the student membership through a successful referendum question vote run by the TCSA and distributed to various campus groups, services, and various community organizations. Some levies are non-refundable, while others can be refunded at the request of the student. The first levy group I will discuss is that of the TCSA, because for most students, it is surely the most important.
The TCSA is Trent University’s undergraduate student union and each year, students enrolled in 1.5 or more credits pay $727.80 (less for those who opt-out of health and dental insurance) to the TCSA. Our student union then takes that money and uses it to pay its employees, supply its membership with health and dental insurance, finance the entirety of the Trent Express transit service, fund campus clubs and groups, as well as pay for its membership to the Canadian Federation of Students on the federal and provincial levels. With a membership approaching 8000 students, the TCSA receives around $5 million from its membership per annum.
If an organization wants levy funding, it must get the signatures of at least 10% of the TCSA membership in order to have a referendum that allows the membership to democratically decide whether it wishes to financially support the organization through levies. The referendum will outline whether the fee is to be refundable or non-refundable, as well as the dollar amount being proposed. This same process can be used to democratically decide to defund.
Trent University has 45 different levy-funded groups, 21 of which offer refunds for students who decide not to support the organization – all of which have received funding because students mobilized to democratically decide they were worth their money. Excluding the TCSA, the remaining levy fees amount to $223.29 per student. These fees go towards funding a multiplicity of organizations on Trent’s campus, as well as throughout the broader Peterborough-Nogojiwanong community.
This includes some of the everyday services Trent students rely on such as Walkhome, the Trent University Emergency First Response Team (TUEFRT), and Trent Child Care. This also includes the organizations that have been part of the very fabric of our university for as long as most students can remember – the collegiate system, the Seasoned Spoon Café, Trent Radio, the Trent International Students Association, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), Sadleir House, Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC), the Trent Vegetable Gardens and of course, this newspaper.
These fees also accounts for organizations that serve in the interests of marginalized folks, like the Trent University Native Association (TUNA), the Trent Queer Collective (TQC), the Centre for Women and Trans People, the Community Race Relations Committee, and the Student Housing Co-op Initiative.
These fees has also come to include funding for organizations in the Peterborough community that students felt moved to contribute to, such as the Youth Emergency Shelter and the Warming Room Homeless Shelter. While these organizations are only funded by students in part, they stand to lose a great deal of the funds they rely on to support our community in the dire ways that they do.
I could continue to list each levy group, one by one, explaining how each contributes to the vitality of our community, but I think you get the picture. Without these organizations, our community would experience a great detriment. Many of the organizations that make university enjoyable, or at least survivable, are at risk of ceasing to exist entirely. Many of these organizations have been built by and for marginalized students, providing additional supports and spaces where they feel accepted and valued.
But it’s important to remember that an opt-out system doesn’t hurt everyone equally – some students have more the lose than others. Some students don’t rely on the health and dental insurance provided by the TCSA; some students don’t use public transit; some students don’t require access to grocery assistance programs – but the fees that those more fortunate students pay help balance the costs for their less fortunate peers.
This means that introducing a policy where students have the option to opt-out of funding these organizations amounts to incentivizing the decision to worsen the oppression and marginalization of socially stratified communities. While cutting fees to students often seems desirable, in this instance it is a deeply political decision that has the potential to deepen barriers of class, race, gender, ability, etc.
This announcement creates a situation in which such organizations have to fight amongst each other over minimal funding in order to prove to university administrations that the work they do is essential, when in actuality, the work all of these groups do are essential. It pits exhausted students against each other in a battle that has few winners. It means that invaluable community members will lose their (already underpaid) jobs. It undermines democratic decision making processes and micromanages the funding of organizations that serve to counteract some of the cuts the Ford government has already made. It inhibits the ability or students to organize, mobilize and resist policies that oppress and impoverish students and vulnerable people in their communities. It serves to silence advocates and student journalists who hold their student unions, university administrations, and all levels of government accountable.
And while fighting for these fees is deeply important to the future of post-secondary education in Ontario, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. In a province with robust public spending – a province that puts students first – these fees would not exist. These organizations would not rely on funding from students, but rather, their sustained existence would never need to be called into question because the government would ensure that they are never thought of as anything but essential.