At the York University food bank, shelves and refrigerators are stocked to try to keep up with growing demand — but this crucial service, funded by student fees, could be in jeopardy.
That’s because the food bank is operated by the students’ union and beginning in the fall all post-secondary students will be able to opt out of ancillary fees considered non-essential, such as those earmarked for student associations.
The Food Support Centre is one of many services run by the union, and is “the closest one to my heart,” explains Rawan Habib, president of the York Federation of Students, which represents about 48,000 undergraduate students.
“Every month we see more students registering,” she says. “It’s something they desperately need.”
In September, the union moved the food bank out of a room the size of a walk-in closet that serviced about 800 students a month, into a larger space that now sees 1,300 students each month. But how this food bank will look next September is unclear.
That’s because Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced changes that will impact college and university students, such as cutting tuition by 10 per cent, ending free tuition for lower-income students and getting rid of mandatory ancillary fees.
Currently, students pay ancillary fees on top of tuition to cover costs for campus-wide services, facilities and clubs, among other things. These fees differ by school, but range between several hundred dollars to $2,000. Last month, Doug Ford’s government announced the creation of a new fee structure. Starting in September, all ancillary fees will be itemized and categorized as being for essential or non-essential services. Students can opt out of the latter.
Dubbed the Student Choice Initiative, it has been lauded and lambasted. Supporters say it puts money in students’ pockets and keeps them from paying for things they don’t use or support. But critics call it an attack on student unions and campus media and say it will kill campus life.
According to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, fees considered essential are those that support student buildings, career services, financial aid offices, walksafe programs, transit passes, athletics and recreation, academic supports, health and counselling, student ID cards, transcripts and convocation. These fees remain mandatory. Students will be able to opt out of health and dental plans if they have pre-existing coverage.
Non-essential services include fees for spaces, services and activities that promote campus life and community, such as media, student clubs, campus cafés and restaurants, and student unions, which support a variety of initiatives and groups. These fees will be optional.
Each school will determine what is essential and provide a detailed breakdown of fees.
Minister Merrilee Fullerton says the change brings “predictability and transparency” and makes students feel more “empowered and informed about their own finances.”
“We are giving students a choice to decide where they spend their money,” she said when announcing the change at a news conference in January.
Days later, a spending scandal at Ryerson University erupted, with the student union facing allegations of financial mismanagement after credit card statements showed questionable purchases at places such as restaurants, night clubs and the LCBO. A forensic audit will review nearly $700,000 in expenses.
The events prompted the premier to post a news story about it on Twitter and comment.
“I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused,” tweeted Ford. “That’s why we’re giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.”
But choice already exists, according to leaders of more than 75 students’ unions from colleges and universities in Canada who say they represent 1.3 million students. In a letter to Fullerton and Ford, they say student governments regularly hold referendums on ancillary fees, letting students vote on which services and programs to support.
They also note the current fee structure provides continuity and stability for budgeting purposes, whereas the opt-out will result in uncertainty because groups won’t be able to anticipate how many students will use it.
“Without stable, predictable funding, student unions will be forced to end a wide variety of programs and services — everything from mental health to sexual assault supports, and (lay off) thousands of students that work at on-campus businesses,” reads the letter. “With a 10 per cent tuition cut and no additional public funding, we know institutions themselves won’t pick up the slack.”
Jasmyn St. Hilaire, director of communications and internal at the student association of George Brown College, says the union hopes to work with administration to ensure it continues to deliver services, which include a food bank, peer support for marginalized students and income tax clinics.
“We’re really trying hard not to have to cut anything but we’ll see how that goes,” said St. Hilaire.
At the University of Toronto, Sandy Welsh, vice-provost for students, says the school values the contributions of student societies and their services.
“All student groups are concerned about how this will affect them. We will be meeting with leaders of student societies to answer questions.”
But even administrators have questions.
At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Brad MacIsaac, the assistant vice-president of planning and analysis, says, “There’s still so much that’s unknown.”
“We’re still working with the ministry to ensure we know all of the rules and regulations — we’re hoping that within the month we’ll have the technical document.”
Having to create a new online system for students to opt in or opt out that’s up and running by the summer in time for registration, “is definitely a lot of work at a very busy time of year.”
MacIsaac doesn’t think many students in the upper years will opt out because they understand how clubs and services “enhance the student engagement.” But he’s concerned first-year students, who’ve never experienced campus life, will be more likely to opt out.
Nour Alideeb, chairperson of Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, with 350,000 members, says the Student Choice Initiative is a government ploy to “take out the student groups that hold them accountable.”
“It’s a direct attack on student organizing and groups … and campus publications,” she says.
Alideeb, an undergraduate student at UofT, worries advocacy and counselling groups, such as those that work with LGBTQ students, are at risk.
“These student groups save lives. It’s not just what happens in the classroom that supports students to be successful.”
Also in jeopardy, she fears, are student centres, which create a sense of community on campus, saying “This is really going to kill student life and the student experience.”
She recognizes that saving money is important, especially for those impacted by financial aid changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), and already struggling to pay for food or rent. But ultimately, some will be faced with a dilemma.
“Students will have to make the decision between short-term gain or the long-term experience of being involved with a student community and having access to those things.”
Her comments are echoed, in part, by Charles Pascal, professor at UofT’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
“When students pay fees they are paying to increase the quality of life for everybody,” says the former Ontario deputy minister of education. “The moment you allow students to opt out, many will, and it will kill those activities.
“The word choice can be a real weapon against something that’s good for everyone. So if 50 per cent of students opt out of student fees, what’s going to happen to the social fabric and supports that are provided through those fees?”
Kieran Moloney, president of Carleton’s Conservatives, welcomes the opt-out because it’s a way for students to “materially reduce” tuition and not support student groups they don’t agree with.
“In the real world, if you want to be part of something you pay for it, if not, you shouldn’t,” he says.
He suspects Ontario will end up with a patchwork, with some schools deeming certain things essential, while others consider them non-essential. And he worries certain groups will play up elements of what they do to be considered essential.
Moloney isn’t opposed to student unions, saying many do good work — his group receives funding from the union — but there are questionable ones, he says, referring to the recent problems at Ryerson Students’ Union.
At Ryerson, an arts and science undergraduate student pays about $911 in ancillary fees, which is the lowest among universities, according to Common University Data Ontario. Of that amount, $130 are fees for the union, which has an operating budget of $2.7 million.
Jacob Dubé, editor-in-chief of the Ryerson student newspaper The Eyeopener, which broke the story on the spending scandal, says some students are using it as an example of why the opt-out is a good idea. But, he notes, the union also supports groups and policies that are vital for campus life.
And his own newspaper, which has doggedly investigated the union, relies on the student levy — in the 2017-2018 year, it received $430,000 in student fees, as approved by a democratic referendum.
“Without (student fees) the paper would be completely different,” says Dubé. “We would definitely not be as involved in the community as we would like.”
He says student media are the only ones keeping close watch over unions and administrations.
“If these levies were to be in jeopardy, then, basically, anyone at any university that didn’t have a paper could run rampant.”
At York University, Matt Dionne, editor-in-chief of the Excalibur student newspaper, says without the student levy “we would very likely not exist.” And that, he says, would be a blow to a campus with a population of about 60,000 students and staff.
Dionne is concerned about how the university is going to implement this policy. If media is lumped together under one student fee, that could be a problem for those who support one organization but not another. But if every single item is listed, he suspects students won’t read through them all, and may just opt out of everything.
It’s hard to predict how students will react — York lets students opt out of some ancillary fees and only a handful have done so. For example, just one person opted out of paying the $2.10 fee for the Sexual Assault Survivors Support Line.
At this point, the student union has no idea what the impact will be on its budget, so it can’t say how services, campaigns and events will be affected.
“That’s the scary part,” says Habib. “I want to commit to ensuring that (students will) still be able to access the things they need. But I can’t give them an answer as of yet because we’re in the dark.”
With files from Kristin Rushowy
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74