Editor’s note: The Gazette is funded by student ancillary fees. This government mandate affects those fees.
The Ford government is looking to revive the Student Choice Initiative, a mandate that allowed students to opt-out of certain ancillary fees, in a court appeal next month.
SCI was deemed unlawful in late 2019, as the court ruled that, since student unions are private not-for-profit organizations and receive no funding from the provincial government “there [was] no statutory authority authorizing cabinet or the minister to interfere in the internal affairs of these student associations.”
The Ontario Court of Appeal is set to hear the Ministry of Colleges and University’s appeal March 23 and 24. Six groups will intervene in the appeal alongside the Canadian Federation of Students and the York Federation of Students, who initially filed the complaint — Western University is a member or one of the intervening groups.
"We're not taking sides on the student choice initiative," Western's president Alan Shepard said. "That's not really for us to say, that's for others to battle it out."
Western is one of five universities intervening in the case to provide expertise on how the government mandate effects their autonomy.
"Whenever a court starts talking about university autonomy we feel ... that we have an obligation to the community of higher education to make sure that the court is fully briefed on what autonomy of institutions actually means."
SCI was initially introduced in January 2019 and was in effect for the 2019-20 academic year.
The mandate only applied to student union services the province deemed “non-essential,” such as campus media, LGBTQ2+ associations and student-run food banks, while athletics funding remained mandatory.
The University Students’ Council said they were aware of the province’s intention to appeal the 2019 ruling and anticipated the mandate would return to court during their term.
“The ancillary fees that students contribute to the University Students’ Council enable us to provide students with core support programs, including equity-based networks, programming, an on-campus food bank, and the Peer Support Centre,” said the USC in a statement. The ancillary fees are also used to support advocacy to all levels of government.
Ontario universities and student groups were not consulted in developing SCI or deciding which services would be mandatory under it.
The 2019 court decision also criticized the government’s lack of explanation for why certain fees, such as athletic programs, were deemed “essential,” while others were made optional.
The mandate is one of many changes Queen’s Park has made to post-secondary institutions over the past few years. Alongside SCI, the government also introduced a 10 per cent tuition cut, cuts to provincial OSAP funding and a temporary cap on tuition increases for domestic students.
“Regardless of the outcome of this case, the USC remains committed to serving all undergraduate and professional students across campus,” said the USC, adding they will be following the proceedings closely.
Update (Feb. 24, 2021, 5:45 p.m.): This article was updated with a comment from the University Students' Council.
Update (Feb. 25, 2021, 1:47 p.m.): This article was updated with additional information about Western's participation in the appeal.