Ontario students win court battle to protect fees from Ford

Judges find provincial government improperly violated universities' autonomy

十一月 26, 2019
Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Source: iStock

A three-judge panel flatly rejected a bid by the Ontario government to cut funding for various college student associations in Canada's biggest province by restricting the groups from collecting student fees.

The judges overturned the Student Choice Initiative, which was imposed in January by Ontario premier Doug Ford, just as universities were facing a deadline for how to handle millions of dollars in fee payments that were pending for the autumn semester.

The decision from the Ontario Divisional Court clearly affirmed that Mr Ford and his government acted beyond its authority, said Kayla Weiler, the Ontario representative of the Canadian Federation of Students, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“Doug Ford’s attempt to wipe out students’ unions under the guise of giving students ‘choice’ has been exposed for what it really was: an attempt to silence his opposition,” Ms Weiler said.

Depending on the institution, the fees can range from under C$100 (£58) a year to several hundred dollars, covering a wide range of services that include healthcare programmes, student records, campus safety and numerous student activities.

The Ford government’s initiative would have defined some “essential” fees as mandatory, in areas that included athletics and some health and safety operations. But the government would have allowed students to opt out of others, including student food banks, student government operations, student newspaper and radio services, and student clubs and support centres.

Initial estimates of the effect of the opt-out rule, before the judges prevented its implementation, suggested a loss of about 20 per cent of usual student payment levels, said Ms Weiler, who recently finished a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Guelph.

Ms Weiler’s Canadian Federation of Students also relies on student fees, of about C$17 per student per year. It had been facing a loss of about 25 per cent of its fee-based revenue, she said. The other lead plaintiff in the case, the York Federation of Students at York University, also relies on student fees.

The government’s case was backed by B’nai Brith Canada, which has opposed some student groups over their support for boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against Israel.

While the Ontario government described the Student Choice Initiative to the court as a legitimate exercise of controlling government spending, Mr Ford also made clear his political motivations. In fundraising emails on behalf of his Progressive Conservative party, he accused student governments of being involved in “crazy Marxist nonsense”.

At the same time, Ms Weiler said, Mr Ford’s government never explained basic questions such as why student sports were considered essential but food banks to help large numbers of needy students were not.

The judges agreed that opt-out rules imposed by the Ontario government “are inconsistent with the intention to give universities autonomy over their governance”, as required by provincial law.

Ms Weiler acknowledged that there may be valid reasons to reconsider some student fees. But, she said, “They were determined by student referendum so they should be changed or modified by student referendum – and not the province's influence on it.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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