Stakeholder groups at U of T are reacting to a surprise announcement made earlier today by Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton regarding cuts to postsecondary education.
Premier Doug Ford’s government announced that Ontario colleges and universities will have to slash domestic tuition by 10 per cent next academic year and freeze it for the following two years. In addition, there is now a mandate to create an online opt-out system for “non-essential” student fees, such as fees collected for student clubs, as well as cuts to the Ontario Student Assistant Program.
In a statement to The Varsity, U of T President Meric Gertler said, “We will do all we can to limit the impact of these changes on the U of T community.”
“We need to review our budgets to assess the full impact of these changes,” said Gertler. “We feel it’s important to remain firm in our long-standing access guarantee: That financial circumstances should not stand in the way of a qualified student entering or completing their degree.”
U of T’s statement did not mention how it would respond to the mandatory opt-out option for “non-essential” student fees.
According to Fullerton, universities and colleges will have some “leeway” over which groups will be deemed necessary.
— Meric Gertler, U of T President
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) — the largest student union at U of T — released a statement a few hours after the announcement criticizing the provincial government’s decisions.
“The UTSU is deeply concerned with the changes relating to non-tuition fees, or ‘ancillary fees’, which fund vital programs and services enriching the lives of students across the province… The risk of significant funding reductions, direct or indirect, would be grave and irrevocably change campus life.”
The UTSU added that it will be “working with campus partners and other stakeholders across the province” on this issue.
— The University of Toronto Students’ Union executive
President of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) Mala Kashyap expressed concerns about the impact of the announced changes in a statement to The Varsity. “Part-time and mature students are already often excluded from access to government and institutional funding. We are waiting for more details regarding the announced changes.”
It remains unclear whether or not the announced tuition cuts will affect part-time students.
— Mala Kashyap, Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students President
Haseeb Hassaan, President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), told The Varsity that ASSU was “disturbed” by the policy announcements.
“We implore UofT administrators and President Gertler to protect students unions who provide essential services to students. ASSU will work with other college societies, unions and clubs on campus and across the province to act.”
— Haseeb Hassaan, Arts and Science Students’ Union President
The Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) quickly responded, calling the initiative a “transparent attempt to bankrupt students’ unions in the province.” The statement further emphasized that all proposed changes are detrimental to students and campus workers.
“Students were not consulted in this process. The Ford government is looking to dismantle public post-secondary education and is attempting to eliminate the opposition to do it.”
Sami Pritchard, the National Executive Representative for the CFS–O, criticized the decision as a “cynical move” from the government to “undermine” organizations poised to fight cuts to postsecondary education.
“Students remain undeterred and will unite with workers in Ontario to protect quality, public post-secondary education and defend students’ right to independent democratic representation,” Pritchard said in a statement posted online.
— Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario
The Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), which is an opt-out U of T-levy group, released a statement on Facebook earlier today, criticizing the Ford government’s plans.
OPIRG especially expressed concerns about the future of student group funding and the services that they provide. Though students can already opt out of services, the provincial government’s execution of this policy makes it difficult for such groups to advocate for certain causes and resources.
“The only difference between how this is set up now, and how the PC’s want it to be set up is that we no longer have that month long period to show students why they should continue to fund organizations like OPIRG, Students for Barrier-free Access or LGBTOUT. We no longer get the opportunity to have discussions with students face to face about what we actually do.”
OPIRG is part of an international network of Public Interest Research Groups, 11 of which are in Ontario.
— Ontario Public Interest Research Group
Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario President Fred Hahn slammed the government’s announcement as an “attack on student democracy on campuses.”
“These cuts were made without consultation with the University sector, and will have damaging impacts for students for a long time to come,” Hahn said in a statement posted on CUPE Ontario’s website. “Doug Ford’s insiders have attempted to cover up a devastating attack on students with a paper-thin discount on tuition that will cost students more in the long run.”
Hahn claimed that the government was “looking out for itself” with the decision to slash fees.
“Student democracy, through elections and referendums, should determine student fees, not government insiders,” Hahn said.
CUPE represents thousands of workers at U of T, including librarians, service workers, teaching assistants, exam invigilators, and student and postdoctoral course instructors.
— Fred Hahn, Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario President
Warren “Smokey” Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), echoed Hahn’s statement and described the government’s announcement as a “full frontal attack on democracy.”
“[The decision] turns legislature committee pre-budget hearings into a sham,” Thomas wrote on Twitter. “Ontario colleges and universities still have lowest per student funding in Canada. Student debt will not go down. No winners with today’s tuition cut announcement.”
— Smokey Thomas (@OPSEUSmokey) January 17, 2019
OPSEU represents thousands of public sector employees in the province. The union represents Campus Police at U of T and research officers and associates at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
— Warren “Smokey” Thomas, Ontario Public Service Employees Union President
The Canadian University Press (CUP), a non-profit cooperative owned by student newspapers across the country, including The Varsity, said Thursday that student publications are “essential” services to people in postsecondary institutions, and expressed its disappointment in the announcement.
“Our members offer scrutiny to university and college administrations, ensuring that there is transparency in university governance,” CUP wrote. “However, most of our member papers rely on student fees to fund their work. Without access to this funding, Ontario student publications will not be able to operate.”
The organization also criticized the apparent lack of consultation with students as “further proof that the Ford government does not truly have the interests of students in mind.”
“This decision is a direct hit to institutional transparency, healthy democratic dialogues on campus, freedom of the press and the free speech that the Ford government claims so strongly to defend.”
— Canadian University Press executive
The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union likewise released a statement against the changes, stating that it “will not stand for this and will continue to fight for you to ensure that this government’s unilateral decision-making does not go unchecked.”
“We want to make it clear, that a step to lowering tuition fees is certainly a step in the right direction, but this is not the case with this announcement,” the statement said.
— The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union executive
The Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA), which is affiliated with Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party, spoke out in favour of these cuts, citing the sharp spike in tuition under the previous Liberal government.
“Unfortunately, undergraduate tuition for Ontario students has risen from an average of $5,000 to almost $9,000 since 2006. The previous Liberal government was unable to stop post-secondary education from becoming increasingly unaffordable. That is why OPCCA supports the Ontario PC Government’s action for the Affordability of Postsecondary Education in Ontario.”
The OPCCA also spoke in favour of the reforms to OSAP, claiming that the government is now better equipped to assist low-income students. It also supports changes to student fees, claiming that they are often used to “fund third-party advocacy groups known for controversial agendas and financial mismanagement” like the Canadian Federation of Students and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group. The statement claims that these groups have been promoting radical causes, such as “abolishing capitalism and boycotting Canada’s ally Israel.”
The OPCCA, did, however, say that campus media, activities, and clubs are worthwhile, and that “when students are free to choose which school initiatives to fund, these student groups will be incentivized to show their value to students who might not otherwise get involved.”
— Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association