On January 17, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) Ontario government announced changes to postsecondary education, which include lower domestic tuition, Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) reforms, and an opt-out option for ancillary fees. This has sparked conversation about the nature of affordable education and student democracy on university and college campuses. Below, five students answer whether or not these changes are, as the PCs claim, “for the students.” 

No: tuition and OSAP cuts altogether reflect a cynical move 

Ford is trying to cheat the system and pull the wool over students’ eyes. Good education costs money and U of T students — domestic ones, at least — have it pretty good as is. Although tuition is still expensive, we’re paying pennies compared to our southern neighbours. 

Ford’s move has jeopardized the financial stability of universities as well. According to HuffPost, mammoth credit rating agency Moody’s released a report on Monday cautioning the Ontario government about the negative implications of such a random and drastic tuition slash. Although no university’s credit rating has been downgraded yet, a senior credit officer with Moody’s said he’ll be watching Ontario universities closely. 

The more upsetting part of the tuition slash is that it’s simply a cheap cover for Ford’s OSAP cuts. It’s a cynical and shifty move by Ford, and it makes students feel as if they’re being scammed and tricked. The recent protests prove this sentiment. 

Another potential implication of this move is that it could divide students along lines of income. Students who no longer are eligible for OSAP — or who are seeing their benefits reduced — may see themselves at odds with those who are still eligible for the assistance and may become resentful because of it. 

A more modest tuition cut, by itself, would have benefitted students and the province at large. But when you step back and see the cynicism of the move in its entire context, you realize something: cheaper is not always better. 

Ted Fraser is a third-year International Relations student at Victoria College.

Yes: the tuition cut saves students money and is the responsible choice 

When I was a high school freshman, the prospect of postsecondary education seemed like a bright one. U of T, our esteemed, multi-billion-dollar institution especially promised to be a place for learning and innovation. However, there was one clear obstacle: its cost. Many students coming from lower or middle-income families, like myself, believe that the cost of university tuition is excessive. 

It is for this reason that savings in terms of tuition cuts should be welcomed. When I consider the fees at U of T, I see tuition prices were previously set to rise three per cent for the 2018–2019 academic year. This means that many students, including myself, would have potentially paid hundreds more dollars in high-cost tuition for every year that we pursued our degrees. Thousands more dollars go into residency and textbooks. Ford’s reduction of tuition by 10 per cent province-wide counters these costs and alleviates financial pressure on families like mine. 

The money we save can be invested instead into books, school materials, and living expenses for the upscale price tags of mediocre Toronto condos. Saving students’ money is the right, responsible choice, and one that invests in the financial stability of our future workforce.
The Ford government has received considerable criticism for introducing more loans over grants in the OSAP structure, a practice previously executed under provincial governments prior to Kathleen Wynne. The truth is that this model is structured on financial responsibility. Although student debt is a reality for most of us, the deficit that our province battles is enormous, to say the least. The shares of a multi-billion-dollar deficit are on the heads of every Ontarian. 

Tackling the provincial debt and managing the financial accessibility of postsecondary education are not mutually exclusive. The Ford government has made the funds available to students like myself to continue to pursue our postsecondary education. 

Andrea Chiappetta is a second-year Political Science, American Studies, and History student at Woodsworth College.

No: Ford’s opt-out model for student fees is an attack on student life

Social events, safe spaces, quality reporting, and community development: these are only some of the services provided by student-led and student-funded campus groups. But Ford’s plan to make “non-essential” fees optional means that many of these groups may lose their funding. His government argues that this change will let students choose what is “essential” to our university experience. But it is actually an attack on student life that refuses to acknowledge that campus groups are a necessity, not a luxury. 

Since my first year at U of T, I have been involved with both my residence and college council, two student-run publications, and a couple of clubs. I know so many dedicated people who pour their hearts into these campus groups and make a difference in their communities. I believe the existence of campus groups gives students the power to shape our own experiences at U of T. 

Student-run media outlets create platforms where we can voice our opinions and criticisms of events both in and out of the university. Student groups provide us with the space to organize ourselves and engage with our surroundings according to our own interests. Furthermore, they allow student leaders and student bodies to forge strong community networks and a sense of solidarity in what can feel like an ocean of people here at U of T. In other words, the services that are paid for by student fees are far from just ‘optional,’ and making them so will be devastating to the health and vibrancy of life on campus.

It is in the university’s power to decide if any student fees besides those related to health and athletics are “essential.” As students, we owe it to ourselves to push the administration and protect the spaces of agency that campus groups carve out for us. 

Michelle Zhang is a second-year Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, Urban Studies, and Political Science student at Innis College. 

Yes: the opt-out model for student fees strengthens democracy 

I first clarify that I believe that student loans should be forgiven and postsecondary education should be freely available without financial barriers to access, as education is arguably the greatest long-term investment.

Having said that, in lieu of such far-sighted societal investment, I understand what it means to be in a weak financial position, where paying an extra $500–2,000 per year for non-essential and non-tuition fees can be a struggle. Coupled with some of the highest postsecondary tuition fees in all of Canada, and further confounded by the burden of the highest national cost of living, students in Toronto are at even greater financial risk.

Critics like Nour Alideeb, the Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario chairperson, suggested, among other things, that reforms to student fees are an attack against democratically elected student unions. Such criticism should be disregarded as fear-mongering.

Contrary to their fears, the reforms are part of a broader democratization of tuition fees to re-enable and empower people to take control of decisions with respect to their financial resources.

The current forced fee system shares an uncanny resemblance to the sort of negative-option billing ruled illegal by both federal and provincial governments. It is not acceptable for anyone to feel entitled to dictate and override another person’s individual rights with respect to access and management of their own financial resources.

Elected or not, it’s morally wrong to trojan-horse individual student accounts and usurp another’s financial resources for services that should, in reality, be paid for by actual end users and not by speculated potential users.

The greatest indicator of the worth of some service or product is its position in a free market predicated on choice. For instance, take a look at the success of organic and fair trade products. Students who bike to campus can choose to pay for Bikechain and others can, instead, focus their own money on transit passes. We vote with our dollars and that’s how it should be. 

Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.

No: The student fees opt-out model could further divide the Ontario student movement

There is much concern that allowing students to opt out of student fees will result in significant funding decreases for services that student unions provide. Such decreases can be expected, given the low levels of engagement in student unions, and particularly in the University of Toronto Students’ Union, where voter turnouts of less than 20 per cent are common. If over 80 per cent of students represented by a student union do not vote in the annual elections, take part in its activities, or rely on its services, there is little to keep them from remaining members if they have the opportunity to keep their student fees. 

However, funding decreases would limit student unions’ ability to advocate for a better quality of education against much wealthier university administrations and governments. If enough students opt out, student unions would no longer be able to provide services or would have to drastically increase their levies, which would, in turn, prompt more students to leave. Student union staff may have to be laid off and some student unions may even collapse.

While the students who opt out would have a little more money, they would no longer be protected by student unions. It would be much easier for university administrations to raise their tuition fees as opposed to those of unionized students. 

Perhaps, if non-unionized students would be able to make their own separate student unions, there could be hope. This is especially because students enduring abuse and corruption under unions that have questionable or broken democratic systems, like the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, may be able to separate and form better representative organizations. 

However, not only would it be difficult to convince universities to acknowledge multiple unions of the same student demographics, but such fragmentation would likely make it harder for students to organize collectively.

Justin Patrick is a first-year master’s student in Political Science. He was recently elected as the Internal Commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.