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Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative appeal going to court in late March

Policy previously struck down, criticized for infringement on student autonomy
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

After being struck down by a unanimous panel of three judges in November 2019, the Doug Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) is going to court for an appeal hearing later this month. The government launched the appeal in December 2019 to challenge the November ruling. 

Initially announced in January 2019 and only active for one semester, the SCI required that universities allow students to opt out of any incidental fees that were deemed “non-essential,” which included student groups and societies such as clubs, services, and campus media. 

A spokesperson for Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano wrote to The Varsity, “Our government will continue to promote affordability and transparency for Ontario students and their families and is appealing the court decision from November, 2019.”

Background

Former Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities Merrilee Fullerton announced the SCI in January 2019, along with cuts to tuition and to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. The intention of the SCI was to give students more freedom over how much they pay in fees. 

For U of T students, the maximum amount they could have saved per semester was around $60. 

Many students and student groups spoke out against the changes, with protests and campaigns to encourage students not to opt out. 

Following backlash, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) launched a legal challenge, arguing that the SCI was illegal since the government does not have the authority to interfere in the fee agreements made between student groups and universities.

While the SCI was active, students were able to opt out of fees for many levy-funded campus groups, including Varsity Publications Inc., leading those groups to be unsure about the amount of funding they would receive. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which collects fees for many student groups, found that the average opt-out rate among all the groups was around 23 per cent. 

Appeal

The government filed an appeal on December 6, 2019 to challenge the decision to strike down the SCI in the Ontario Court of Appeals. The appeal will be heard on March 23 and 24.

Several organizations have filed to be intervenors in the case, including the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), the League of Human Rights agency of B’nai Brith Canada, and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, among others. As intervenors, they will present an opinion to the court.

In June 2020, a group of five Ontario universities — including U of T — also filed to be intervenors in the case. Those universities will present their points of view to the court as well. In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that “the University has no further comment while this case is ongoing.”

However, CFS–Ontario National Executive Representative Kayla Weiler wrote that the universities are “overwhelmingly supportive” of the CFS’ case. “In their report they discuss student societies being an important part of university autonomy and academic freedom,” she added.

The CFS remains determined to stop the SCI. According to Weiler, it asked the government to consider withdrawing the appeal in August 2020, though the government rejected that idea a month later.

“The SCI policy was never about saving students money, but a policy designed to defund the students groups that hold the Ontario government accountable,” wrote Weiler. 

The UTGSU did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment. The Varsity has reached out to the UTSU, the YFS, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union for comment.