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Opinion: The Student Choice Initiative is a Trojan Horse

If the government’s appeal succeeds, students will lose more than they gain
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

The provincial government’s appeal of the Divisional Court’s decision to strike down the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) will be held on March 23 and 24, more than one year after the 2019 ruling. 

The SCI policy, initially announced in January 2019, was in effect for the fall 2019 semester, allowing students to opt out of any incidental fees that the government deemed “non-essential,” including clubs, services, and campus media. 

On the surface, the SCI appears to be a policy that saves students money. However, under this disguise, the SCI strips students of essential aspects of campus life, such as the ability to express their voices and experience a sense of community. 

Student groups are essential to student well-being at U of T. Although the identity of U of T students is affiliated to the university, the student community as a whole can still be seen independently as a commonwealth. Student organizations undertake the responsibility to serve the student community based on their own characteristics. 

For example, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is the governing body that handles UTSG undergraduate students’ welfare and club activities, and The Varsity is the students’ newspaper that represents their voices. 

These organizations ensure that student voices are heard; thus, they charge a small amount to maintain their operations. However, under the pressure of the SCI, these organizations could no longer rely on student levies, which would significantly impact their ability to provide important services if the policy is reinstated.

As some of the biggest student organizations on campus, the UTSU and The Varsity rely heavily on student financial support. The percentage of student levy in the total revenue for the UTSU and The Varsity are 60.9 per cent and 87.5 per cent respectively for the 2020 fiscal year. These numbers show the extent to which these organizations depend on students to provide their services, a dependence that would be jeopardized if this student support became optional. 

The impact of the cut extends to each of us as members of U of T. Back in 2019, when the SCI was in effect throughout the province for one semester, the UTSU found that an average of 23 per cent of students opted out of incidental fees for clubs that the UTSU collected fees for.

Other groups similarly reported damaging reductions in their funding. Leah West, Executive Director of the Sexual Education Centre wrote in an email to The Varsity that an opt-out rate of 25 per cent meant “no new books for our library, fewer fun events for UofT students, fewer special products of the month, and more.” 

Groups that advocated for an accessible and equitable campus, such as Students For Barrier Free Access and Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans People of the University of Toronto, feared cutting back on their services. New clubs were also less likely to survive due to the lack of funding that the UTSU would usually provide

Similarly, The Varsity and other student publications play a critical role in communicating campus news, receiving student opinions, and communicating critical reflections on student life and culture. If student journalism is compromised, students will have poorer access to essential news and storytelling on university life. 

Additionally, by opting out of the incidental fees, U of T students could only get a maximum of $60 back per semester. In other words, although the SCI may create the appearance of savings by dropping the cost of incidental fees, the potential losses clearly outweigh the benefits.

The result of the appeal is unforeseeable. The motivation of Doug Ford’s government to push the SCI after it was struck down is questionable as well, especially given the widespread student opposition since the policy’s announcement. 

The reality is that student funding helps student organizations provide services and coverage that ensure a healthy and well-informed campus environment. Thus, the SCI discreetly exploits the rights of students by presenting itself as a money-saving strategy, when in fact, the policy destroys fundamental aspects of the student experience — and the supports that students require. 

If the government is truly concerned about student well-being, it should encourage students to pay incidental fees, fund student groups, and increase government grants instead. Even after the pandemic, these clubs will continue being spaces that provide care, community, and knowledge. These immense benefits must not be sacrificed for a comparably small reduction in incidental fees. 

Yixuan Li is a third-year economics and public policy student at New College.