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Opinion: Striking down the Student Choice Initiative was a mistake

The policy provides not only affordability and transparency, but also an incentive for much needed innovation
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The Court of Appeal for Ontario struck down the Student Choice Initiative on August 4 after the Divisional Court of Ontario originally struck it down in November 2019. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
The Court of Appeal for Ontario struck down the Student Choice Initiative on August 4 after the Divisional Court of Ontario originally struck it down in November 2019. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

On August 4, the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck down the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), a controversial policy that was initially struck down by the Divisional Court of Ontario in November 2019.

The SCI, originally announced in January 2019, gave students the choice to opt out of incidental fees that the Ontario government deemed “non-essential.” These incidental fees are typically used to finance student clubs and organizations, student media, and other campus services. At U of T in particular during the fall 2019 semester, students were able to opt out of an average of $60 of their $850 incidental fees.

The confusion about tuition fees is almost universal. At U of T and other schools, many students find themselves racking their brains in confusion every September as they stare down their lengthy tuition invoice.

Although some students may be able to decipher what their money is funding, the SCI can help all students comprehend the exact amount of money used for payments beyond classes through its categorization of essential and non-essential fees. Hence, the SCI can provide a clear-cut solution to long-existing problems, like confusingly high tuition.

Currently, besides program fees, the government has labelled “walksafe programs, health and counselling, athletics and recreation and academic support” as essential fees. Clearly, the government has sought to define essential fees as anything related to health, safety, and academics. These guidelines are fair because they prioritize items related to the welfare of all students.

Education is essential to a functioning society. Higher education can lead to a more educated population, and lowering the cost of university would certainly even the playing field for all social classes. Therefore, higher education should be made as cheap as possible to allow access for anyone with a passion for learning. As such, the bundling of non-essential fees into the cost of university education — a service that could be considered essential — is completely unethical. This would be like if hospitals forced parking costs on all of their patients, even if they did not park.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when students participated in online classes, U of T charged students the same tuition fees as if they had been attending in person. While incidental fees were reduced, students studying online still paid some campus fees, despite not being able to enjoy on-campus services and activities. Especially during a pandemic, online students should not be expected to take on additional incidental fees for services they do not benefit from.

Critics of the policy may argue that it would bring down the student community, as clubs would find it harder to run with less funding. However, these budget cuts would not simply dissolve the student community. Instead, the student community would find more innovative solutions to work around these budget cuts. If clubs are unable to find innovative solutions or gain support from the student community, these clubs lack demand and support, and thus, their dissolution is justified.

When the province implemented the SCI for the fall 2019 semester, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) found that around 23 per cent of students chose to opt out from non-essential fees. During this time, students noted that there were fewer fun events, fewer exciting products, fewer resources for the library, and many more critical reductions.

However, these clubs may have simply lacked the time to readjust to changes in funding. One semester could have been too short for clubs to find third-party funding sources and other ways to reduce costs. Shortcomings may have also been attributable to a lack of demand from fellow students.

SCI cuts don’t have to doom student organizations; instead, they can lead to innovation and efficiency. According to an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail, when The Varsity — like other university newspapers — was forced to move its print magazine online due to SCI cuts, its magazine became more accessible to readers.

Although these budget cuts may seem detrimental at first, they can help incentivize clubs and unions to reevaluate their services and offer only what is truly important. In this case, The Varsity maintained its primary service: to provide “meaningful, just coverage for [its] readership.”

Funding cuts can also force organizations to only provide services that can exist due to student demand. University papers could exist based on dollar subscriptions from students who demand such reading material. This change would simply make explicit an already existent paywall, and payments from Acorn would be moved elsewhere onto an online membership. Clubs could also run fundraising events or seek local businesses to help support their organization.

Furthermore, budget cuts can reduce the opportunity for fraudulent purchases within university groups. Allegations of financial mismanagement are not uncommon within university unions. In the past decade, both the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) and the UTSU have had presidents come under fire for fraud. In both incidents, damages totalled approximately $250,000. 

Last year, Ryerson University cut its ties with the RSU, announcing that the university had lost confidence in the union’s ability to represent the students and supply campus services. If Ryerson could not trust its student union, should U of T students be expected to blindly fund and trust their student unions?

The SCI could not only provide transparency, but also allow students to save on services that they would not use. Although worries about funding cuts are reasonable, student clubs, campus services, and student press could continue to find innovative solutions regardless. 

Vincent Zhang is a second-year financial economics student at Innis College.