University suspends incidental fee opt-out portal following court decision quashing Student Choice Initiative

Students required to pay all incidental fees, Ford government appealing ruling

University suspends incidental fee opt-out portal following court decision quashing Student Choice Initiative

Following a Divisional Court of Ontario ruling in November, the University of Toronto has decided that all students will be required to pay the full incidental fees — both optional and mandatory — for the winter 2020 semester.

In its ruling, the Divisional Court found that the Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) — the mandate for universities to implement opt-out options for certain incidental fees — impugns on their autonomy. In early December, The Globe and Mail reported that the Ford government would be seeking an appeal of the court’s decision.

The SCI’s tumultuous journey from the government’s executive action to the impending court appeal has played out over the past 12 months. It began with an announcement in January of last year, followed by multiple student-organized protests and confusion within universities regarding the government’s “essential” and “non-essential” fee categorization.

For the fall 2019 semester — the only semester where the SCI was implemented — students could opt out of an average $60 out of $850 of incidental fees, according to of fees across campuses and colleges.

Province appeals court decision

Honourable Justices Harriet Sachs, David Corbett, and Lise Favreau wrote in their decision to strike down the SCI: “Universities are private, autonomous, self-governing institutions. They are ‘publicly assisted,’ but not publicly owned or operated.”

As a direct admonishment of the government’s argument, the justices wrote that for over a century, “Ontario has had a legislated policy of non-interference in university affairs… conferring on university governing councils and senates the authority and responsibility to manage university affairs.”

A brief obtained by The Globe and Mail on the government’s appeal of the SCI outlined the province’s argument for its appeal of the Divisional Court’s decision, primarily hinging upon the court’s decision that the SCI had overstepped the province’s authority in the governance of universities.

As part of its appeal, the government is arguing that the autonomy of colleges and universities is not being violated: “Attaching conditions to government grants in no way interferes with university autonomy and independence.”

The government brief further stated, “Universities remain free to exercise their independence and autonomy through the choice to accept public funding, subject to whatever conditions are attached.”

Provincial operating grants make up 24.1 per cent of the university’s overall 2019–2020 revenue, with its core operating grant standing at $578.2 million per year. However, since 2017, the university has actually received more money from international student tuition than from the province.

“The decision on what financial barriers to education are sufficient to warrant a policy response is precisely the kind of value-driven determination for which elected decision-makers ought to be accountable to the public,” argues the government in its brief. “And should attract deference from a reviewing Court.”

In one of the few comments that Minister of Colleges and Universities (MCU) Ross Romano has publicly made since taking the MCU position from Merilee Fullerton — under whom the SCI was implemented — Romano remarked that “I’m not able to elaborate… but what I can say is that we have protected certain programs or certain services as essential,” as reported.

Downtown Legal Services (DLS) was among the many organizations that faced serious cuts from the Ford government. Lisa Cirillo, Executive Director at DLS, spoke to on what a government appeal could mean and look like.

“The court has laid out really firmly: this is the territory of universities and student unions within the universities, and we don’t believe that you can encroach on that,” Cirillo said.

Cirillo refers to a passage in the decision where the court rebuked the government’s argument that the SCI was outside of the court’s jurisdiction of review, saying that doing so “would undercut the supremacy of the legislature and open the door for government by executive decree, a proposition repugnant to the core principles of parliamentary democracy.”

University suspends opt-out portal

“The University suspended access to the online site that enabled students to opt out of incidental fees for the winter term, following the decision of the Divisional Court regarding the Student Choice Initiative,” wrote a university spokesperson to The Varsity.

As the SCI was overturned, universities had the choice to independently continue or discontinue opt-out portals for their incidental fees. U of T has decided all students must pay fees for the winter 2020 semester, and has thus shut down the online opt-out portal on ACORN.

“Opt-out selections for the Winter 2020 term are not available. Students will be required to pay all optional and mandatory fees for the Winter 2020 term.”

The Varsity has reached out to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities for comment.

Faculty coalition says new performance-based provincial funding model will increase inequality

Funding model doesn’t encourage improvement, but will punish failure, says OUCC

Faculty coalition says new performance-based provincial funding model will increase inequality

Since Doug Ford assumed the office of the Premier of Ontario last year, his government has made significant changes to education at all levels. One of these major changes arose in the Ford government’s first provincial budget: the decision to tie a large portion of the funding for universities and colleges to a set of performance indicators, as opposed to enrollment numbers.

In a public statement by the Ontario Universities and Colleges Coalition (OUCC), union and student leaders alike are pushing back on this move, claiming that it will “fundamentally compromise the integrity of Ontario’s higher education system.”

Renewed Strategic Mandate Agreement

The current Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) between the provincial government and the province’s 45 publicly assisted postsecondary institutions will expire on March 31, 2020. SMAs are bilateral agreements that dictate how much the provincial government will provide in funding to these institutions over multi-year periods. While previous SMAs only tied a very small proportion of university funding to performance, the current Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities plans to increase that amount significantly.

By the 2024–2025 academic year, performance-based funding will increase incrementally from 1.4 per cent to 60 per cent in a move that Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Ross Romano claims will make Ontario a “national leader in outcomes‐based funding.”

In a statement to The Varsity, Romano wrote that these SMA bilateral discussions with university and college leaders will begin this fall to determine the specific performance metrics. Under the expiring SMA, U of T’s performance metrics are currently tied to student experience, innovation, research impact, and access and equity.

OUCC Statement

The OUCC, a coalition which represents 435,000 postsecondary Ontario students, faculty, and staff, alongside the 11 other signatories of their public statement, oppose these changes categorically. They list it as yet another attack on Ontario’s postsecondary education system, following years of stagnant public funding and cuts to student financial assistance.

The signatories argue that withdrawing funding from universities and colleges who fail to reach their targets will not encourage improvement, but will actually “ensure institutions fall further behind.”

Among a long list of predictions for how this new approach to performance-based funding will affect education, the OUCC notably claims that it will give rise to increased inequalities across all universities and colleges. Particularly  it will hurt northern and smaller postsecondary institutions, accelerate the corporatization of campuses as private funding becomes increasingly important, and generally compromise the autonomy of Ontario’s schools. In terms of students, they argue it will decrease access to education for those who are marginalized, as admissions requirements will change to best accommodate new metrics.

In an email to The Varsity, Romano wrote that he is “dedicated to making Ontario’s postsecondary education system more competitive and better aligned with labour‐market needs, while operating transparently and efficiently.”

Contrarily, the OUCC claims that Ford’s changes will “do nothing to improve accountability, as Ontario’s universities and colleges already have comprehensive structures in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs they offer.”

Further, they argue that performance-based funding won’t improve labour market outcomes, as this system will prepare students for the labour market of today, but not for the one they will enter upon graduation. The statement’s signatories include Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario, Felipe Nagata; President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, Rahul Sapra; and President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Chris Buckley, among others.

Why a commuter believes that you should not opt out of your fees

Community is about supporting others, even when you don’t benefit

Why a commuter believes that you should not opt out of your fees

During my two years at UTSG, I lived in residence twice: during commuter orientation and during frosh week itself. Since then, I have been a dedicated commuter — napping, listening to songs and podcasts, and trying to finish readings during my hour-long TTC journey. 

When I found out about the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative, which allows students to choose whether to fund “non-essential fees,” I was certain I would opt out. Every year I tried to get involved in student groups, and every year I have not become as involved as I would have liked. Whether it be due to work schedules shifting, or a need to avoid rush hour on the TTC, I was always prevented from attending most of the events I found interesting on campus.

I spent the last weeks of summer scouring the ULife club database, searching for at least one club that might spark my interest. While I am a part of a new, smaller club now, I still always find myself looking for another group to join.

Opting-out of “non-essential” fees seemed like a solid financial move. I never paid attention to the amount of fees on my invoice, but I imagined they might cover the cost of textbooks and last-minute stationary purchases.

Over the summer, my opinion on incidental fees shifted a lot. During the past few years, I have always had a sense that nothing would change — which is something you can easily convince yourself during the winter time, as darkness hits in the early evening. I wanted to become more involved, but it seemed like an impossible goal. My schedule always got in the way. If there was ever going to be a change, it would just have to take place during the fall as the new semester began.

I realized that I had taken campus life for granted; I thought there would always be opportunities for involvement on campus. After all, how could clubs that seemed so central to fostering student life suddenly not exist, or be a lot smaller than they were in previous years? What would this mean for students who were new not just to the campus, but to the city or country itself?

These “non-essential” student fees go toward clubs that help others find their place at U of T. They provide funds not just for groups and clubs, but also to services on campus, including those offered by the Family Care Office or Downtown Legal Services, which can be essential to some students.

While I am not a member of every single club on campus, those that I do not directly benefit from are still deserving of my student fees. These small communities foster connections, not just for those who live on or near campus, but for those who commute as well. While my schedule does not allow me to attend every Facebook event that pops up on my timeline, I will not restrict my contribution to their clubs by opting-out. These communities depend on students to support students.

At the end of the day, I decided to opt in — I chose U of T. I am grateful to be in a position where I can afford to opt in, and I know that not every student, commuter or otherwise, is in the same place. Will the 10 cents or dollar I put toward one club help them run smoothly?  This year, that may be the case, more so than ever.  In the event that my schedule allows me a break, maybe I can try to find a little community on campus to call my own. Am I overly optimistic? Maybe. Regardless, I know that my contribution has gone toward helping students find their place on our sprawling campus.

Students can choose their opt-out selections for the fall 2019 term on ACORN before September 19.

Caitlin Stange is a fourth-year Digital Humanities, English, and History student at Victoria College.

The Breakdown: The CFS–Ontario’s legal challenge against the Student Choice Initiative

Levy-funded student union claims Ford government is overstepping autonomy of student groups

The Breakdown: The CFS–Ontario’s legal challenge against the Student Choice Initiative

The Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O), along with the York Federation of Students, launched a legal challenge against the Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) back in May. 

The SCI, originally announced in January by Merrilee Fullerton, the former Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), was part of a broad set of changes to postsecondary funding that requires universities to provide an opt-out option to students for non-essential incidental fees. 

Postsecondary institutions are required to implement the opt-out option for the upcoming fall semester or face a possible reduction in funding. U of T’s online opt-out system for non-essential incidental fees is live on ACORN, in compliance with the Ontario government’s guidelines.

In an email to The Varsity, Tanya Blazina, Team Lead, Issues Management and Media Relations for the MTCU, wrote, “as this matter is now before the courts, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.”

The legal challenge

“The government, particularly, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities doesn’t have the authority to impose a policy upon the memorandum of understanding between the student unions and the college and university administrations,” the National Executive Representative for the CFS–O, Kayla Weiler, said to the The Varsity in an interview.

Weiler also added that the collection and remittance of student society fees is determined democratically through student referenda and covered in the memorandum of understanding between the university administration and student associations.

Citing section seven of the Ontario College of Applied Arts and Technology Act, Weiler accused the provincial government of undermining the autonomy of student organizations through the SCI, which inhibits the ability of student governing bodies to collect fees. 

In addition, Weiler added that Fullerton misled students to believe that they would be able to save money by opting out of incidental fees, as the highest fees are still considered mandatory. 

At U of T, undergraduate Arts & Science students can opt-out of about 10 per cent of their total incidental fees, totalling around $50 to $70 depending on their college and campus.

What now?

In an interview with The Varsity, Nelson Wiseman, Director of the Canadian Studies Program and Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, expressed doubts about the CFS–O winning their legal challenge.

“My impression is that the students are going to lose this case.” 

However, Wiseman also added that the courts can make unexpected decisions, citing a judge in September that blocked Premier Doug Ford’s reduction of the Toronto City Council.

Multiple student organizations, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union and multiple college and student societies have also responded to the SCI by forming the ChooseUofT campaign at the St. George campus.

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

Ford’s frivolous climate lawsuit will cost taxpayers $30 million while doing nothing for the environment

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

The Ontario government’s frivolous $30 million lawsuit against the federal government over the carbon tax is a self-inflicted wound that the provincial 2019 budget, announced April 11, fails to address. Doug Ford’s government claims that the implementation of a carbon tax on Ontario would be ineffective, result in job losses, and be bad for business. However, he brought this tax on the province when he chose to scrap the cap and trade program, which aimed to hold industry directly accountable instead of putting the onus on consumers.

In lieu of clarification on the carbon tax or the binned cap and trade model, the budget vaguely outlines a performance-based emissions reduction program that it expects will circumvent implementation of the impending carbon tax. The program entails developing and setting emissions performance standards sector to sector and assessing reductions according to the previous output of facilities. This will be buttressed by the creation of an emissions reduction fund, meant to incentivize industries to adopt “cost-effective projects in various sectors, such as transportation,” with no mention of investments in renewable energy.

Ironically, the budget states that performance standards will be “tough but fair, cost-effective and flexible,” as if ‘tough’ and ‘flexible’ are not antonyms.

Initiatives like these may not result in substantial emissions reductions because preceding enforcement, industry can ramp up their emissions in order to be held to a lower bar — what they would have normally been producing — when the time comes to ostensibly reduce output.

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner told The Varsity that the proposed plan mirrors the failing emissions reduction mechanism currently operating in Australia, which has a much larger budget of about $1.9 billion, compared to the $400 million “emissions reduction fund” proposed in the provincial budget.

Ford is fear mongering about job losses, when, in reality, Ontario has had a good year of job growth overall, and despite the carbon tax in British Columbia working for years. Whether Ford likes it or not, the federal government is within its rights to impose a federal tax according to the distribution of powers outlined in section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The taxpayer-funded money used to fight the carbon tax will be wasted in a frivolous lawsuit.

Lastly, it is worth noting the province has based its emissions targets on the federal government’s, which was grandfathered in from the Stephen Harper era and does not comply with the Paris Agreement. Their target of reducing emissions levels by 30 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2030 is not nearly aggressive enough to curtail catastrophic repercussions, as forewarned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report.

As Schreiner said in his address to the press during the budget lockup, it is clear that “this budget cares about the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Provincial budget outlines $9.2 billion deficit, $16.5 billion net debt increase

Ford government’s first budget sees GDP growth slow, employment growth increase

Provincial budget outlines $9.2 billion deficit, $16.5 billion net debt increase

The Ontario 2019 budget, announced April 11 by Minister of Finance Victor Fedeli, outlines the government’s intention to reduce the provincial deficit and achieve a balanced budget by 2023–2024. The budget projects $154.2 billion in revenue and $163.4 billion in expenses in 2019–2020, exceeding estimated 2018–2019 expenses by approximately $900 million. Over the next five years, the budget projects a cumulative $821.3 billion in revenue and $841.1 billion in expenses, for a net $19.8 billion deficit over this period.

As part of the province’s recovery plan, total annual revenue is estimated to grow at an average of three per cent, while expenditure will increase by an annual average of one percent. The 2023–2024 period is projected to have a “modest surplus” of $1.9 billion.

Economic and fiscal outlook

The government’s 2019–2020 plans will see net debt increase by $16.5 billion to $359.9 billion; accumulated deficit will increase by $9.3 billion to $230 billion. Ontario has the largest subnational debt in the world, for which the government will shell out $13.3 billion in interest payments in 2019–2020.

Current projected debt and deficit are greater than projections in the previous Liberal government’s budget, primarily owing to actual 2017–2018 figures being higher than previously estimated. Doug Ford’s government consequently inherited a $15 billion deficit, which it has since reduced to $11.7 billion.

The budget’s medium-term projections show that net debt will increase to $372.3 billion in 2020–2021 and $382.4 billion in 2021–2022. Accumulated deficit will rise to $235.8 billion and $240.4 billion in the same periods, respectively. This is also up from the previous budget’s 2020–2021 estimation of a $360.1 billion net debt and $212.3 billion deficit.

Owing to a “less supportive external environment,” Ontario’s economic growth is expected to slow, with real and nominal gross domestic product (GDP) growth projections down from last year’s projections. The 2019 budget projects a 1.4 per cent real GDP growth and a 3.4 per cent nominal GDP growth in 2019, compared to the previous budget’s 1.8 per cent and 3.9 per cent projections. Government planning assumptions partially rely on consultations with private sector economists; in February, U of T projected that Ontario’s real GDP would grow by two per cent in 2019.

Employment growth in 2019 is forecast to grow from a previous 1.1 per cent in the 2018 budget to 1.3 per cent. Job creation is one of the government’s core commitments and, to this end, the budget notes that 132,000 net new jobs have been created since June 2018.

Infrastructure expenditure is slated to total $14.7 billion in 2019–2020, with the bulk of this coming from $8.6 billion in the transportation sector; $351 million will go to postsecondary education and training infrastructure.

Postsecondary education expenses will drop from $12.1 billion in 2018–2019 to $11.4 billion in 2019–2020.

Commercialization opportunities

The budget also includes plans to strengthen the province’s intellectual property (IP) position and increase commercialization opportunities. The government will create an expert panel that will oversee the planning of a provincial IP framework particularly geared toward the postsecondary education sector.

In addition to the wealth of research it produces, U of T is also a leading university-based entrepreneurial hub, with over 500 research-based startups launched across its 10 accelerators and incubators over the past decade.

Details on this panel’s constitution and the processes that will be involved in creating its framework remain sparse. According to the budget, “this panel will potentially include representation from the postsecondary, industry, innovation, venture capital and investment, banking and finance sectors, as well as from medical research and intellectual property legal expertise.”

While the province does not currently have a framework for IP in place, the federal government launched its Intellectual Property Strategy in 2018 and U of T has its own Inventions Policy, which outlines the commercialization processes for U of T-associated research.

Ontario government releases long-awaited results of survey on sexual violence at university campuses

Government doubles funding to Women’s Campus Safety Grant, implements new reporting requirements for universities

Ontario government releases long-awaited results of survey on sexual violence at university campuses

Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence.

A high number of reported sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual experiences, and lack of knowledge around university support systems were sobering highlights from the results of a sexual violence survey released on March 19 by the provincial government.

The Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey was sent to over 746,000 full-time students in Ontario from February to March 2018 by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, now the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU).

The ministry had come under fire for the delay in releasing results, following reporting by The Varsity and the Queen’s Journal, Queen’s University’s student newspaper.

TCU Minister Merrilee Fullerton acknowledged that the released results were not comprehensive because the government needed to “protect the privacy of the survey participants.” She said that the ministry will be consulting Ontario’s Information & Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish “on the release of additional survey results.”

In response to the released results, Fullerton announced that the provincial government plans to double investment in the Women’s Campus Safety Grant this year to $6 million. The annual grant funds campus initiatives including public education, drafting policy to prevent sexual violence, and improving security systems at universities.

The government will also require all publicly-assisted colleges and universities to review their sexual violence policies by September, create task forces to address sexual violence on campus, and draft an annual reports to their board of governors about measures taken in response to sexual violence on campus.

Survey results

A 37-page report summarizes the survey, which was administered by CCI Research Inc. and includes responses from 117,148 full-time university students of 441,499 invited, among other categories.

The report warns against interpretations of smaller data sets and comparing data between institutions; due to the voluntary nature of the report, each institution had a differing number of respondents.

Of 104,238 responses to five questions about knowledge of sexual violence supports at U of T, 61.7 per cent reported that they did not understand how to access supports related to sexual violence and did not understand the wider process for reporting incidents of sexual violence.

Out of 3,514 responses to eight questions, 42.4 per cent reported dissatisfaction with the U of T’s institutional response to sexual violence, which includes believing survivors of sexual violence and creating an environment where sexual violence is recognized as a problem.

In U of T students’ perception of consent, 89.6 per cent of 146,068 responses to seven questions demonstrated an understanding of consent as: revocable at any time, not measured by physical resistance, and required even when affected by decision-altering substances, among others — the remaining responses either took a neutral stance or disagreed with the above definitions.

U of T also had a high proportion of students who reported witnessing sexual violence including physical or verbal abuse, helping someone who was intoxicated, or informing university officials.

68.7 per cent of respondents reported being witnesses, with 67.3 per cent of those saying that they intervened in situations when incidents of sexual violence were witnessed.

4,628 respondents from U of T reported experiences of stalking and 12,293 reported instances of sexual harassment, including discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation and online and physical harassment.

3,602 out of 20,942 U of T students reported non-consensual sexual experiences, part of the 26,824 students from the broader university sector who reported instances of non-consensual sexual experiences.

New Democratic Party criticizes funding as insufficient

In response to a question asked during a press conference on the topic about whether the survey’s results warrant “greater action” than her announcements today, Fullerton said that the government’s plans are an “immediate response to an issue that has only just been reported back to [them],” but did not give further specifics about future plans.

Suze Morrison, a New Democratic Party MPP and the official opposition critic for women’s issues, lambasted the funding increase to the Women’s Campus Safety Grant as insufficient. She said that if the Ontario government was “serious about addressing the underlying systemic issues of… gender-based and sexual violence,” it would deliver on “promised funding to rape crisis centres across Ontario.”

The previous Liberal government had promised $14.8 million over three years to these centres as part of its gender-based violence strategy, but the current Progressive Conservative government has suspended plans for this funding.

Council of Ontario Universities welcomes data, U of T hopes to expand outreach

Sandy Welsh, leader of the Council of Ontario Universities’ Reference Group on Sexual Violence and Vice-Provost Students at U of T, was asked by The Varsity if her group would conduct follow-up or recurring surveys on sexual violence. Welsh deferred to the ministry, saying, “I cannot speak for what the ministry may do. I think it’s an important survey. We’re glad to have these results and look forward to any discussions in the future about other ways to survey.”

U of T Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre Director Angela Treglia spoke to The Varsity on the low proportion of students who felt that they understood the process for reporting instances of sexual violence.

“We have work to do to build and develop the awareness of the services that are available to people who’ve been affected by sexual violence on our campuses,” Treglia said. “We know and we want to get it right.”

The centre is a recent tri-campus development, having opened in 2017 with Treglia’s appointment as director. According the Treglia, the centre has held 200 workshops, reaching 8,000 participants at U of T, and continues to develop a system for supporting students so that “they have a place that they can go for confidential support and know that they’re not alone.”

On whether the initiatives announced by the ministry would be helpful to the centre, Treglia declined to comment. Treglia later went on to say that “we are striving and committed to creating a culture of care and a culture of consent on our campus.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you can call:

  • Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 (Toll Free), 1-866-863-7868 (TTY), and 416-863-0511 (Toronto)
  • Support Services for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse at 1-866-887-0015
  • Toronto Rape Crisis Centre: Multicultural Women Against Rape at 416-597-8808
  • Good2Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Gerstein Crisis Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030
  • Sexual Violence and Prevention Centre at: (416) 978-2266 and
    • UTSG: Gerstein Science Information Centre (Gerstein Library), Suite B139
    • UTM: Davis Building, Room 3094
    • UTSC: Environmental Science & Chemistry Building, EV141.

In Photos: Students gather in Queen’s Park to protest cuts to OSAP, university funding

The emergency rally was held on January 18

In Photos: Students gather in Queen’s Park to protest cuts to OSAP, university funding