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What we know about the Ford government’s changes to postsecondary education

U of T stands to lose $88 million in expected revenue, describes little communication with province

What we know about the Ford government’s changes to postsecondary education

On January 17, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU) Merrilee Fullerton stood before a room full of media in the provincial offices east of Queen’s Park to announce that Ontario universities must cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent, provide “opt-out” options for incidental fees, and adhere to broad changes made to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Despite some clarifications made in an earlier Varsity interview with David Piccini — the Parliamentary Assistant to Fullerton — ambiguity remains about the specifics of the provincial mandate. The university has also not commented heavily on the issue.

Meanwhile, several protests organized by student unions and other groups have occurred across the province, with more to come. In these protests, thousands of students demanded answers about what these changes will mean for them.

Based on further interviews with the government and the university, The Varsity takes a look into what we know and what we don’t know about the cuts so far.

Domestic tuition cut by 10 per cent

Repeatedly described as “historic” by Piccini, the Ford government’s leading announcement is of a 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition for the next academic year, which will also apply to graduate studies, including Master of Business Administration and Juris Doctor programs. The government has also mandated a tuition freeze for the following year.

Universities and colleges will have to absorb any losses in revenue, as the cut is unfunded by the provincial government.

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that these cuts will take $65 million off of the university’s base budget, or $88 million from its expected revenue, since the university had planned to continue raising tuition by three per cent.

In the second year, the changes will cost the university $113 million.

Regehr went on to say that the impact will vary depending on individual divisions, as some divisions rely more heavily on domestic tuition income, but also said that there will be university-wide adjustments as well.

“What we hope to do is find solutions that minimally impact students, staff and faculty, and programs,” said Regehr.

Regehr also confirmed that international tuition will not be affected by the cut, adding that the university plans to follow its already-published tuition framework.

Speaking to The Varsity, Piccini declared that such changes were what he and the Ford government were elected to do.

“I’ve been in meetings with… university presidents, administrators since day one. I’ve been out on campuses and have been in various universities. We’ve been here speaking to presidents as well. And they’ve all said, ‘We know a tightening of the belt is coming,’” said Piccini.

However, in the interview with Regehr, the provost said that neither she nor the university had held discussions with the provincial government on the changes to the university’s funding structure, and that, since then, the university has only received directives through the Council of Ontario Universities — with no word from the provincial government or Fullerton’s office.

When this was brought up to Piccini, he said that The Varsity was “cherry-picking” this policy. “Do you think it’s feasible for our government, every time it introduces legislation, to go around the province on every single piece of draft legislation introduced? That’s unrealistic,” he said.

Piccini went on to say that he had received a “standing ovation” at events after bringing up postsecondary affordability, and that the 10 per cent domestic tuition slash was a result of conversations at events, on campuses, and “over a kitchen table.”

“So in summation, all of that has fed into this policy.”

OSAP interest rates, grants, loans

OSAP will also be undergoing dramatic changes, primarily centred around a push to provide more grants to students whose household income falls below a $50,000 threshold. To accommodate this change, the Ontario government will be shifting the program to provide more loans than grants.

Interest will also begin accruing from day one after graduation, where previously, interest did not accrue on provincial loans for a six-month grace period.

For students in second-entry programs or attending out-of-province institutions, the grant-to-loan ratio will now be a minimum 50 per cent loan.

When asked how these changes would help students, Piccini answered that the government needs to be “fiscally responsible” — later claiming that “you could pull up to university in a Ferrari” and still receive grants under the previous OSAP system. He returned with a question of his own, asking why the federal government does not have parity with Ontario in its grant-to-loan ratio.

Emphasizing that “the sustainability of the system” needs to be ensured, Piccini also said that preserving the “integrity of the structure” of OSAP requires balancing “our own immediate interests” with the interests of students like those “in rural Ontario, whose families earn $30,000 median income in [his] riding.”

Regehr, who underscored the university’s high spending on student assistance, said that the university will work to “try and limit the impact of these changes on our students.”

Last year, U of T spent $210 million, or eight per cent of its budget, on student aid — more than any other university in Ontario, according to Regehr.

The Student Choice Initiative: an “opt-out” from incidental fees

The last mandate from the provincial government, dubbed the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), is for Ontario universities to develop an “opt-out” system for incidental fees, which would either be labelled “essential” or “non-essential.”

Already included in the “essential” category are walksafe programs, counselling, athletics, academic support, and health and safety-related fees.

Fullerton also announced on February 1 that transit passes, such as the ones offered at UTM, will also be considered essential.

Piccini expressed his belief that the SCI is in no way analogous to taxes, saying that he could “make that analogy ad nauseam” to all issues.

Piccini said that to compare funds for “the quidditch club or [to] boycott and divest Israel… with taxes is laughable at best and worrisome at worst.”

Piccini also gave the example of subscription fees for media outlets like The Globe and Mail or the National Post as a reason for why campus media should not be considered essential.

He added that the fees being considered non-essential “have nothing to do with taxes and have nothing to do with the essential services that government provides,” going on to say that “we prescribe and force feed down new students’ throats things — and from people whom they didn’t elect, programs that they didn’t vote to support.”

On whether health and dental programs offered by student unions are considered “essential,” Piccini said that these will be ongoing discussions between the universities and the student unions.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union currently administers the health and dental plans for full-time UTSG and UTM students, though there is an existing opt-out option for these fees.

Piccini had also confirmed in a previous interview that universities will have final say on the decisions to be made about which fees are labelled “essential” or “non-essential.”

Regehr, however, says that the university is waiting for a clearer mandate from the provincial government.

“We just don’t know what that means and what kind of latitude is expected, and whether there are parameters around that, like [if] certain amounts have to be optional,” said the provost. “We just don’t know that.”

“We certainly support the kinds of activities that are funded by student fees. We think that those are important and really enhance the student experience.”

A principled defence of voluntary student unionism

Opt-out option for incidental fees could improve political participation, democracy

A principled defence of voluntary student unionism

As part of its omnibus announcement on changes to the postsecondary education financial framework, the Progressive Conservative (PC) government announced that students would be able to opt out of university-defined “non-essential” fees that are placed on top of their tuition fees, starting from the 2019–2020 academic year.

Subsequently, several groups have indicated that the policy will seriously compromise the effectiveness of student organizations and services. In being funded by student fees, these groups rely on a broad pooling of payments from all enrolled students. The opt-out option, in their view, would not only mean a significant decrease in available funding, but unstable and fluctuating yearly budgets.

This presents us with an intriguing question: whether students should be able to choose to not pay for a non-tuition service. Despite what seems to be a universal fightback against it, there are advocates of the move, at least in principle, in the campus community. Some perceive that many of these services are useless and a waste of money, or that some funded organizations act in ways antithetical to their mandate.

A primary argument among advocates is a moral claim, wherein students, as the rightful custodians of their money, ought to be able to pay for what they choose. I do not buy this argument. It assumes a consumerist logic that everything ought to be treated like a market.

Student representation cannot be framed within this relationship. It relies on the collective pooling of resources to work toward the broader benefit of students as a whole. You give expecting someone to benefit, even if that person may not be you. In deciding to not contribute, you must follow by not gaining benefit from it, lest you behave hypocritically.

But since student organizations will likely be open to all, regardless of contribution, a student who opts out would still be able to use and benefit from that service. This potential free-rider scenario weakens the practicality of this first argument.

I am instead supportive of a second argument: that in facing the possibility of losing funds, student groups will make a greater attempt to align to student needs, thereby increasing accountability and democratic legitimacy. With this would come regular attempts to convince students of the merits of spending decisions.

My main concern here is the degree of student apathy or dislike toward their representatives. The main benefit from this opt-out policy may be an increase in the average student’s sense of stake and interest in student politics. At this point, it should be clear that I am only speaking of elected student unions, because they claim to represent and advance the interests of all students.

This means that other fees, such as those for clubs, student media, and services should be exempt from the opt-out option. While these groups are in some sense democratic and service-based, they do not claim the same level of universality and authority as student politics.

The opt-out option of student union fees can be thought of as another democratic mechanism, much like slate elections and referendums. It is direct democracy at its purest: not just providing an option to reject spending allocations, but determining the amount of funding themselves.

It seems that, at least in theory, this would increase student union accountability. For these organizations, no dollar will be taken for granted. Instead, student representatives will have to justify all spending to the campus community.

This is given impetus by the recent scandal at Ryerson University, in which it alleged that up to $273,000 may have been spent by Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) executives on improperly authorized purchases. At UTSG in 2017, the St. Michael’s College Student Union collapsed after similar financial decisions were made public. And let’s not forget our own University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) quarter-million dollar scandal from a few years ago.

With an opt-out option, it is unlikely that student unions will receive significant funding from its students next year. Instead, they will slowly need to gain back student trust and respect, to the point that students feel the organization is using its financial power to invest in positive and student interest-based programs.

A potential objection here is that such a process will result in total instability. For instance, it would be difficult for representative groups to implement long-term goals, since they will have little knowledge of what will come in the future. My response is that democracy itself is inherently unstable.

However, an increase in accountability is not my main concern. Student representatives at U of T seem to have sufficient accountability mechanisms in and of themselves. These include annual elections and various membership-approval requirements in different organizations.

But these mechanisms have become defective and inefficient from a lack of student involvement. This academic year the UTSU drew criticism as it failed to maintain quorum through to the end of its Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Meanwhile, after failing to meet its AGM quorum, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) will be required to hold a special meeting for its membership to approve its draft financial statements. The UTGSU’s General Council also recently voted to reduce the special meeting’s required quorum from 300 to 150 members. In other words, rather than find ways to increase participation, they’ve opted to simply cut the required level of participation.

Election turnouts have also been abysmal year after year. The only reason that a remarkable 25.3 per cent of students voted in last year’s UTSU executive election is because students were concerned about the simultaneous U-Pass referendum. In other words, a vote on a direct allocation of money saw much more student interest than in any other student election.

Student representative decisions have been confined to a small set of campus activists who, although well-intentioned, are not always able to understand and voice the concerns of all students. In this year’s UTSU AGM, several important decisions that impact over 50,000 students — the split with the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, the ban on slate campaigning, and the condemnation of the provincial free speech policy — were decided by less than 250 people.

Voting, although seemingly simple, can often be overlooked and forgotten due to the busyness of student schedules. But the opt-out option will be done through tuition, and is therefore unavoidable. Students, in enrolling for another semester, must make a conscious evaluation of how they believe student groups ought to work, and the power they themselves have in the opt-out.

My hope is that the opt-out option can give students an opportunity to think about what their respective unions do, and the potential influence they can exercise over them. This will work against student apathy, and encourage participation in other democratic mechanisms. The result may be a snowball effect that sees substantial democratic returns in the years to come.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsitys UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

How non-essential fees at U of T work — and how they could change next year

Provincial government’s new Student Choice Initiative may make some of U of T’s ancillary, incidental fees opt-out

How non-essential fees at U of T work —  and how they could change next year

Among the sweeping changes to postsecondary education fees that the provincial government rolled out last Thursday is the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which may enable students to opt out of “non-essential non-tuition fees.”

According to Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton, “These fees often get allocated to services students do not use or to support organizations they do not support.” Fullerton added that the new initiative will bring “predictability and transparency” to non-tuition fees.

The provincial government has defined essential non-tuition fees to include “walksafe programs, health and counselling, athletics and recreation and academic support.” Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities David Piccini told The Varsity that universities and colleges will determine which non-academic fees are essential “at their discretion.” U of T’s statement did not mention how this determination would be made. The government’s seemingly lax approach to regulating the initiative may mean that U of T could decide to make no changes to how ancillary or incidental fees currently work.

There are two main forms of mandatory non-tuition fees at U of T — ancillary fees and incidental fees. Ancillary fees are governed by the 1995 Policy on Ancillary Fees, while incidental fees are governed by the 2003 Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees.

In 2018–2019, the university is estimated to have received $210.8 million in ancillary and incidental fees. This equates to approximately 7.9 per cent of the university’s operating revenue. At the end of the 2017–2018 academic year, it projected that it would receive $217 million in 2019–2020 and $223.3 million in 2020–2021.

Ancillary fees

At U of T, ancillary fees are fees charged to pay for services, materials and activities not supported by operating grants, capital grants or tuition fees. These include fees for capital projects, course equipment, course field trips, library fines, non-credit course fees, and, for international students, the University Health Insurance Plan. A 2013 report revealed that there were nearly 1,000 unique ancillary fees as of the 2012–2013 academic year, “consistent with most Ontario universities.” Changes to existing ancillary fees are determined by the Vice-President University Operations Scott Mabury. The introduction and removal of ancillary fees must be voted on by the Business Board.

As non-credit courses do not factor into the university’s tuition fees, they will not be subject to the provincially mandated 10 per cent cut to tuition. These non-credit course fees range from $50–15,000.

There are three forms of ancillary fees: compulsory fees, fully refundable deposits, and optional fees.

Compulsory fees refer to course and program required fees. This includes course field trips, lab equipment and manuals, course or program application fees, and access to ACORN. Most course textbooks are not considered compulsory as they can be borrowed through the library system. There is no framework for students to opt out of compulsory ancillary fees.

Fully refundable deposits include access to fobs required to enter certain buildings or classrooms. Students receive their full deposits upon return of the items at the end of the corresponding academic term or program. Optional fees consist of any fines or penalties that students accrue, including late library and deferred exam fees.

Under the Policy on Ancillary Fees, certain ancillary fees — namely required course equipment and field trip fees — are charged on a cost-recovery basis, meaning that the university cannot profit.

Incidental fees

U of T’s incidental fees are a subcategory of ancillary fees. These include athletics, Hart House, Health Service, Student Services Fees and various campus-wide and divisional student societies. Incidental fees are charged to all U of T students except for students enrolled in non-credit courses, students in the Additional Qualification Program of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Arts & Science students over 65.

Incidental fees require student societies to pass a vote among their constituents. These fees are collected by the university and distributed to the respective societies. The framework for establishing incidental fees was created in 1996 by Governing Council, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Graduate Students’ Union, and the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students.

To illustrate the effect of an opt-out option on all non-essential incidental fees, The Varsity calculated changes to incidental fee revenues, using the latest available 2017–2018 fees.

In 2017–2018, each of the 13,073 full-time undergraduate Arts & Science UTM students would have paid a minimum of $1,373.82 across 13 incidental fees. If the SCI were mandatory, the same student would have paid a minimum $839.06, roughly 61 per cent of the actual minimum. If every student opted out of all possible fees, a mandatory SCI would have seen UTM and its student groups lose approximately $6,990,917.48.

The 12,147 full-time undergraduate Arts & Science UTSC students in 2017–2018 had to pay a minimum of $1,501.34 across 11 incidental fees. Enforcing the SCI would have reduced the minimum to $813.24, or 54 per cent of then-minimum incidental fees. Under the conditions that every student opted-out of all possible fees through the initiative, UTSC and its student groups would have lost approximately $8,358,350.70.

The minimum UTSG students could have paid in incidental fees in 2017–2018 ranges between an estimated $1,088.63 and $1,800.15, depending on college and program. While UTSG colleges and programs have different incidental fees, essential incidental fees are identical across all full-time undergraduate and graduate programs. In 2017–2018, this consisted of $370.58 for KPE Co-Curricular Programs, Services and Facilities, $303.08 per year for Student Life Programs & Services, and $172.76 per year for Hart House — which provides athletics and recreation. As such, all full-time undergraduate and graduate UTSG students could pay a minimum of $846.42 under a mandatory SCI.