Province appealing to restore Student Choice Initiative

The provincial government under the Progressive Conservatives is applying for leave to file an appeal against a ruling from the Divisional Court of Ontario that overturned the Student Choice Initiative.

A leave for appeal is a procedural measure that must be taken before an appeal is heard by the Court. Thus, the ruling of the Court stands and the SCI continues to be deemed unlawful.

The initiative, known as the SCI, was introduced earlier this year and came into play this fall semester. It allowed students to opt-out of paying certain “non-essential” ancillary fees that fund student unions, campus publication and other post-secondary organizations across the province.

The mandate came from the university and colleges ministry and was not passed through Queen’s Park. PC Party officials insisted to The Avro Post that it allowed for freedom of choice, allowing students to pay only for services that they felt was worth their financial support.

In response, the provincial division of the Canadian Federation of Students and York University’s student union filed a legal challenge against the SCI, stating that they failed to consult with students and should not have interfered with the autonomy of student unions.

Judges ruled unanimously in November to throw out the SCI, an unexpected victory for student allies. They found that the government has “no legal power to control the universities even if it wished to”.

A brief filed by the province on Monday evening states that the ruling restricts the authority to attach conditions to the funding given to public colleges and universities, according to reports by student newspapers.

“Attaching conditions to government grants in no way interferes with university autonomy and independence,” the brief reads, adding that post-secondary institutions “remain free” to accept taxpayer dollars, subject to the conditions that come along with the funding.

Over $5 billion comes from provincial coffers to the province’s 21 publicly assisted universities and 24 funded colleges. The Progressive Conservatives argue that the introducing optional student fees is an attempt to allow students to save more financially.

The court ruling, however, pointed out that the optional ancillary fees are a small portion of what students pay in tuition and other fees. For students at Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber, there was only a charge of $55.95 compared to hundreds in overall fees.

The Winter 2020 semester starts in January and fees are due shortly. Some campuses are currently considering their legal options for removing the opt-out option for ancillary fees, The Globe and Mail reported.

IGNITE did not participate in the lawsuit against the province and did not offer support. The student union also refused to respond to the November ruling against the SCI until the government gave a statement.

High school teachers launch day-long strike

The union representing public high school teachers launched a one-day strike on Wednesday morning after a deadline for a deal was missed, the first strike in 22 years by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

This means that classes are cancelled at public and Catholic high schools for the day. The bargaining team for the union had remained in their caucus room since 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning but there was no provincial representation, OSSTF said.

Administrations, unions give varied response to SCI ruling

On Nov. 21, the Ontario Divisional Court deemed the Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative unlawful and the reaction has varied from sending the optional fees website offline to waiting on the Ford government’s response.

On Monday, Nov. 25, the University of Toronto responded by being the first university in Ontario to email its students informing them that they would be freezing the “incidental fees portal” while they took stock.

In an email to students from Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh, University of Toronto students were informed that the school was evaluating the “technical impact” of the court’s decision, and that there would be updates to come.

In a graphic posted on their social media, Sheridan College said “Sheridan is monitoring the situation to see what course of action the government chooses to take. Until we receive a new directive, we’ll continue under the current one, which allows students to opt-out of paying certain fees.”

Few other post-secondary institutions have posted a public update about the new evolution in the implementation of the province of Ontario’s “Tuition Fee Framework and Ancillary Fee Guidelines” document. [hyperlink:]

The University of Guelph has not released a statement yet, but administration has advised its student union, the Central Student Association, that large institutions can take time to implement legal decisions, and that figuring out mechanics with which to reverse the ”Student Choice Initiative” will take some time. 

While the government of Ontario has not yet commented on the releases, there is speculation that they are considering an appeal. In a statement on Friday November 22nd, spokesperson Clara Bryne wrote, “The Ministry of Colleges and Universities is currently reviewing the decision released yesterday. We will have more to say on this at a later date.”

Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario National Executive Representative, and the CFS representative in the legal proceedings, Kayla Weiler, said “we haven’t had any confirmation if there will be an appeal or not, and […] we’re hoping the government will respect the unanimous decision of the panel of judges and respect student democracy”

In its reasons, the Divisional Court said, “The University Guidelines [SCI] … are beyond the scope of the crown’s prerogative power over spending because they are contrary to the statutory autonomy conferred on universities by statute.”

Referring specifically to section seven of the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act wherein governments are prevented from interfering with the “normal activities” of student governing bodies – specifically the court ruled that “normal activities” the government is precluded from includes; “reducing or eliminating the funding used by student associations.”

Reporting by Jack Fisher; 
Editing by Eli Ridder.

Doug Ford visits new Humber College building

Ontario Premier Doug Ford visited the new Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation on Friday at North Campus, a visit that was unlisted on Humber College’s event calendar.

Ford was on campus with Sault Ste. Marie MPP Ross Romano and city councillor Michael Ford, who represents the ward Humber is located in.

“We’ve invested over $20 million in pre-apprenticeship training, like the General Machinist program at Humber,” Ford said in a tweet.

MPP calls for education minister to admit drop in enrolment

A Liberal member of provincial parliament on Tuesday wrote an open letter to the minister in charge of post-secondary education, calling on his ministry to reveal the number of students unable to attend university or college this year due to student loan cuts.

MPP Michael Coteau, one of six remaining Liberals in the provincial parliament, asked in his letter to Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Ross Romano to admit that post-secondary enrolment is down due to Ontario Student Assistance Program cuts.

“Your government cut funding to OSAP by $660 million. At the same time, you cut funding to universities by $360 million and to colleges by $80 million–all to give a few hundred-dollars reduction in tuition,” Coteau, the MPP for Don Valley East in Toronto wrote.

The provincial Progressive Conservative government announced earlier this year a reform package that cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent, slashed grants and loans offered via OSAP and introduced optional student fees via the Student Choice Initiative, a move opposed by student unions.

Calling the OSAP cuts “misguided and wrong”, Coteau said that “if enrolment decline is as drastic as is widely indicated through available evidence across the sector, this represents a catastrophic failure that will impact thousands of students, particularly low-income students.”

“There is no better investment a government can make in our future economic competitiveness than training up our young people or helping adults return to school.”

Beyond domestic students, Coteau pointed out that institutions will have to bring in more foreign students to fill the tuition gap. Any decline would also impact the local economies of any college or university.

Coteau said that he was the first member of his family to graduate from university, which would have been impossible without OSAP, writing that “the greatest waste in Ontario is the waste of human potential, and these foolish cuts to universities and colleges are harming thousands of students and our economic prospects.”

Under the previous Liberal provincial government, the bottom 200,000 students in terms of income were able to attend post-secondary on 100 per cent grants, virtually free. The degrees of grants were higher for students in general and there was movement towards universal education in Ontario.

However, when the Progressive Conservatives won the provincial election of 2018, the government under Premier Doug Ford slashed OSAP to a point where no student is eligible for 100 per cent grants and many students have said they are unable to return this fall due to the financial toll.

The New Democratic Party took the official opposition as the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne crumbled. The NDP promised universal education and loan forgiveness if they were brought into power.

The Liberal MPP is running for the leadership of the provincial Liberal Party and, if he wins, will go up against Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath, who received a vote of confidence earlier this year, in 2022.

The Post also reached out to the provincial government and the New Democrats for comment.

‘Don’t give up’

Michael Coteau, the MPP for Don Valley East and a leadership candidate for the provincial Liberals, told The Avro Post in an interview that students should not give up because of the extended struggles that they now face.

“Don’t give up,” Coteau said when asked what he would tell students going through financial hardship, adding: “don’t let [Premier] Doug Ford and his vision for Ontario ruin your vision for yourself”.

As for what students can do in the fight to defend their education, Coteau said that there is two approaches. There is an advocacy side where students can “make noise”, for example, through student organizations, and a personal side: the impact of the changes to each individual.

The United Kingdom-born MPP encouraged students to stand strong and have “resilience”.

Coteau applauded the student unions and campus newspapers that are fighting the Student Choice Initiative, an aspect of the financial reforms introduced by the province earlier this year.

When asked about what he saw campuses doing to defend students, Coteau cited a “culture of fear” within the institutions themselves, including inside the public colleges and universities.

CFS, York federation sue province

The Ontario division of the Canadian Federation of Students, together with York University’s student union, announced on Tuesday a legal challenge to fight the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative, citing a lack of legal authority and bad faith.

The SCI, which was introduced by the Progressive Conservatives as part of sweeping changes to student financial life across the province, requires universities and colleges to have have an opt-out option for non-academic ancillary fees in place for the fall semester.

The legislation has triggered a backlash from student unions, campus publications and other post-secondary student groups since it was announced on Jan. 17 earlier this year. Along with it came a 10 per cent cut to tuition for domestic students.

“This policy is a direct attack on students’ ability to organize and provide essential services on campus,” incoming chairperson of the CFS, Sofia Descalzi, said in a press release from the national organization.

“It is a clear attempt to silence students’ unions and student organizations who have a long history of holding administrations and governments accountable when it comes to creating accessible, affordable and safer campuses.”

“We are filing this legal challenge on behalf of all students, students’ unions and student organizations, including campus media and student clubs, the province,” said Guelph graduate Kayla Weiler, the CFS Ontario representative and a former Central Student Association vice president.

“Despite its claim, the Ford government is not for the people and it is certainly not for the students. Students’ unions have been democratically voted in place by students and should remain free of government interference.”

The Canadian Federation of Students represents over 350,000 students in Ontario, including members of the York Federation of Students, one of the largest students’ union in the province.

“Students’ unions provide essential services on campus like food banks, LGBTQ centres and sexual assault crisis support,” said Fatima Babiker, York Federation of Students president.

“By deeming these fees non-essential, the Ford government is effectively saying that students and their wellbeing don’t matter.”

The organization revealed that the challenge was filed last Thursday and the Canadian Federation is hopeful this matter will be considered in time to prevent the full implementation of the policy before the fall semester begins.

Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber are united under the IGNITE student union, which is not part of CFS.

Ontario tying funding for schools to graduate jobs, income

Eli Ridder | Report

Funding for universities and colleges across Ontario will rely on metrics that include the employment rates and income of graduates, a move the Progressive Conservative Ontario government introduced in its 2019 budget and was further explained more fully on Thursday.

Recently, small portions of funding has been linked to performance of each post-secondary institution — specifically, 1.4 per cent for universities and 1.2 per cent for colleges — but those numbers will climb to 60 per cent apiece over half a decade.

Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton went into the details of the government’s plan in the legislature on Thursday, saying that campuses will be allowed to weigh the metrics on an individual administrative basis.

Fullerton detailed the metrics, saying they include graduation rate, graduate employment, graduate earnings, experiential learning, skills and competencies, community impacts and research and capacity.

“These metrics will encourage universities and colleges to take active steps to improve the outcomes they deliver for our students,” she said, explaining that it’s not meant to inspire competition between universities and colleges, but about “improving themselves” to deliver better results for students.

New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, who also leads the Official Opposition, said the government is going in the opposite direction to what’s needed, saying “other provinces are investing in education, adding that “this government is taking money away.”

Image of books from Pexels files.

Accessibility fees to be optional on some campuses

Eli Ridder | Report

Fees to support students with disabilities and accessibility issues will now be deemed optional on some campuses across Ontario, Global News exclusively reported on Thursday.

It marks a new development for what is known about the optional student fees coming into effect this fall. Previously, the government only revealed protections for health and dental funding.

In January, the provincial education minister Merrilee Fullerton announced the Student Choice Initiative, a new fee model which allows students to choose what they want to pay for and how that money will be allocated.

At the time, the government said fees for “essential” campus health and safety initiatives would continue to be mandatory, though they have yet to give specifics on the compulsory fees.

In an interview with Global News on Thursday, Fullerton said colleges and universities have been given “parameters” for essential student fees but did not explain why accessibility and disability services are not included.

Fullerton did not say whether the parameters she is talking about are different then the initial set of instructions post-secondary institutions received earlier this year. IGNITE and student unions across the province have been waiting on more details.

The Avro Post has reached out to Humber College, IGNITE, the University of Guelph Central Student Association and the province for any information confirming that these are new parameters with more specifics than previously known.

Margarita Bader, who sits on the Board of Directors as one of the Lakeshore Campus representatives, indicated that these were not a new set of details Fullerton is referring to.

Central Student Association Vice President Kayla Weiler, at the University of Guelph, told The Avro Post that she does not believe these are the new, more specific parameters expected from the provincial government ahead of the fall semester.

Image of Merrilee Fullterton from files.

Horse racing gets $10M from Ontario government

Eli Ridder | Report

The Ontario government on Thursday announced that $10 million a year will go towards horse racing industry programs that will support breeding and development so the community can create and protect employment.

The funding made via the Horse Improvement Program will be administered by Ontario Racing, replacing the previous “Enhanced Horse Improvement Program”, a statement from the government said.

“Our horse racing sector plays a vital role in our rural communities and is an important part of Ontario’s heritage. This investment will help support Ontario’s breeders and horsepeople, and ensure the province’s horse racing community is open for business, and can create and protect jobs,” said Finance Minister Vic Fedeli.

The spending comes as cuts are made across education, healthcare and welfare programs by the Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford.

The Avro Post has reached out for comment from Woodbine Racetrack, whose parent company is the largest operator of horseracing in the country and makes up over 10 per cent of jobs in the Rexdale area of Toronto, according to a city document in 2015.

Image of horse racing from Pexels files.

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