Ontario Premier Doug Ford seems to have found yet another target for his education-related reforms: student unions. The Progressive Conservative (PC) government has already made a number of controversial changes to education in the province, such as reverting to the 1998 sex-ed curriculum, making changes to the Ontario Students Assistance Program (OSAP) that have been said to hurt post-secondary students, and demanding that universities implement “free speech policies” under threat of funding cuts.

To add to this ever-growing list, Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities Merrilee Fullerton announced last month that the rules surrounding student fees in the province will be changed, allowing for students to opt out of paying for certain services and organizations.

This change – which is being called the Student Choice Initiative – has been framed by the PC government as a way to increase the accountability of programs funded by student fees by allowing students to opt out of paying for organizations and services that they do not find useful.

Student groups across the country have raised concerns about what these changes will mean for life on campus. Voicing their concerns, over 75 student organizations representing upwards of a million students sent a letter to Queen’s Park which questioned the logic of the change. The group argues that allowing students to opt out of paying certain fees is comparable to allowing Ontarians to opt out of paying their taxes that contribute to police services or libraries.

One of the main concerns of the student groups is that the lack of predictable funding will force student unions to end programs and services and, in the process, be forced to lay off “thousands of students that work at on-campus businesses, undermining the protection and creation of jobs on campus.”

Writer and activist Nora Loreto predicts that this change will “severely weaken, if not kill student’s unions, clubs, associations, services, and campus media like radio or the campus press.”

After news broke of alleged mishandling of funds by the Ryerson Student Union, Ford took to Twitter to point out that this is the kind of behaviour that his government is seeking to eliminate, claiming to have “heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused. That’s why we are giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.”

However, in light of recent comments made by Ford, his administration’s motive for the changes to student fees have been called into question. In a fundraising email, Ford asked for donations and boasted about his government’s blow to student unions, saying that “students were forced into unions and forced to pay into those unions. I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So we fixed that. Student union fees are now opt-in.”

To many, this indicated that Ford’s primary concern was not increasing accountability or reducing costs for students, but rather an attack on his political opponents.

The move to partially defund student unions is similar to legislation in some States south of the border, which are known as “Right-to-Work” laws. This type of legislation allows for workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying their union dues. Critics of this legislation have pointed out that these laws are often employed to weaken unions, through reducing their funding by encouraging free-riders: workers who benefit from collective bargaining without paying.

It’s easy to see how this how this could play out on campuses. Which fees will remain mandatory is still unclear, so it is possible or even likely that these changes will allow students to opt out of paying fees while still benefiting from the services they fund.

Ford alludes to hearing from “so many students” who have urged him to take action on student fees. However, when Minister Fullerton was asked which students were consulted in planning these changes she was unable to name a single student or student organization that had been consulted.

Despite the apparent lack of consultation and minimal personal experience of campus life among the politicians responsible for the bill, the proposal appears not to have come out of thin air.

When the CBC acquired Premier Ford’s private itinerary via a freedom of information request, it was revealed that Ford had met with the University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. Peterson has grown a sizeable following based largely on conflicts on campus, presenting himself as an advocate of free speech as well as anti-marxism. Peterson often laments the influence of Marxism on university and college campuses. In a recent speech, he argued that conservatives should be unapologetic and that students need to “take over the student unions, you need to take them back, because they are absolute snake pits, and they have been since the 1990s.”

Although it is unlikely that the PC policy was literally designed by Peterson, it is not a stretch to say that he very well could have provided Ford with the ideological basis for his push against the so-called “Marxist nonsense” emanating from student unions.

Another source that Ford seems to have drawn on for his plan is the Students for Free Speech club at the University of Ottawa, whose Vice President Finance tweeted “As a matter of fact, it was my club (uOttawa for Free Speech) who suggested the policy allowing students to opt out of these corrupt student unions.”

The group met with Ford and Minister Fullerton when they participated in a provincial Free Speech Roundtable in August 2018 along with similar clubs from the University of Toronto and York University. Michael Bueckert, writer and PhD student at Carleton University, notes that the groups that met with Ford and Fullerton are  “issue-based, self-selecting, representing nobody but themselves,” whereas student unions “have elected leadership and represent their entire student bodies.”

Despite this change to student fees being framed publicly as a move to help students, it has garnered very little support from the student groups elected to represent their fellow students. Students do not seem to have been meaningfully consulted, and Ford’s motivations have been called into question.

The effect this change will have on campus life is yet to be seen, but student advocates are not optimistic.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image via Wikimedia Commons