An Ontario court has quashed the provincial government’s move to allow college and university students to opt out of some student fees.
The Student Choice Initiative, which was struck down in a Divisional Court ruling Thursday, sent shock waves through student councils in January when it was first announced because it posed a threat to the financial stability of dozens of organizations.
The policy allowed any student to withdraw funding for services or groups deemed non-essential, such as student unions, campus media, clubs or food banks. Other services, such as campus safety initiatives, academic supports and varsity sports were deemed essential and therefore exempt from the SCI.
The opt-out process at many schools was set to begin again over the next few weeks. It’s not clear whether that process will now come to a halt.
“We won. The court quashed the directive that compelled universities and colleges to give students the option of not paying fees,” said Steven Shrybman, lawyer for the Canadian Federation of Students. “It’s a big deal, and our clients are very pleased. The court found it was beyond the authority of the province to interfere in the relationship between the universities and the third parties, in this case student unions and the CFS.”
The office of Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The CFS, a national student body, and the York Federation of Students, brought an application in May for judicial review of the Ontario government policy.
In their court filing, the student groups argued that the government did not have the authority to interfere in the relationship between universities, which receive public funding but are independent of government, and their students. Funding arrangements that allowed universities to gather funds on behalf of student groups had in many cases been in place for years, and were voted on democratically through referendums.
The Ontario government argued in court that it had jurisdiction to impose the SCI because it was a “core policy decision” taken by cabinet, and that it also had a Crown prerogative to make spending decisions. The government’s position was that the SCI was part of a suite of policies, including a 10-per-cent cut to tuition fees, designed to make life more affordable for students. The court, however, was not persuaded.
The court found that requiring universities to allow students to opt out of some fees was “inconsistent with the universities’ autonomous governance.”
“A cabinet decree will not be lawful if it is inconsistent with the law, whatever merit or lack of merit there may be to the policy choice underlying the decree,” the court wrote.
For the past several months, student groups have waged campaigns urging students to maintain funding for campus services. Many groups, including the CFS, as well as campus newspapers and radio stations, lost thousands of dollars as students chose to opt out.
Student unions, in particular, felt they had been targeted by the measure because of their opposition to government policies. In a fundraising e-mail sent in February, Premier Doug Ford referred to the new policy by saying, “I think we all know what crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to.”
Felipe Nagata, Ontario chair of the CFS, hailed the court victory as a huge win for students.
“This is great,” Mr. Nagata said. “The Student Choice Initiative has been very detrimental for student life in Ontario.”