Student Choice Initiative promotes student interests, freedom of choice

Recent education reform a victory for students

Ben Gelman argues the new opt out framework will ensure more accountability from student-governments.
While many welcomed the Ford government’s recent decision to cut tuition costs for all students by 10 per cent, the proposed Student Choice Initiative (SCI) ruffled more than a few feathers.
In an effort to give students more freedom when they spend their money, the SCI will slash a majority of most mandatory student fees. Universities and colleges will now transition to an “opt-out” framework, where students can choose which organizations they associate with and fund.  
As it stands, the SCI provides students more freedom to choose where their money is spent and whether they can afford to give it. The policy also holds student governments more accountable—without an automatic transaction from students, money that’s sometimes taken advantage of by student governments will be more scrutinized.  
While lowering the cost of tuition was well received by some, the proposed SCI was met by protest from various student groups and organizations across the province—most prominently, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), who’s the chief beneficiary of mandatory student fees. 
Currently, the CFS represents over 350,000 Ontario college and university students from 37 different student associations, collecting membership fees from each of them. When students pay tuition, they’re additionally charged fees to support student unions, campus services, or even completely unaffiliated organizations under the CFS. 
Some schools such as Queen’s already allow their students to opt-out of certain fees. However, many students aren’t even aware of this option, and few end up opting-out of fees they don’t want—or can’t afford—to pay. 
As a first-year student, I paid $692.78 in mandatory fees for services and organizations this year.  
For many, that could go towards paying a month’s worth of rent. Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Merrilee Fullerton, clarified that certain non-academic programs—such as health, safety, and athletic service—would remain mandatory under the SCI. This means the money students devote to on-campus services would go towards things they actually use, and with a more affordable cost.  
Besides affordability, the lack of individual choice—as well as the corruption in certain student governments that student fees fund—has been a source of ire for students for decades. 
The expense scandal at the Ryerson Students’ Union is the latest example. As The Eyeopener first reported, Ryerson’s student government executives allegedly spent more than $250,000 on night clubs, casinos, and the LCBO, among others. They’ve been unable to explain why they used student fees for their extravagant expenses.  
Until the SCI was proposed, the only real accountability measure for irresponsible student unions was university administrations, who can refuse to transfer revenue from mandatory fees over to student associations.  This recently happened at the University of Ottawa, where the president of their student government was alleged to have embezzled $20,000
It’s unfair Ontario students are forced to fund advocacy campaigns which they fundamentally disagree with.
CFS appeals to a small segment of the student population, yet they collect fees from all of them. 
York University, with its undergraduate population numbering approximately 50,000, hasn’t succeeded in engaging even a fifth of students in elections in recent memory. In any other context, a turnout like that would signal a significant problem with an institution’s structure, further causing disengagement in the university’s student-led democratic process.
The most outrageous response from student protests regarding recent educational reform is the charge that Premier Ford’s motive is to undermine democracy in student organizations, such as the CFS, who oppose his policies. 
However, given the aforementioned Ryerson and UOttawa student government scandals, it seems democracy in student unions is hard to find. 
The Ontario government’s restructuring of the student fee framework will hopefully mean greater accountability for student groups. The CFS and corrupt student politicians may not like it, but this move is the necessary answer to the wrongdoings at universities like Ryerson and the UOttawa.
Minister Fullerton’s goal with this policy is to protect the financial interests of students from corruption and abuse—and signaling that their behavior is unacceptable. 
Under the SCI, students won’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for a student radio station they don’t listen to, services they don’t use, advocacy campaigns they oppose, or student leaders embezzling money to line their pockets. If this policy moves us closer to realizing those goals, the SCI will be a victory for both students and free choice.
Ben Gelman is a first-year general arts student.

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