Ford wants to restore the Student Choice Initiative during a pandemic. It’s a low blow.

Doug Ford and images of campus services

The Student Choice Initiative (SCI) had devastating consequences for students and student clubs when it was implemented in 2019. Bringing it back now—in the midst of a pandemic—will only harm students more.

Queen’s University is one of five universities intervening in the Ford administration’s appeal, scheduled for March 23-24, to bring back the SCI. Considering it failed to act against the initiative’s initial implementation in 2019, Queen’s acting now—no matter how small—is a positive thing.

The SCI was first initiated as a trial-run of sorts, aiming to save students money by allowing them to opt-out of student fees previously deemed mandatory. Yet this only served to negatively impact student clubs and organizations relying on those fees and to justify cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Queen’s University is intervening this time around on the grounds of university autonomy—a valid argument.

In the fall and winter terms of each year, the University holds a referendum where students vote to approve or reject student fees. Students vote to make certain fees mandatory; yet because of the SCI last year, these mandatory fees were made optional.

The SCI threatens the democracy of the referendum process by bypassing a vote and making decisions the government, frankly, has little jurisdiction over—all without the adequate input of a diverse range of students.

In the 2019-20 academic year, the consequences of the SCI were evident. At Queen’s, the SCI forced cuts to campus services and equity groups.

The Queen’s Work Study Program, which provides employment opportunities for low-income students, lost more than $30,000. The AMS food bank lost $6,000. The Queen’s legal aid clinic lost $22,000. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre, which receives about $21,000 in student fees every year, also lost its mandatory fee status.

Student organizations are a large part of the university experience and deserve to be recognized as such. Many of the organizations that lost funding last year didn’t just provide resources to under-privileged students, but gave students badly-needed support systems and experiences for future careers.

When the SCI was deemed unlawful in the fall of 2019, that should’ve been the end of it. The Ford government should have listened to the negative student feedback and cut its losses. Instead, his government ignored the damage and decided to appeal the decision. To do so in the middle of a pandemic when students are already struggling is particularly shameful.

The Ford government should be focusing on larger problems like vaccine distribution, for one.

Students made it very clear last year they didn’t want the SCI; if Ford was truly concerned about Ontarian students, he wouldn’t be trying to push his initiative on universities a second time.

Enough is enough. Students have been struggling the past two years. While many had hoped to make up for lost funds resulting from the SCI this year, the pandemic added financial strain to already-gutted student organizations. Now—but frankly, never—is not the time to bring back SCI: an initiative that, despite its name, underfunds the students and student experiences it claims to help.

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