Editorial: Striking down of Student Choice Initiative a spark of hope for Albertan students

As student life gets tougher, we at least can take comfort in knowing that optional student fees are unlikely to appear here in Alberta

I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that Ontario’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) was struck down in provisional court earlier this month. 

The Student Choice Initiative was a mandate from the Ford government that made so that all “incidental” postsecondary fees — ones considered to be going towards non-essential services — required an opt-out option, even if the fee had previously been mandatory. While each postsecondary institution got to decide what made a service “essential,” the government deemed certain services, including athletics and recreation, career services, health and counselling, academic support, and more, as essential. Not included in that list were fees going towards student unions and services organized underneath them, which often include campus radio, student media, campus food banks, student legal services, and campus safety services. 

Many groups and services lost substantial chunks of their budgets at the hands of the Student Choice Initiative — at the University of Toronto, many groups saw opt-out rates of around 25 per cent, while at the University of Ottawa, opt-out numbers fluctuated between 20 and 30 per cent. And while it’s nice to see that the courts have ruled on the sides of these organizations, the battle is not over yet. Nothing is stopping the provincial government from appealing the decision, and even if they don’t, student organizations who previously had mandatory fees will need to lobby their postsecondary institutions to get that status reinstated. Besides, with the amount of money that student organizations have lost, the damage has already been done. 

So how does something that happened in Ontario have any relevance to students at the U of A?

The answer is that Alberta’s UCP has a very similar directive in their policy book. While the UCP did not run in the 2019 provincial election with this directive on their platform, and Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides told The Gateway that implementing such a directive is not on his list of priorities, the fact that the policy even exists in the UCP’s books at all is nerve-wracking for those who watched the chaos unfold in Ontario.

As I’ve written before, our own Students’ Union, while flawed, is still an essential service we should continue paying into. Beyond providing their own set of services and handling student advocacy towards government, the SU also handles the collecting and distributing fees for dedicated fee units (DFUs). Many of these services are safety-net services like the Campus Food Bank and Student Legal Services, which help students who are hit by dire financial and social crises that end up costing way more than the $99.48 a semester students pay to the SU in fees.

It is better to keep these services alive and well instead of crippling them out of a short-sighted desire to save some money over a single semester. While the student living experience is about to become grimmer next year — with the likely passing of Bill 21, which will end the tuition freeze and allow for up to seven per cent increases to tuition — these services are meant to provide for students who are struggling. Students should not, out of short-term financial fear, cripple services that might end up serving them or their fellow students someday soon. 

Cases for other paid services, like student media, should also be considered. In the case of the U of A, outlets like The Gateway are one of the few places where students can get a reliable, accurate, and balanced source of information about what’s happening on campus. In a time where student money means more than ever, knowing what the government and university want to do with student money is essential. 

With the SCI in Ontario, we were given an unfortunate case study in how optional student fee policies work in reality. With the striking-down of the SCI, there is precedent to keep these services essential and keep these safety nets firmly in place during a time when we need them most. But despite this, I, as a student and a member of a levy-funded organization, am still nervous as to what the future holds for student unions and campus services in Alberta. Hopefully, the UCP will finally quit introducing cuts and policies that are rightfully pissing off Albertans, but given Kenney’s response to the backlash, I doubt that will come soon. It would not shock me if the UCP were to blindside us and follow through with an SCI-like mandate despite legal precedent. But only time will tell. 

If anything, the striking-down of the SCI is a spark of hope for student life in Alberta. For the livelihood of students, I hope that it does not get snuffed out.

Andrew McWhinney

Andrew McWhinney is a fifth-year English and political science combined honors student, as well as The Gateway's 2019-20 Editor-in-Chief. He was previously The Gateway's 2018-19 Opinion Editor. An aspiring journalist with too many opinions, he's a big fan of political theory, hip-hop, and being alive.

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