Between student loans and other expenses, the average Canadian student can expect to rack up nearly $20,000 in debt by the time they graduate. Which means after buying your fourth $150 “required” textbook this semester, opting out of your ancillary student fees—the money that goes towards student services—to save a few hundred dollars might seem like a tempting proposition.
Like buck-a-beer, Ontario premier Doug Ford’s education reforms seem to have the same consumer-focused, money-saving spin.
The reforms will see a decrease of 10 percent on University and College tuition fees. However, they also mean a lower threshold of family income to qualify for OSAP loans and the end of free tuition grants for low-income students as well as OSAP payback grace periods. They also introduce the option for students to opt-in to ancillary students fees used to pay for services not not dubbed “mandatory.”
“Students were forced into unions and forced to pay for those unions,” Ford said of ancillary fees which bankroll student associations in an email blast sent Monday titled “How broken was education?”
“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,” said Ford.
Student associations use the money gained through ancillary fees to provide health insurance, food banks, subsidized transit passes, orientation events, safe walk programs, on-campus press, and student job opportunities.
To oppose these changes by the Ford Government, 76 student associations, who collectively represent 1.3 million students, alongside the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), are now asking for a seat at the negotiating table in an effort to save as many mandatory ancillary fees a possible.
But are student associations just trying to save their own skin? And are they currently spending ancillary fees in a way that actually helps students? Are fees and the associations themselves worth it?
Because when you see how some student associations, like Ryerson Students’ Union, are spending your money, it becomes pretty tempting to say, “fuck those crazy Marxist student associations” and save a few hundred dollars in fees every semester.
(In fact, the RSU was not one of the 76 associations asked to sign the letter to the Ford Government, because of its untrustworthy reputation.)
However, Ontario’s other student associations are dead set on convincing the public of the value of paying student fees.
“When people ask, ‘is the student fee worth it?’ I can proudly say, with one service alone, it’s worth it for 70 percent of our students,” Steve Kosh, Executive Director of Niagara College’s Student Administrative Council, told VICE.
Kosh is referring to the discounted transit pass offered through the SAC at Niagara College. The pass is an ancillary fee of $140 a semester. However, it’s a bargain compared to the $80 a student would pay every 30 days for an adult Niagara transit pass. Which means without a student association subsidizing the cost, transit alone would cost a Niagara student about $640 in an academic year. An estimated 70 percent of Niagara’s students arrive to school via transit.
According to data provided to VICE by OUSA (who crunched some publically available numbers of what subsidized transit passes cost versus the full-price ones), Ontario’s commuter students currently collectively save almost $300-million on that particular expense. Those savings are now at risk thanks to the Student Choice Initiative.
That number means a guaranteed $95-million to transit authorities is also at risk. Which may be why, with transit passes, student associations seem to have scored their first victory with the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Dr. Merrilee Fullerton.
“After hearing from stakeholders, it is clear that transit passes need to be considered mandatory under our Student Choice Initiative. Ontario students need to have safe access to campus, work, and home” Dr. Fullerton wrote on Twitter. “I believe all students should have ready access to college and university campuses. Existing mandatory transit passes will remain so under our Student Choice Initiative. Safety of Ontario students is paramount.”
While transit might be safe, Kosh feels that other third-party services such as health care would be amongst the first to be cut under rapidly shrinking student association budgets.
“You’ll start to see health plans go as well,” said Kosh. “Our health plan is $229 for 12 months of service—go get your teeth cleaned twice and it pays for itself. Not to mention birth-control, mental health services and medications.”
According to Kosh, of Niagara’s roughly 7,200 domestic students, around 6,400 are still opted into the health plan as they are unable to show proof of alternate coverage. Last year, the plan covered $948,148 in student claims.
According to The University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, leaked documents from the Conservative party would still dub health and dental plans as mandatory. The documents also outline other services deemed “essential” such as athletics and walk safe programs.
However, Kosh notes that any reduction in income to student associations would directly impact their ability to operate those “essential services” efficiently.
“They’ve said they want to save “walk safe,” said Kosh. “They don’t understand that it’s the student union on campus that typically operates walk safe. They said they want to save gym memberships and health and dental, well that’s us who facilitate that. A reduction in budgets takes away the ability for us to operate and facilitate those services.”
Beyond offering competitive prices through collective bargaining, student associations are often able to offer unique perks when it comes to student health care.
“We have an on-the-spot pharmacy that we run, so students don’t have to leave the school to pick up any medication that they might need,” Brittany Greig, Vice President of External at Conestoga Students Incorporated, told VICE. “We offer our [health and dental] plan to international students as well, not just our domestic students.”
That’s a big deal. As an international student, you are not eligible for provincial health coverage through OHIP. Which means student associations provide an affordable option where the government can’t.
“I grew up in a pretty conservative Indian household, so you don’t do your own things. Your dad does it all for you,” Tanvi Swar, a former international student at York University, told VICE. “I never had a job, or my own insurance, and I hadn’t really thought about what would happen if I had to go to the doctor.”
Unable to access OHIP, Swar recalls suffering through illnesses early on at school, until another international student tipped her off that she had already paid for medical care through her ancillary fees.
“Since [school] I’ve had to pay for very expensive medication,” said Swar. “I don’t know how I would have ever done that as a student.”
Mental health initiatives have also grown under the stewardship of student associations. Last month, Western University announced an $800,000 investment in mental health support, which is funded by a $12 increase in students' ancillary fees. Netflix, for comparison, now costs at least $120 a year.
Outside of essential services, student associations also provide job opportunities for students.
Before co-founding Student Life Network as a way to provide more resources to students, Stephen Sills used his position as Creative Director at Sheridan Student Union to create portfolio-building job opportunities for undergrads.
“One of the hardest things for a student struggling to pay tuition is juggling 20-30 hours of class, 15 hours of homework, and working a 15-20 hour part-time job on top of that,” Sills told VICE.
“Right now, student associations are one of the largest providers of student jobs on campus and are extremely accommodating to student's course schedules. So, a student can commute to school, go to class, and then work in between or after class and not have to leave campus,” said Sills
“That’s something I think is super important. Especially when you’re trying to gain work experience while in school and also figure out how to subsidize the cost of tuition.”
If your parents buy your gas, groceries, and still have you covered under their health insurance, you may still be tempted to write a lot of this off. But for low-income students, student associations can provide a much needed support system.
For a full list of services that will be impacted by the Student Choice Initiative, you can read the OUSA’s Open Letter to the Deputy Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities here.
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