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Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford continued his reforms of the province’s colleges and universities.
The big news came first. We learned about a cut to tuition and the elimination of free tuition for in-need students.
After the cloud of that bomb cleared, we heard the other shocking news: Ford would soon allow students to opt out of paying the fees that fund student groups. These locked-in fees can cost up to $2,000 per year and fund everything from student-run newspapers and unions to clubs and athletics. In other words, most of the activities that constitute student culture.
The rationale for the cut was presented as a matter of economics and choice. It is wrong, said Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton, to “force students to pay for services they do not use and organizations they do not support.”
It’s true that not all students use the services they pay for. And no doubt, every student can find a student organization that they both fund and dislike.
But the current system of locked-in fees benefits more students than it hurts.
Indeed, if students choose, en masse, to opt out of funding student organizations, they should expect fewer opportunities on campus to gain valuable experiences in life and work. Newspapers will shrink and some will fold. Many campus pubs, subsidized by fees paid to unions, will close. And all the little groups that give students their first chances – first chance to lead a group, to run for office, to write a budget – will lose what little funding they have.
Some savvy groups will survive the change by marketing themselves more forcefully, charging higher membership dues and crowdfunding in the student body to make up the difference.
This is what the Conservative government hopes will happen. It’s market logic. Clubs that can’t survive on the open market shouldn’t exist.
But this logic is flawed.
Student clubs aren’t like businesses selling services on a market. They’re more like classrooms. To receive funding, student groups must organize themselves, hold elections and budget their activities – skills many students only learn through extracurriculars.
And because these student groups are more like classrooms than businesses, every freshman class usually ends up relearning the same lessons. The fees students pay subsidize this learning – learning that’s open to all students, but only if they pool their resources and fund the student ecosystem.
Three other concerns with the government’s move need mentioning.
The first has to do with the government’s heavy-handedness. Ford’s decision was classic Big Government interference. It was unnecessary. Democratic measures exist to add or remove funding from student enterprises. All a disenfranchised student needs to do is speak up, run for student government and remove funding, either by veto or referendum. It’s complicated but democratic, and a far better lesson in civic action than the consumer-first mentality fostered by the government’s intervention.
The second concern relates to how students will reorganize themselves. We will probably see activists form blocks and then use their opt-in funding privilege to control the direction of student groups. The loudest, most aggressive blocks on campus will become louder and more aggressive, and the average student will have yet another reason to tune out of student life.
A third risk involves the independence of student groups. Impoverished student groups might be tempted to take money from university administrators. This would undermine student action, since administrators don’t always prioritize student interests.
Or worse: Student groups might accept funds from non-campus actors. Imagine public sector unions, or anti-abortion groups or foreign governments – or whoever you dislike – funding student life on campuses. It’s a very different scenario than the more or less neutral fundraising that exists with mandatory fees.
Conservatives understand well how easily governments can mess up something that works.
With the government’s intervention into student life, we’ve all been schooled on that lesson again.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price lectures at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
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