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Sweeping changes to post-secondary education will be felt locally: Student unions

'We run a democracy here, and I’m just surprised that the PC government wasn’t able to consult institutions and student union groups,' says student union president
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Local student union leaders are upset with the province’s plan to allow post-secondary students to ‘opt out’ of paying student fees that go toward funding student unions - just one of many changes buried in a government press release trumpeting a 10 per cent decrease in tuition costs.

Algoma University Students’ Union (AUSU) president Pauline Danquah is now left to wonder if their respective institutions will have a student union at all in the future.

“If students have the choice to opt out, then this means that we could potentially not have a student union in the long run, and then all these services that are beneficial to our students will not be there - and that’s going to seriously impact a lot of students,” Danquah said. “I feel like this is an attack on student unions' ability to service and represent their members.”

The ‘student choice initiative’ - which will allow post-secondary students to opt out of paying non-essential student fees - is just one of many changes announced Thursday by the province.

According to a press release from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), some of those changes will include a four per cent cut in institutional funding, a reduction in non-repayable grants - with an increase in student loans - and the elimination of the six-month grace period for loan repayment.

“The Doug Ford government has attempted to spin this announcement as a 10 per cent reduction in tuition fees when in reality Ford’s plan will increase out-of-pocket costs for students, diminish the quality of education students receive and undermine crucial student supports on campus,” said Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario in the CFS press release. “The reality of loans-based financial aid programs is that students from low-income families pay more for their education in the long-run. This announcement will make life harder for students and their families.”

Sault College Students’ Union president Jonathan Boyer-Nolan says that the ability to opt out of student union fees will ultimately stifle the work that’s being done at the college by the union.  

Both Danquah and Boyer-Nolan pointed out that student unions also sit on various boards and committees, and that a student voice is needed at the table during any discussions that could potentially impact the student body at large.

“We helped lobby for this 10 per cent decrease in tuition, but then we also are having the option of our fees selected to opt out of,” Boyer-Nolan told SooToday. “It didn’t feel too good as advocates for our students hearing this announcement.”

“They don’t have a student advocate to come to if the fees aren’t here to pay for us to do what we get to do,” he continued. “It’s a long trickle [down] effect that I don’t think the government really took into consideration.”

The reduction in tuition fees also means that it will now be up to postsecondary institutions in Ontario to deal with lost tuition revenue.

A 10 per cent tuition cut would take about $360 million away from universities and $80 million from colleges.

Sault College says that the 10 per cent decrease in tuition will impact the school’s bottom line by nearly $750,000.

“These cuts are difficult to manage given Ontario’s colleges currently have some of the lowest tuition fees in the country,” said HR and corporate communications director Rick Webb via email. “While three provinces have lower tuition fees their operating grants from their provincial government more than make up for that low tuition. When tuition and operating grants are combined, Ontario colleges get about $1,500 less per student than any other province.”

Boyer-Nolan says that he’ll be working with the College Student Alliance - an organization comprised of 12 student unions across Ontario - in order to fight the sweeping changes to post-secondary education.

“We were just very taken off guard by this, extremely disappointed, and we’ll be working with the College Student Alliance to lobby to have this changed,” Boyer-Nolan said.

Both student union presidents are surprised and shocked that no consultation took place prior to Thursday’s announcement.  

“We run a democracy here, and I’m just surprised that the PC government wasn’t able to consult institutions and student union groups,” Danquah said.

- with files from The Canadian Press

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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday based in Sault Ste. Marie
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