SUs in Ontario have won a reprieve – for now

The Ontario Superior Court has struck down the Ford Government’s “Student Choice Initiative”.

The SCI is a program of voluntary student-unionism (VSU) that the state government imposed last January (see here for a refresher). The court decision is here. It’s a full defeat for the provincial government, the policy is declared void, but it’s unclear if and how student organizations will be compensated for lost revenue from the autumn term.

Victory is ours

A lot of people are arguing this is a victory for SUs and for the cause of student associations in Canada generally. It is certainly the former, but the latter is a lot less clear. My read of the ruling is that the court rebuked the provincial government for trying to do something by policy directive that it should have done through legislation, and that the government is free to have a second shot at this issue simply by passing a law with the same provisions.

It’s not certain they will do that – the Ford government is in a more touchy-feelie mode today than it was ten months ago, when a version of hyper assertive Conservatism was ascendant – but the option certainly seems to be there. The ruling does not accord some magical regulatory/legal exemption status to SUs, which is why smart student unions in Ontario (and Alberta and New Brunswick, where governments have also mused about voluntary student unionism) need to take the next couple of months to learn some lessons.

Learning the lessons

The first lesson that needs to be learned is: why did some students opt-out and others stay in? There is no rolled-up system wide data on this, but from a dozen or so press reports, it seems that system-wide only about 25% of students chose to opt-out of fees (it’s difficult to do averages, because within a single campus there might be quite different rates of opt-out for different services).

From the published report I’ve been able to dredge up online, most campuses seem to cluster around opt-out rates of 20-25%, which is miles better than what happened in Australia when VSU was introduced and rates of 80-90% opt-out were not uncommon.

But it’s by no means universal: at Ryerson University, for instance, the opt-out rate was more like 50%. Undoubtedly that has something to do with the massive financial scandal that occurred at the Ryerson Students’ Union last year, but if so, students were remarkably indiscriminate in their reaction (funds to help refugee students were down 50%, too).

Yes but why

So why were there different rates? Was it because some SUs ran better campaigns than others (I liked the ones at Brock and Western in particular)? Was it a commuter campus vs. residential campus thing (seems hard to square with low drop-out rates at places like Algonquin and Conestoga and high ones at Ryerson)?

Or did it have something to do with the way that universities themselves offered the opt-out choices to students? Universities and SUs didn’t always see eye-to-eye on how the process should unfold (there was a bit of a bunfight at Queen’s about this in the summer), and given the control institutions had over a process crucial to student unions’ survival, it’s surprising that public disputes didn’t happen more often.

We know very little about how the choice was put to students, but I was struck by the comments of a group of Guelph student leaders to the effect that they didn’t want to talk publicly about the SCI because “opt-in rates were better-than-expected because students were unaware of the initiative — and that any additional media coverage would lead to more people opting out”, which at the very least suggests that not all students thought the design of the opt-out was as front-and-centre as they might have been.

Confrontation

But understanding the opt-out decision is only part of the story; the other half is that student organizations received a very sharp message about what students actually think of them.

One of the salutary effects of the SCI was that many organizations – student media in particular – were suddenly confronted both with the need to court an audience and the need to work with leaner budgets. That’s not a bad thing, and post-SCI SUs might want to think about how they can incentivize campus organizations – including themselves – to maintain this focussed on being lean and responsive.

Because mark my words, this isn’t over yet. The genie is out of the bottle, and even if the Ford government does not attempt to re-introduce VSU, someone else is going to try the same thing and the Superior Court ruling lays out a pretty clear path for anyone who wishes to do so. In the long run, student unions are only going to win this fight by being representative, responsive and transparent.

What happened at Ryerson last year is not an entirely isolated example: significant financial scandals happen every year or two, and chicanery around election-time is far too wide-spread. Some kind of enforceable standards of good practice – possibly including accreditation – are almost certainly necessary going forward.

In short: SUs in Ontario have been given a reprieve, no more. It would be a shame to waste it.

A version of this article first appeared on Alex Usher’s excellent blog on Canadian higher education

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