An Ontario court has dismissed the Ford government’s appeal of a ruling that it could not impose a funding cut for student unions and other post-secondary services, with the judge saying the effort was “a profound interference in university autonomy.”
The plan, which the government dubbed the Student Choice Initiative, was introduced by the Progressive Conservatives in 2019 along with an unfunded 10 per cent reduction in tuition fees. It required colleges and universities to allow students to opt out of paying for certain services deemed “non-essential.”
Essential campus services include athletics, career services, student buildings, health and counselling, academic support, student ID cards, student records, financial aid offices, and campus safety programs.
The move sparked concern over the financial viability of student clubs, newspapers and other aspects of campus life that the auxiliary fees fund, and student unions, food banks and support centres had to lay off staff or reduce services when the provisions cut into their budgets.
Premier Doug Ford had said in a fundraising email at the time that his government cut the funding to stamp out “Marxist nonsense” from student unions.
“Today's ruling reflects what students have been saying across the province — the Ford government's assault on democratic processes and student unions is not only unnecessary, but unlawful,” said Kayla Weiler, a national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario.
The federation, which initially took the government to court over the plan, said it was never about saving students money.
“It was an attempt to silence and defund students' unions and groups that are critical of and hold the government accountable while providing support for students' well-being on and off campus,” it said.
Justice Grant Huscroft wrote in the decision that while he disagreed with the Divisional Court’s view that the policy was an exercise of prerogative power, he agreed with the conclusion it reached.
“The Divisional Court made no error in concluding that the framework constitutes an incursion into university autonomy by interfering with the funding of student associations,” the court ruling said.
“The ancillary fees framework conflicts with the legislation governing Ontario’s colleges and universities and cannot be imposed upon them by the exercise of executive authority,” he wrote, adding that for the framework to be established it would require amendments to the provincial acts governing universities and colleges.
The government is reviewing the decision, a spokesperson for Jill Dunlop, the minister for colleges and universities, said in a statement.
“The government remains committed to increasing transparency for all post-secondary students and their families who make tremendous personal and financial sacrifices to attend post-secondary institutions,” the statement said.
The opposition NDP said the Ford government should not try to challenge the latest ruling by taking the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Instead of continuing to fight students in the courtroom and wasting taxpayer dollars that could be better used helping students, Ford must obey the court ruling and eliminate the Student Choice Initiative immediately,” said Laura Mae Lindo, the NDP’s critic for colleges and universities.
Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer