OSAP and The Student Choice Initiative—The Dialog Podcast: Episode 13

“The one reservation I have about the Student Choice Initiative is that student newspapers and media are not considered essential,” – Matthew Campbell, U of T Campus Conservative president

On this episode, we try to get different perspectives on the new OSAP policy by Premier Ford. Jasmyn St. Hilaire, SA director of communications and internal, explains what the Student Association expectations are for the next year.  Marco La Grotta, from the Socialist Fightback club, and Matthew Campbell, president of University of Toronto (U of T) Campus Conservatives, give their points of views around the new rules.

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Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Hello and welcome to The Dialog Podcast. My name is Luiz Felipe Lamussi, trying to understand what the heck is happening and your host for this season.

And today we are going deeper on these new rules brought by Premier Ford around OSAP and the Student Choice Initiative. So you might have heard that your tuition will be 10% cheaper next year and that you will be able to opt or not to pay some ancillary fees. But besides this beautiful voice that you are hearing now, do you know what else these fees pay for?

In the GBC ecosystem, they fund programs as the Safewalk program, an emergency food bank, athletics and athletics facilities, and even the WIFI through all the campus. The Dialog is also funded by Student Association fees.

The government didn’t give us major details on how this process is going to be, so to dive into this issue I talked with different groups that might be affected by these changes. Marco La Grotta member of the Socialist Fightback club at George Brown College and Matthew Campbell, U of T Campus Conservatives president brought their contrasting points of view.

Also, since the Student Association of George Brown College (SA) is funded by one of the ancillary fees, the reporter-editor Ladshia Jeyakanthan and I talked with Jasmyn St. Hilaire, SA director of communication and internal, to understand their perspective on this issue.

Lamussi: Okay so today I’m here with Jasmyn St. Hilaire, the director of communications and internal for the Student Association. Today we are talking about this new policy that Premier Ford brought in about the opt-out and Students Choice Initiative. However, the main thing I think I can start by asking is: what are ancillary fees? And how they are important for the Student’s Association here at George Brown College?

Jasmyn St. Hilaire: Thanks for having me. Ancillary fees are fees that students pay that are separate from their actual tuition. So, for the SA, there is a certain number that each semester students pay. The total right now is $110.61. This is just the SA fees that don’t include our CFS fees as well as our health plan fee.

Lamussi: And now with this Student Choice Initiative, how SA is going to budget for next year?

St. Hilaire: So right now the SA is currently looking at our services, budget and how we can plan. However, the problem is we really don’t know because there is a lot of uncertainty happening about even what is been deemed as mandatory versus non-mandatory. Right now our main goal is making sure that all of the services that we provide stay the same and that we can still hire the same amount of students. Let me just explain that the SA of George Brown College hires every year about 100 to 150 part-time staff, which are college students here at GBC.

So our goal is to make sure that we are still being able to give that to our student as well as have all of our services. So, it will be trying to figure it out how we can do that under the new laws.

Ladshia Jeyakanthan: What has the college said so far about optional ancillary fees?

St. Hilaire: So, the executive team had the opportunity last week to sit down with the college, but because we don’t have the guidelines yet set by the government, there so a lot of things we still don’t know. So we are just trying to plan the best we can and once we know the rest of the information, we will be able to sit down again with the college and hopefully come up with a plan of how to move forward.

Lamussi: What would you say to a student that is going to start school next semester?

St. Hilaire:  The SA wants to make sure that students know what are the services and experiences that we provide them. On the student end, when you are trying to choose your college and you decide on George Brown, look at what the SA offers, see what great work we do and take it from there.

Jeyakanthan: If these changes were to happen, what would that mean to the student voice on campus?

St. Hilaire: The student voice would be extremely diminished. I think the big part of that question is to remember that the SA is trying really hard to make sure that we can keep our services moving the best way we can under any circumstances. As well, we are trying really hard to make sure we are working closely with the college. But again, we are still waiting on certain pieces to fall into place in order for us to do that. Our hope is that we still be able to provide all the services that we do now, in the future.

Jeyakanthan: The Student Association signed a letter to Premier Ford as a part of the 75 colleges and universities to express their concerns on the Student Choice Initiative that is planned to be implemented. Why did the SA decide to sign this open letter to Premier Ford?

St. Hilaire: We thought that it was really important to be a part of this so that Ford could hear our voice. So, instead of every school sending an individual letter, it was important that we came together collectively and let Ford know how we feel about this news changes. Our letter is basically asking to sit with him because how do you make new laws without speaking to the people whom it affects?

George Brown College’s Students Association is a part of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, which handles a bunch of schools all over Ontario and their student unions. And nobody from that office was contacted.

So, really what we want is to be able to seat and have a conversation because we are the folks that it affects the most. We are here advocating for all of our students and we trying to do that to the best of our abilities, so it is so important that he actually sees the work on the ground that we do.

Lamussi: Now the talk takes a curve to the left and Marco La Grotta, a member at the Socialist Fightback group bring his ideas and whom he thinks these changes are affecting the most.

Lamussi: Hi Marco, thank for coming today to talk about this new law brought by Premier Ford. So, what do you think about the new changes?

Marco La Grotta: I have to say I’m totally against the changes. Essentially what is happening is that he is removing the grants which previously provided students from families earning less than $50,000 a year.  

Essentially, it was kind of free tuition, but of course, it wasn’t entirely free. I have my criticism as well on the Liberal government administration. Even then students had to pay for textbooks and living expenses. But in that reality, their tuition was mostly covered.

However now that’s been taken away and as opposed to being totally covered in the past, now it’s going to be made up of grants and loans. This will effectively and dramatically increase the cost of education primary for lower-income students. And for a lot of these students, many of them are already struggling with debt. And on top of that, you have the removal of the six-month interest-free period.

Lamussi: Yes, the grace period.

La Grotta: Yes, and now you will be required to pay interest in your loans as soon as they graduate. And on top of that, Ford also made a deliberate political attack against his enemies on campus with what he calls the Students Choice Initiative. It’s kind of one of the more nefarious measures of this recent legislation. So this initiative makes it optional the payment of certain fees that students pay. But actually, what is interesting, is that many of these fees will remain mandatory. So fees for walk safe programs, athletic facilities.

Lamussi: The food bank.

La Grotta: Yes. Which only leaves student union fees. So in my mind, this is not coincidental but quite deliberative. What he is trying to do is effectively undermine funding for the student unions, which is essentially the certain point of the opposition to Ford on campus. 

Now what Ford did was started by introducing the 10 per cent tuition reduction. And of course, everyone was really excited but also, people were holding their breath because they knew there was more to it. Cuts would be made somewhere else and of course, that was later shown to be the case.

Effectively, he is trying to dupe people into believing that the tuition costs are going down, when in reality the lowest earning students, in fact, are going end up paying a lot more even with the 10 per cent cut. Really, the only people that benefit from this new tuition reduction are the highest earning students, who really didn’t need it.

Marco La Grotta, Socialist Fightback Club at George Brown College. Photo: Luiz Felipe Lamussi / The Dialog

Lamussi: And how do you think this process is being conducted by the government?

La Grotta: I think it’s been conducted horribly, to be honest, but then at the time I’m not surprised. Student unions weren’t consulted, university students weren’t consulted. And just as soon as this announcement was made, you saw a widespread opposition all across the province. You saw protest bigger than I’ve seen in years at least in Toronto. Like just a few weeks ago we saw a protest of a few thousand people at Queen’s Park.

Overwhelmingly students are opposed to it. I saw a poll just the other day saying that around 70 per cent of students of George Brown College, actually were using the previous grant which provided free tuition. So you can be sure that a lot of those students are dead set against these changes been made by the Ford government. And across the province is something like 40 per cent of students.

Lamussi: So, what do you think students should do now?

La Grotta: We need a plan and what we have been calling for is an Ontario-wide student strike.

Lamussi: And are you seeing this now or the Socialist Fightback is being part of any of those striking movements?

La Grotta: What is happening is at the recent general meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students, which is, of course, the national student union that represents most post-secondary students in the country. I think they were filling the pressure from students. So what happened is that they passed a resolution to create a plan for a student strike.

They’ve said that they will develop a report studying lessons from the Quebec students strike and delivery the report in April so we can develop a plan for a strike action sometime around August. But it hasn’t been made concrete and what we say is that we cannot wait because the anger can build up within a few weeks.

For example, we saw the protest just a few weeks ago at Queen’s Park which had between one and two thousand students. We had a petition with hundreds of signatures. Almost every single student we spoke too, said that we need a general student strike. It’s clear that students are ready to fight and get organized.

But then, of course, there is a question of leadership because up until now, no concrete plan have been developed. And if you leave this until August to officially call for a strike…

Lamussi: It will cool down.

La Grotta: Yes, and all that momentum can dissipate. But here’s what we need to do in order to be successful. We need action immediately, we need mass general assemblies to involve students in the discussion and involve them into the debate, so we can build towards a strike as successful as we had in Quebec. But that action needs to start now, otherwise, the momentum can be lost.

Lamussi: Matthew Campbell, U of T Campus Conservative president says that he agrees with Ford’s new policies and that he personally doesn’t believe that there will be any student strike soon.

Lamussi: Hi Matthew, thanks again for coming today. It’s good to have the Campus Conservatives’ perspective around this issue. So what do you think about the changes Premier Ford is proposing?

Matthew Campbell: We support it. The Students’ Choice Initiative is basically that students get to choose which fees they give as part of the non-tuition payment. For example, at you U of T this year I had to pay $8,200. $6,800 of that was off for tuition. The rest was extra stuff. The gym was about $200, academic counselling was 90 bucks and maybe there is another $100 for campus health. The rest of all of that was extra stuff that student union put on.

Lamussi: Why do you think the government is doing these changes?

Campbell: Because students should decide if they want to pay additional fees for services. So, if you go to school, you have to pay tuition. But if you go to school you shouldn’t be forced to pay for the expansion of the student union lounge or something like that. So this just gives people the option to not have to pay for it. 

If you are going to school, you shouldn’t be forced to pay for Student Associations. If you want to join one and pay a fee, then that’s your decision, but it shouldn’t be part of the mandatory student fee. So what the government is doing is increasing the number of options that students are allowed to opt-out of. If anything it democratizes the tuition payment.

The one reservation I have about the Student Choice Initiative is that student newspapers and media are not considered essential. Especially in the context of the whole Ryerson investigation going down. More reporting and more journalism, if it is factual and it is trying to find the truth, that’s important. So I think that student journalism probably should be one of the mandatory clubs that is not optional.

Lamussi: It is interesting that you bring these ideas because we are paying these fees because of a referendum that happened 20, 30 years ago. That referendum made mandatory all those fees. So, 30 years ago students discussed it. Shouldn’t be good for us to update this referendum rather than just…

Campbell: Well, one could argue that there was a referendum last year. It was the Ontario election. So, in all of the schools in Ontario, the majority of our tuition is subsidized by the Ontario taxpayers. So, when the Ontario election happened, they elected Doug Ford and he said that said, “I’m going to let students who are paying tuition to decide what they want to pay for and what they don’t want to pay for.”

So, if you are asking if this is undemocratic or is the government just forcing on students, I would say that’s pretty democratic.

Lamussi: I’m not saying is anti-democratic. It’s interesting you bring the point that the referendum was the election, but since we are talking about the students in the election we talk about everything. When you are talking about student life shouldn’t we talk with the students before? And I’m not saying there shouldn’t be changes, but shouldn’t we talk with them first?

Campbell: Are student’s over 18? They have the right to vote in the elections. What more direct consultation can you have? You are over 18, you live in Ontario and go to school in Ontario, vote.

Matthew Campbell, University of Toronto Campus Conservatives president .Photo: Luiz Felipe Lamussi / The Dialog

Lamussi: Some protests happened last week, what’s your opinion on that?

Campbell: I saw that at Queen’s Park and here is what I will say. I saw the protest, the banners, a lot of them are not student groups. There was CUPE, the United Steelworkers union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, OPSEU, there was UNIFOR, the Autoworkers union. The NDP showed up. I didn’t see the protest as a grassroots movement.

Those were not students who took the day off class and show up at Queen’s Park to protest. Those were union members of which it might include a few students, but a majority of them were adult union members, people who have a political interests either in unions or the NDP.

Communist groups showed up. The socialist club was there, there was a guy with either a Che Guevara or hammer and sickle Soviet Union flag.  It was very, very political. This wasn’t a single issue grassroots movement and it wasn’t reflective of the student bodies at Toronto schools. It was the same professional people that always show up for this sort of things. I didn’t see as truly representative of students in Toronto.

Lamussi: Of course we can’t predict the future but what if the student body moved forward to protest on the street?

Campbell: What it was the one in Quebec a couple years ago? The maple surge or whatever it was? That will not happen in Ontario. I don’t think that will happen.

Lamussi: Why?

Campbell: Because when it happened in Quebec it was a Liberal government and they had been in office for a very long time, they didn’t have a lot of public support. Doug Ford and the PCs just won an overwhelming landslide election, it’s a majority government, and they have massive popular support across the province of Ontario. If students would have a massive grassroots democratic protest movement to unseat Doug Ford, it will happen at the election in four years. It won’t happen between now and then. That’s what I think.

Lamussi: Thanks so much for coming.

Campbell: Yeah, no problem man.

Lamussi: And that’s all for today, folks! Three great talks that helped us to understand what is going to happen next year. Of course we need to wait for the government’s final guidelines, however, now we know what is happening, what we should expect and what the students are thinking.

If you have something to say about these new policies, e-mail me at podcast@dialognews.ca. And please don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast at the iTunes app or any other podcast app that you use. That’s all for today, see you next time, bye!

 

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OSAP and The Student Choice Initiative—The Dialog Podcast: Episode 13