Brock students are going to be presented with a question in the upcoming school year that they hadn’t had nearly as much power to answer in the past: opt-in or opt-out?
With the recent changes made by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative government, the criteria for what is deemed an essential service or mandatory fee within university students’ tuition is being called into question. The responsibility is now on each individual student to decide what services they wish to fund.
Historically, students have paid into numerous services automatically at a per-credit rate, these are referred to formally as ancillary fees. Ancillary fees have been used towards covering funding for services on behalf of the university itself as well as Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU) and other programs. Given that it’s a provincial legislation, it also affects numerous other post-secondary institutions in the province. The official change in legislation released on the government’s website reads that “Ontario is introducing a plan to ensure non-tuition student fees are clearly communicated and give students choice regarding where their money is spent”. As a result of this, “institutions will be required to provide an online opt-out option for all non-essential non-tuition fees.”
The sticking point here is the “non-essential” tag. Those that will remain essential and in the category of automatic fees are services that contribute to the health and safety of students. “Essential campus initiatives include: walksafe programs, health and counselling, athletics and recreation and academic support,” the government’s outlined examples read.
However there is a fair amount of debate regarding the term “essential” in the initial fallout from this ruling. BUSU President Aidan Hibma is at the forefront of trying to navigate through these unprecedented circumstances.
“My initial reaction was it was very disconcerting. The reason it was disconcerting was because being on the inside looking out and understanding what type of impact student unions play not only to the health and vitality of the Brock community,” said Hibma. “It was also disconcerting because there wasn’t a lot of clear direction from the government and it left a lot of things open to interpretation.”
As for issues that were left up to interpretation, the most major one was clearly Brock’s U-Pass program that is in partnership with St. Catharines Transit Commission. The deal between the two entities is heavily relied upon on by both ends of the spectrum. Obviously, transit doesn’t fall under the criteria of an essential service that was outlined above, so Hibma and others were forced to make their voices heard.
“It’s the largest thing we administer here as a student union and that accounts for just over 30 per cent of the operating funds for St. Catharines Transit,” said Hibma. “So for us to not be able to have that guarantee when it was first announced, we knew that that would have a huge ripple effect into the community knowing that regional transit might not be able to continue if we don’t continue to invest our $4-4.7 million per annum.”
Ultimately, BUSU managed to secure an assurance that U-Pass would remain a mandatory fee.
“I’m happy to see that our lobbying efforts saw the change for transit. We had a joint letter from over 70 student union leaders, representing 1.5 million students across the country and then the very next day we saw the minister come out and say the U-Pass will be mandatory,” said Hibma.
While this was a relief, it was just the first step in a long road of work to be done in preparation for potentially major changes. As for how Brock will be further affected, there are numerous services that have historically received fees that are waiting in limbo. As for BUSU’s approach, Hibma outlined a few of the steps being taken by the union in preparation.
“The very first thing that we’ve done is continued to maintain strong relations with our senior administrative team and continued the dialogue with them,” he said. “The next thing is working with the administration to identify what ancillary fees, based off of the information we currently have, will and won’t be mandatory. So, what will the students be able to opt out of.”
This is the information everyone wants to know and yet, there is still a degree of uncertainty in how the process will occur.
“From our conversation with the senior administrative team, the first things we are unsure of is our BUSU fee. The reason we’re unsure of that is because within that $20.02 that students pay per credit, certain parts of that money go to different sectors of BUSU,” said Hibma.
“So we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to allow students to opt out of part of it, or all of it, or if we’re going to be able to say ‘if you don’t buy into the student BUSU fee, are you going to be able to stay opted into the other fees because, similar to Costco, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense if we offered great rates but didn’t charge to administer those great rates.”
Hibma outlined that the opt-out processes involved in the health and dental plans will remain the same. As it currently operates, if you can provide proof of equal or greater coverage you will be allowed to opt-out of Brock’s services.
As for the new opt-out options to come, Hibma detailed a few of the services that will be at risk of losing automatic funding.
“Whether I like it or whether my colleagues like it or not, the reality is it targets media based outlets and lobby based organizations,” said Hibma.
“We believe that the fees that students pay into our Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) fee, our federal advocacy fee, our BrockTV fee, the green levy, club levy, The Brock Press, daycare and first year student engagement levy; those are all going to be things students will be able to opt-out of,” he explained.
This is a similar case for many institutions across the province and some are meeting the government’s decisions with resistance. Members of the Canadian Federation Of Students-Ontario have already engaged in walkouts in protest. Because BUSU is apart of OUSA, they didn’t participate in these demonstrations, opting for a different approach with the seven other universities they are united with.
“They’ve really been our point group to work with. They are the ones who we’re taking our direction from with regards to strategies to help mitigate the situation,” said Hibma.
“We’re not opposed to walk-outs, it’s just that we’re aligning ourselves with our provincial lobby group to make sure that we’re all kind of following with the same steps. We’ve also been in contact with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, who’s our federal lobby organization, and they’ve issued a letter of support noting that this decision is untoward and it’s not something that even those on the national sphere can sit by and condone.”
As for what’s next, BUSU’s executives have began looking into the future in putting together a budget that is braced for the potential negatives.
“What Bilal [Khan] has been doing as our current Vice-President, Finance Administration (VPFA) in transition with Asad Jalib, who is coming in to serve as the VPFA is build a robust budget that is comprehensive of these facts. They’ll plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Hibma.
“It’s going to be about communicating value, I think, to make sure that incoming students, specifically the first-years, know before they’ve even had that experience with these services that it’s worth paying into. Whereas, there’s some upper year students that have been around the block, they probably have an understanding of which ones they think add value and which ones might not add the best value.”
In addition to the internal preparation taking place within the BUSU offices, the importance of the decision made by the incoming first-year class is at an all-time high. Forcing Hibma to prioritize education of each service that will have the potential to be opted-out of.
“We’re really going to start launching into communicating what we think will be able to be opted-out of and finding ways to showcase the excellence for those fees that might be in danger,” said Hibma. “And showcase the excellence and value that they’ve brought to the undergraduate community so that the students can not just think but actually put a tangible victory with what this fee goes towards.”
Hibma expressed the perfect example to be showcased in the value that these fees can have is once again with the transit agreement that they were able to lobby for, which is a credit to the OUSA fee.
“The only reason we were able to see transit become a mandatory fee for all students is because there were lobbying efforts, and I think a lot of students would agree that not only do we need transit but them understanding why we have transit secured will add value towards why we have that fee,” said Hibma.
“The other part is going to open house and being at the forefront of incoming Badgers and letting them know that this is who we are, this is what we provide and also working with all relevant stakeholders. We want to make sure that they’re [first years] equipped with the proper knowledge that are needed so that their first interaction with BUSU is a positive one and it’s not just ‘Oh, they throw O-Week’.”
This has become a difficult time for many parties involved as funding for programs and services that are ingrained in Brock’s culture is at stake. It’s frustrating, but Hibma and BUSU are attempting to take the situation in their stride and use it as a case study for provinces across the country.
“This isn’t acceptable not just in Ontario but for the rest of the country. Because I fear for not only us, being mindful stewards of the country, but also for our colleagues from coast-to-coast because we don’t want this to snowball into other provinces,” said Hibma.