University Students Deserve Freedom of Choice

October 7, 2019 Updated: October 8, 2019

When students go to university, they make a lot of important decisions, such as choosing which university to attend and which program to enrol in. Within most programs, students have a wide variety of courses to choose from. Students are also free to decide what extracurricular activities they wish to pursue and which, if any, student groups they will join.

It makes sense for students to have this freedom. After all, they are adults and deserve to be treated as adults. Not only are they paying hefty tuition fees, their decisions play a huge role in their career path. The last thing students need is to have their lives micromanaged by other students, university administrators, or helicopter parents.

And yet, most universities force students to fund organizations they may not support and pay for services they do not need nor want. That’s because students typically pay compulsory fees on top of their tuition and the money goes to many other things—from student newspapers to advocacy groups to union leader salaries. For example, a full-time arts student at the University of British Columbia can expect to pay, on top of tuition, over $1,000 in compulsory fees. That’s a lot of money for a university student.

Fortunately, things are different in Ontario. Starting this fall, the Ontario government is requiring all universities to clearly specify which fees are essential and which are non-essential. According to provincial guidelines, essential fees include things like health insurance, counselling services, campus safety programs, and financial aid offices. In contrast, student unions, newspapers, radio stations, and other student groups are non-essential.

While Ontario universities must allow students to opt out of non-essential fees, the province has given them the ability to decide how to do this. Some universities, such as Laurentian, operate on an opt-in basis where students select at the outset which fees they wish to pay. But most Ontario universities include the extra student fees at the outset and require students to opt-out if they do not wish to pay them. Either way, Ontario students pay fewer fees, and some student groups aren’t happy with the new system. These groups realize that few students will voluntarily pay for organizations they do not want to support. Student fees in Ontario universities have become more like paying for PBS television. Those who pay get the benefit of the programs.

Not surprisingly, earlier this year the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) filed a legal challenge against the Ontario government on this issue. In a media release, the CFS described the Ontario government’s policy as a “direct attack on students’ ability to organize and provide essential services on campus.”

However, there is something faintly absurd about a student advocacy organization going to court in order to force students to fund student groups they do not want to support. Here’s a novel idea for the CFS to consider; Perhaps students aren’t choosing to fund them because they don’t value their services. Instead of going to court to keep the revenue for these unwanted groups, perhaps the CFS needs to ask itself why students don’t value services sponsored by CFS enough to fund them.

At Laurentian University, for example, funding for the student newspaper and radio station is down more than 90 percent. Obviously, most students already get their news and entertainment from other (more valuable) sources and don’t need to pay extra fees for services they don’t want and don’t need.

As for funding student unions, voter turnout in their elections is often less than 10 percent. If most students can’t even bother to vote, why would they want to pay their salaries?

In their lawsuit, the CFS alleges that the Ontario government has put services such as food banks, LGBTQ centres, and sexual assault crisis centres at risk. However, provincial regulations make it clear that fees for health and counselling services remain mandatory and will be collected and administered by the universities. Thus, there is no need for student unions to duplicate these services.

Ironically, the CFS has been a loud advocate for reducing tuition fees and making university more affordable. Reducing mandatory student fees by $1,000 or more seems like a good first step in getting to that goal. In this case, the CFS is in a clear conflict of interest because it relies on students’ fees in order to survive. This conflict of interest makes it impossible for students’ unions to put the interests, financial or educational, of students first.

At the end of the day, it should be up to the students themselves to decide which organizations and activities they want to support. University students are adults and should be treated as adults. No doubt other provinces would do well to follow Ontario’s example and make all non-essential student fees optional.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.