Global News has learned fees to support students with disabilities and accessibility issues will now be deemed optional on some campuses across Ontario.
In January, Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton announced what the government calls a “student choice initiative,” a new fee model which allows students to choose what they want to pay for and how that money will be allocated.
At the time, the ministry said fees for essential campus health and safety initiatives would continue to be mandatory. Fullerton did not give specifics on compulsory fees.
“Student fees in Ontario can range as high as $2,000 per year and, too often, force students to pay for services they do not use and organizations they do not support,” she said.
“We will ensure students have transparency and freedom of choice regarding the campus services and organizations which get access to their money.”
In an interview on Thursday with Global News, Fullerton said colleges and universities have been given “parameters” for essential student fees but did not explain why accessibility and disability services are not included.
“I will have to double check, but accessibility and disability are areas that I would expect the institutions to be respectful of,” she said, reiterating the onus is on institutions.
“We have been very, very clear that we accept the autonomy of our institutions, but when we announced the student choice initiative it was in keeping with the understanding of health and wellness and so things like mental health counselling, walk safe programs — accessibility is obviously very important and I would hope our institutions would understand that.”
Other services, including LGBTQ supports and student food banks, are now optional fees. When asked about campus based food banks shutting down, Fullerton said, “You know there are all kinds of different food banks.”
Fullerton’s office contacted Global News after her interview.
“Institutions are expected to cover important accessibility and disability services through their core operating grants, provided by the Provincial Government. Therefore, the student choice initiative should have no direct impact on the funding of these services,” a spokesperson wrote.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the government needs to “take an active approach.” He said he believes the ministry needs to do more to ensure all post-secondary students are afforded equal learning opportunities
“What the minister should say is, ‘No, you need to provide these services because they are important,'” he said.
The Ottawa-area MPP said the government’s “student choice initiative” is purely political.
“They have turned everything inside out with student unions. It is a very political move and what they did was they put at risk things like food banks, disability services, sexual assault counselling,” Fraser said.
NDP opposition leader Andrea Horwath called the matter “shameful” and said it’s “dragging our province backwards.”
“I find it horrifying that we have a minister that doesn’t recognize post-secondary education should be accessible to everyone,” she said, adding she believes the minister needs to change course.
“There needs to be an acknowledgement that our institutions need the resources to make courses accessible, to make learning accessible, and that’s not something that should be a one off depending on the institution — that’s something that should be government policy.”
Maklane deWever, president of Ryerson University’s student union, told Global News the initiative could have serious consequences.
“This is going to be devastating for student life and devastating for the student body, so we are trying to pressure the Ford government to reverse the decision,” he said.
DeWever said he is particularly concerned about first-year students opting out of fees before even experiencing campus life. He also expressed frustration more consultations with students weren’t conducted.
“A lot of the services we provide are for the most vulnerable community members and they are going to be impacted the most significantly by this,” he said.
Students at the Ryerson School of Journalism surveyed 1,179 students at the university about the “student choice initiative.” The findings were shared with Global News by deWever.
The survey discovered 40 per cent of students said they would opt-out of the Ryerson Good Food Centre (the campus food bank). Only 47 per cent of those surveyed said they would continue to support services for sexual assault survivors.
“That’s not because they don’t support these services its because students are already strapped for cash,” deWever said.
The School of Journalism also asked the broader question about the overall job they feel Premier Doug Ford is doing. They found only six per cent of students approve.
In response to Global News’ story on Thursday, NDP MPP Joel Harden wrote a letter asking Fullerton to clarify if accessibility and disability services funded by student fees have been or will be deemed essential.