Students have launched a court challenge to block the Ontario government from making some student fees optional at universities and colleges.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the York Federation of Students jointly filed an application to quash the government’s Student Choice Initiative, first announced in January.

The application contends that the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities acted unlawfully when she issued policy directives restricting universities and colleges from collecting certain fees, those deemed “non-essential” by the government, on behalf of student associations.

The filing argues that Minister Merrilee Fullerton “breached procedural fairness and natural justice” by failing to meaningfully consult students and postsecondary institutions before enacting the policy. It also argues that the move aims to stifle political opposition.

The government said in response that students are still free to support whatever campus services they choose.

“Our government is treating students like adults by giving them the opportunity to save money and increasing transparency around student fees so they know where their money is going,” said Jessica Georgakopoulos, a spokeswoman for Ms. Fullerton.

The filing refers to a February fundraising letter in which Premier Doug Ford wrote, “I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to. So we fixed that.”

Steven Shrybman, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners representing the CFS, said the Premier’s statement contributes to the impression that this decision was motivated by animus.

“The government’s purpose was to simply stifle dissent and criticism of its policies from an effective advocate that often is at odds with government policies with respect to higher education. That’s why fees for student councils and fees for the CFS were singled out,” he said.

Fees for things such as campus sports and health and safety, for example, have been deemed essential services, exempt from the opt-out. Students will soon begin receiving their tuition and ancillary fee bills for the coming school year, which adds some urgency to the court challenge.

“We need to have the matter determined very quickly by the court,” Mr. Shrybman said.

Many student organizations fear that they will lose significant funding once fees become optional. Student unions, campus radio and newspapers as well as services such as food banks are potentially threatened, student groups say. At the moment, student groups are struggling to plan for the coming year because they don’t know how much money they’ll have.

They argue that universities have long been recognized as largely autonomous and governed by their own boards and senates, so the province should not interfere in a democratically-determined process for collecting student fees.

“The intent of the legal challenge is to make clear that the Ford government is not respecting the autonomy of student unions or the autonomy of colleges and universities,” said Kayla Weiler, national executive representative for the CFS.

“We’re hoping with this legal challenge we can stop and repeal the Student Choice Initiative.”

The Globe and Mail, May 28, 2019