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Chris Selley: Hands out of Ontario students’ pockets

Chris Selley: Hands out of Ontario students’ pockets
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Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced the end of various mandatory fees for post-secondary students last month — including those for student unions — with great principled fanfare. Merrilee Fullerton, the minister of training, colleges and universities, spoke of affordability and “freedom of choice.” Since then, alas, both sides have been running a close race to mount the worst arguments in their favour.

The Tories drastically weakened their principled stance this week in a fundraising email from Premier Doug Ford, in which he claimed comprehensively to be fixing post-secondary education in Ontario after more than a decade of Liberal mismanagement. “Students were forced into unions and forced to pay for those unions,” Ford observed, in his folksy-incredulous way. (“These guys are nuts,” he remarked of Liberal complaints.)

“I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to,” Ford added, as if channelling Jordan Peterson.

One might reasonably support freedom of choice and also deplore Marxist nonsense. But this does leave the impression that, say, Ayn Rand-ian nonsense wouldn’t be quite so bad.

Nonsense, of all brands, is certainly a problem. For all the good work supporters insist student unions do — administering clubs, funding publications, running food banks, lobbying university administrations and governments on behalf of students — there is no getting past the fact that many of them waste fistfuls of students’ money plumbing the nether regions of irrelevance. The McGill students’ society’s greatest hits during my time included a protracted debate over whether to weigh in with British prime minister Tony Blair on the prickly question of extraditing Augusto Pinochet to Chile.

One might argue, as unionists invariably do, that if you want change you ought to get involved and effect change from within. After all, Canadian Civil Liberties Association executive director Michael Bryant argued on Twitter, “without the ‘crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to,’ there would be no maternity leave, no safe workplaces, no right to strike, no unemployment insurance, … no Charter rights to freedom of association.”

He very carefully avoided saying student unions actually did any of that — just that they share a philosophy, which strikes me as tantamount to slander. I’m not much of a fan of the modern labour movement, but I would never be so rude as to equate it with the student union movement. Proper unions have an undeniable historical record of advancing worker rights. What’s more, they and their members are very stringently protected in law.

Student unions … don’t. And aren’t. It’s one thing to tell a pipefitter or letter carrier to be the change she wants to see. It’s rather another to tell a student working two jobs to make ends meet and generally just hanging on by her fingernails.

The Tories have cited recent allegations of spectacular mismanagement at the Ryerson student union to bolster their case. “I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused,” Ford tweeted.

I ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.

That s why we re giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use. https://t.co/XYC8G4jaZ0

As many pointed out, those allegations came to light in the Eyeopener, one of Ryerson’s student papers, which relies on more than $400,000 in annual mandatory funding from students. Many worthy journalism types have piled aboard this argument. And it’s a fair point, to a point. But it comes perilously close to “if we don’t impose mandatory fees upon students, student newspapers won’t have the resources to weed out cartoonish corruption in the spending of mandatory student fees.”

Frankly, the Tories’ solution seems considerably simpler.

Conveniently enough for student newspapers in particular, we live in a time when the idea of subsidizing media is very much in vogue. It would be nice to say, look, you wouldn’t propose making everyone subscribe to the National Post in order to keep it afloat. So why should we make McGill students pay for the Tribune or Western students for the Gazette?

Alas, the Liberals in Ottawa currently seem intent on taking your money to keep us afloat … and not even giving you a subscription for your trouble. That doesn’t make it a good idea, mind you.

I m not much of a fan of the modern labour movement, but I would never be so rude as to equate it with the student union movement

It’s understandable, of course, that student groups are fighting this. But I rather suspect they won’t be able to change this government’s mind. And in the meantime they are evincing an altogether maddening Canadian tendency to frame their existence as a choice between more mandatory funding (preferred), the status quo (barely survivable), or oblivion (certain if left to their own devices).

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