Student union budgets take hit as Ford government allows students to opt out of services

Student unions in Ontario are seeing varying effects of the Student Choice Initiative as they finalize their fall budgets

Some student unions in Ontario hit harder than others

The Ford government announced the Student Choice Initiative in January. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Programs and services on Ontario campuses are taking a hit as student unions finalize their fall budgets. 

One of the services forced to operate with less funding is Ryerson University's radio station CJRU. It just received its fall semester budget, which showed 56.7 per cent of full-time students opted out a fee that supports the station. 

"There's a great deal of stress and uncertainty," said Jacky Harrison, general manager of CJRU. 

In anticipation of a funding decrease, the station laid off two employees this spring. This comes as the Ford government allowed students to opt out of fees post-secondary schools deemed "non-essential" earlier this year, in an initiative called the Student Choice Initiative.

"Campus radio in Ontario will shrink," said Harrison.  Another casualty of less funding is the station's ability to support local musicians by doing things like hosting concerts and paying honorariums. 

"It will be felt across the music economy." 

CJRU is just one example of various programs on different campuses that are having to do more with less. 

More than 55 per cent of undergrad students opted out of paying fees that go toward Ryerson's campus paper, The Eyeopener. Half of the students also opted out of a fee that supports student refugees. 

The Continuing Education Student Association at Ryerson has seen 41 per cent of the students it represents opting out of non-essential fees. Hardest hit is the bursary program that distributes more than $125,000 every year for needs-based grants. Student officials are still trying to figure out final numbers for the fall semester. 

In the spring, the Canadian Federation of Students and York Federation of Students took the Ontario government to court over the Student Choice Initiative, which was first announced in January.  

The government said it can't comment on the rollout of the initiative because the issue is currently before the courts. 

'Really surprised'

Meanwhile, other universities in Ontario fared better than Ryerson. The University of Ottawa Students Union saw about 20 per cent of undergrad students opt out of paying student life fees that go toward clubs and associations. 

"We were really surprised," said Sam Schroeder, advocacy commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students Union. "Crisis averted." 

Ryerson University student unions saw half of students opt out of non-essential fees. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Meanwhile, the York Federation of Students at York University reported just 17 per cent of students opted out non-essential fees. 

For the union representing graduate students, it's 11 per cent, which students say may affect its international student bursary and Indigenous solidarity fund. 

"They're actually taking choice away from students," said Felipe Nagata, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario. 

Nagata said it's difficult to compare universities because each institution has a different definition of what's considered "essential" and "non-essential." And because the budget is split up by semester, student unions will have to sort out a budget again in the winter, and every semester after that. 

"It's hard to predict, and with that, it's hard to have consistent service," said Nagata. "It's really not good for campus life."