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Fears raised over impact of tinkering with student fees




At the York University food bank, shelves and refrigerators are stocked to try to keep up with growing demand — but this crucial service, funded by student fees, could be in jeopardy.

That’s because the food bank is operated by the students’ union and beginning in the fall all post-secondary students will be able to opt out of ancillary fees considered non-essential, such as those earmarked for student associations.

Student fees fund things like student newspapers, including Ryerson University’s Eyeopener.
Student fees fund things like student newspapers, including Ryerson University’s Eyeopener.  (Photo Supplied)

The Food Support Centre is one of many services run by the union, and is “the closest one to my heart,” explains Rawan Habib, president of the York Federation of Students, which represents about 48,000 undergraduate students.

“Every month we see more students registering,” she says. “It’s something they desperately need.”

In September, the union moved the food bank out of a room the size of a walk-in closet that serviced about 800 students a month, into a larger space that now sees 1,300 students each month. But how this food bank will look next September is unclear.

That’s because Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced changes that will impact college and university students, such as cutting tuition by 10 per cent, ending free tuition for lower-income students and getting rid of mandatory ancillary fees.

Currently, students pay ancillary fees on top of tuition to cover costs for campus-wide services, facilities and clubs, among other things. These fees differ by school, but range between several hundred dollars to $2,000. Last month, Doug Ford’s government announced the creation of a new fee structure. Starting in September, all ancillary fees will be itemized and categorized as being for essential or non-essential services. Students can opt out of the latter.

Dubbed the Student Choice Initiative, it has been lauded and lambasted. Supporters say it puts money in students’ pockets and keeps them from paying for things they don’t use or support. But critics call it an attack on student unions and campus media and say it will kill campus life.

According to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, fees considered essential are those that support student buildings, career services, financial aid offices, walksafe programs, transit passes, athletics and recreation, academic supports, health and counselling, student ID cards, transcripts and convocation. These fees remain mandatory. Students will be able to opt out of health and dental plans if they have pre-existing coverage.

Rawan Habib, president of the York Federation of Students, is shown in the food bank at York University, which is run by the student union and funded by student fees.
Rawan Habib, president of the York Federation of Students, is shown in the food bank at York University, which is run by the student union and funded by student fees.  (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

Non-essential services include fees for spaces, services and activities that promote campus life and community, such as media, student clubs, campus cafés and restaurants, and student unions, which support a variety of initiatives and groups. These fees will be optional.

Each school will determine what is essential and provide a detailed breakdown of fees.

Minister Merrilee Fullerton says the change brings “predictability and transparency” and makes students feel more “empowered and informed about their own finances.”

“We are giving students a choice to decide where they spend their money,” she said when announcing the change at a news conference in January.

Days later, a spending scandal at Ryerson University erupted, with the student union facing allegations of financial mismanagement after credit card statements showed questionable purchases at places such as restaurants, night clubs and the LCBO. A forensic audit will review nearly $700,000 in expenses.

The events prompted the premier to post a news story about it on Twitter and comment.

“I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused,” tweeted Ford. “That’s why we’re giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.”

But choice already exists, according to leaders of more than 75 students’ unions from colleges and universities in Canada who say they represent 1.3 million students. In a letter to Fullerton and Ford, they say student governments regularly hold referendums on ancillary fees, letting students vote on which services and programs to support.

They also note the current fee structure provides continuity and stability for budgeting purposes, whereas the opt-out will result in uncertainty because groups won’t be able to anticipate how many students will use it.

“Without stable, predictable funding, student unions will be forced to end a wide variety of programs and services — everything from mental health to sexual assault supports, and (lay off) thousands of students that work at on-campus businesses,” reads the letter. “With a 10 per cent tuition cut and no additional public funding, we know institutions themselves won’t pick up the slack.”

Jasmyn St. Hilaire, director of communications and internal at the student association of George Brown College, says the union hopes to work with administration to ensure it continues to deliver services, which include a food bank, peer support for marginalized students and income tax clinics.

“We’re really trying hard not to have to cut anything but we’ll see how that goes,” said St. Hilaire.

At the University of Toronto, Sandy Welsh, vice-provost for students, says the school values the contributions of student societies and their services.

“All student groups are concerned about how this will affect them. We will be meeting with leaders of student societies to answer questions.”

But even administrators have questions.

At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Brad MacIsaac, the assistant vice-president of planning and analysis, says, “There’s still so much that’s unknown.”

“We’re still working with the ministry to ensure we know all of the rules and regulations — we’re hoping that within the month we’ll have the technical document.”

Having to create a new online system for students to opt in or opt out that’s up and running by the summer in time for registration, “is definitely a lot of work at a very busy time of year.”

MacIsaac doesn’t think many students in the upper years will opt out because they understand how clubs and services “enhance the student engagement.” But he’s concerned first-year students, who’ve never experienced campus life, will be more likely to opt out.

Nour Alideeb, chairperson of Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, with 350,000 members, says the Student Choice Initiative is a government ploy to “take out the student groups that hold them accountable.”

“It’s a direct attack on student organizing and groups … and campus publications,” she says.

Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, took part in a rally at Queen's Park in January to protest cuts to OSAP and campus groups that would be affected by the funding cuts.
Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, took part in a rally at Queen’s Park in January to protest cuts to OSAP and campus groups that would be affected by the funding cuts.  (Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

Alideeb, an undergraduate student at UofT, worries advocacy and counselling groups, such as those that work with LGBTQ students, are at risk.

“These student groups save lives. It’s not just what happens in the classroom that supports students to be successful.”

Also in jeopardy, she fears, are student centres, which create a sense of community on campus, saying “This is really going to kill student life and the student experience.”

She recognizes that saving money is important, especially for those impacted by financial aid changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), and already struggling to pay for food or rent. But ultimately, some will be faced with a dilemma.

“Students will have to make the decision between short-term gain or the long-term experience of being involved with a student community and having access to those things.”

Her comments are echoed, in part, by Charles Pascal, professor at UofT’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“When students pay fees they are paying to increase the quality of life for everybody,” says the former Ontario deputy minister of education. “The moment you allow students to opt out, many will, and it will kill those activities.

“The word choice can be a real weapon against something that’s good for everyone. So if 50 per cent of students opt out of student fees, what’s going to happen to the social fabric and supports that are provided through those fees?”

Kieran Moloney, president of Carleton’s Conservatives, welcomes the opt-out because it’s a way for students to “materially reduce” tuition and not support student groups they don’t agree with.

Students make their way out of the tent following convocation ceremony at York University in 2018. Student fees help fund cultural and special services such as convocation at York.
Students make their way out of the tent following convocation ceremony at York University in 2018. Student fees help fund cultural and special services such as convocation at York.  (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star file photo)

“In the real world, if you want to be part of something you pay for it, if not, you shouldn’t,” he says.

He suspects Ontario will end up with a patchwork, with some schools deeming certain things essential, while others consider them non-essential. And he worries certain groups will play up elements of what they do to be considered essential.

Moloney isn’t opposed to student unions, saying many do good work — his group receives funding from the union — but there are questionable ones, he says, referring to the recent problems at Ryerson Students’ Union.

At Ryerson, an arts and science undergraduate student pays about $911 in ancillary fees, which is the lowest among universities, according to Common University Data Ontario. Of that amount, $130 are fees for the union, which has an operating budget of $2.7 million.

Jacob Dubé, editor-in-chief of the Ryerson student newspaper The Eyeopener, which broke the story on the spending scandal, says some students are using it as an example of why the opt-out is a good idea. But, he notes, the union also supports groups and policies that are vital for campus life.

And his own newspaper, which has doggedly investigated the union, relies on the student levy — in the 2017-2018 year, it received $430,000 in student fees, as approved by a democratic referendum.

“Without (student fees) the paper would be completely different,” says Dubé. “We would definitely not be as involved in the community as we would like.”

He says student media are the only ones keeping close watch over unions and administrations.

“If these levies were to be in jeopardy, then, basically, anyone at any university that didn’t have a paper could run rampant.”

At York University, Matt Dionne, editor-in-chief of the Excalibur student newspaper, says without the student levy “we would very likely not exist.” And that, he says, would be a blow to a campus with a population of about 60,000 students and staff.

Dionne is concerned about how the university is going to implement this policy. If media is lumped together under one student fee, that could be a problem for those who support one organization but not another. But if every single item is listed, he suspects students won’t read through them all, and may just opt out of everything.

It’s hard to predict how students will react — York lets students opt out of some ancillary fees and only a handful have done so. For example, just one person opted out of paying the $2.10 fee for the Sexual Assault Survivors Support Line.

At this point, the student union has no idea what the impact will be on its budget, so it can’t say how services, campaigns and events will be affected.

“That’s the scary part,” says Habib. “I want to commit to ensuring that (students will) still be able to access the things they need. But I can’t give them an answer as of yet because we’re in the dark.”

With files from Kristin Rushowy

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

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Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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