Lori Guest has been working at the Guelph Resource Centre for Gender Empowerment and Diversity (GRCGED) since 2006. She works as the Volunteer and Resource Coordinator, and on Oct. 28., she spoke with The Ontarion and described how her office had been a year ago, before cuts, before changes to staffing, before the SCI.
In January, Premier Doug Ford’s provincial government introduced the Student Choice Initiative (SCI). The SCI purported to give students a “choice” by allowing them to opt-out of certain previously mandatory ancillary fees — fees that were voted on by undergraduates in various referendums over the course of decades and that have, for years, been used to support campus groups, student resources, and other services who found themselves suddenly deemed “non-essential” by the provincial government and facing the possibility of cuts so deep they could be bled dry.
“It’s not sustainable,” says Guest. When asked about how she is managing the increased workload, she said, “Sometimes it’s really really hard.
“Normally, I would have had two student workers, as well as well as my coworker,” Guest tells me. GRCGED, which began in 1982 as the Women’s Resource Centre, serves the students of Guelph by advocating for safety, wellbeing, diversity, inclusion, education, and provides a place for students to access resources, an extensive library, and get referrals, and had, until recently, two full-time staff and an additional two work-study positions. Now, because of uncertainty around their funding, GRCGED, like many campus groups including The Ontarion, has been forced to make significant cuts to staffing.
Without a full staff, the work of four people is now down to one.
“It’s not sustainable,” says Guest. When asked about how she is managing the increased workload, she said, “Sometimes it’s really really hard. And other times it’s not so bad.” GRCGED, then the Women’s Resource Centre, has been in the University Centre since 1991, and it continues to serve students even despite the radical changes it has faced this semester. Yet, with funding uncertain, the future of the centre has been thrown into chaos.
On Oct. 16, The Ontarion joined 10 other student newspapers from across Ontario in releasing a joint statement in the Toronto Star about the importance of a well-supported student press, one of the services the SCI deems non-essential.
It has been nearly five months since students at the University of Guelph made their decisions on which services they would opt-out of, and we now have a better sense of how the SCI has affected various groups on campus. There are currently more than 60 groups on campus that are subject to the SCI, among them the Central Student Association (CSA), the Aboriginal Student Association (ASA), the campus radio station CFRU, the Affordable Housing Initiative, and the Menstrual Product Hygiene Initiative.
While some claim that the SCI affected them only slightly, others, like GRCGED, CFRU, and The Ontarion, have had to make significant adjustments in order to continue to operate under the new funding model.
In trying to get a fuller picture of the impact of the SCI, The Ontarion reached out to several officials from the university and the CSA. We’ve learned that at the University of Guelph 8,556 undergrads opted out of at least one ancillary fee, according to Lori Bona Hunt from the university’s Communications & Public Affairs office. That’s approximately 35 per cent of students, resulting in a loss of about $537,000. More than half a million dollars gone from campus groups and services, many of which do not have alternate means of generating revenue or otherwise supplementing this loss, other than to lay off staff, stop providing some services, or potentially shut down.
The impact of this could be enormous. The future of the SCI remains to be seen, with some political leaders saying that they wish to undo what the Ford government has done, but in the meantime, groups that form part of the fundamental texture of our campus community are at risk.
The CSA, who distributes some of these optional fees, such as the Entertainment Media fee (a portion of which goes to supporting The Ontarion and CFRU), as well as fees for a number of clubs, declined to provide specific information on their student opt-out statistics. “We have some numbers but not all. But we won’t release them because it’s not our purview,” said Claudia Idzik, VP Student Experience. Idzik added that releasing numbers could impact the opt-in rates for clubs.
Per student, fees to keep campus groups running are often only a matter of dollars. The Ontarion, for example, is supported by fees from student levies equal to $5.12 per student per semester. In comparison, one copy of the Saturday edition of the Toronto Star is $3.50.
Students are now in their second opt-out period, running from Oct. 28 to Nov. 17, 2019. While individual students have the choice to opt-out of supporting student groups and services for the winter semester, many of these groups and services, such as the CSA, CFRU, GRCGED, and The Ontarion, are here to benefit all students — even those who do opt out. It is the hope of many of the groups affected by the SCI that students will take the initiative to support as widely as they can.