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by Eric Schwenger

“You follow drugs – you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the #@*& it’s gonna take you.” —Lester Freamon, The Wire

Abi Jeyaratnam, a former colleague of mine, turned me onto this quote from The Wire one day while we were trying to diagnose some deep systemic challenges our institution, and specifically our student affairs division, was facing a few months ago. Abi is wise beyond her years; from her time as a community organizer and leader, she’s well attuned to the proximity money maintains over our services and the public goods our institutions, services and communities rely on. It’s quite literally something you can’t get away from. As another mentor of mine, Yasmin Razack, reminded me a few weeks back (while channeling ’90s Wu-Tang), cash rules everything around us. 

This is to say, the announcement a few months ago by the Ford government to axe free tuition for low income students in Ontario while simultaneously directing institutions to drop their tuition fees for most programs by 10% was a moment likely to manifest within the higher ed realm at some point or another. Undoing the policy strides made by the previous liberal government, and under the auspices of the unsustainability of the OSAP system and ‘equality’ for all students, Ford and his government are implementing a policy which is sure to have far reaching and longstanding ripple effects on the way students, and especially those most vulnerable among them, access higher education in this province. One ‘ripple’ among these which has yet to be fully elucidated is the effect(s) Ford’s policies will have on student affairs and services on our campuses.

In an era of incessant accountability for the dollars going into the higher education enterprise (thanks, Reagan), it makes sense that a conservative government ought to demand that institutions find efficiencies and reduce spending. This reduction in spending under the guise of saving constituencies money (thereby putting cash back into the pockets of students and taxpayers) is as old as neoliberalism itself. But – as the adage goes – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

So, what do these changes mean for student affairs units across the province? Short answer: lots; long answer: it depends on your location, institution type, and many other factors. Given the less-than-forthcoming policy directives from the ministry and the confusion (chaos?) surrounding how these changes will be administered and put into practice (with some possible deadlines as early as May 2019 to be in place for September), it’s sure to be an interesting few months as student associations fight for their lives and SA departments begin to ask some deep, fundamental questions about who we are and what we do. These are the questions I hope to spur the conversation around through this post – what do Ford’s changes (and similar budget pains to be felt in coming years) mean for student affairs and services in Canadian higher education?

Discussing the topic over dinner recently with a few friends from grad school, we continued to circle back to some central ambiguities that will remain front of mind to the way these changes might manifest within the student affairs realm over the remainder of Ford’s term and beyond. Prime among them: what counts as an essential service? How willingly will institutions bend to the provincial government’s directives? And if they do, how will they determine where to redirect their budgets to ensure the best learning experience for the greatest number of students, while (hopefully) prioritizing equity-seeking/historically marginalized groups along the way? Ancillary fees will be optional for all non-essential services (which, from my readings, will be most); are the functional areas in question willing to debate their value statement(s) to students and taxpayers, and are they ready and willing to live with the consequences of tighter budgets and greater accountability if the public decides against them?

As I try to remind my colleagues working in student affairs, especially in leadership positions: higher education existed for years, indeed decades or even centuries, without the student services departments currently present across college campuses (especially in many of these departments’ current forms). It will exist after they’re gone too (if that is ever the case). What we should ask ourselves is, what does this new landscape look like for students, how does it affect them, and why does that matter? What is the fundamental value student affairs and services offer higher education and how best can we demonstrate these sometimes unquantifiable offerings in an era of unavoidable assessment practices and often relentless skepticism from students, politicians and pundits?

John Austin (former VPS of Ryerson), at CACUSS in Ottawa two years ago, responded to a panel discussion with this less-than-welcome but all-so-important adage: “as student affairs practitioners, we need to get over ourselves”. Now, suppressing any visceral reaction to this statement, it is imperatively important to keep in mind how much we (student affairs staff and departments) cost. Between salaries (and the pensions and benefits associated), conference costs and professional development funding, travel coverage, and other costs that go into our jobs, the question should (constantly) be asked: do we provide all of this value back to students? Should we fear things like educational startups who can do our jobs better than we can, or the demand for metric tracing and accountability measures from governments, or embrace them in the students’ best interest?

So, we’ve all likely known changes were coming (or had their potentials on our radars). The question becomes: how will this play out in practice? An online system where all students are likely to opt-out of all services en masse for the promise of a few hundred dollars back (and who can blame them – this is a textbook tragedy of the commons)? Or a period of bedlam shortly after the start of every semester where student leaders campaign furiously to get students to remain enrolled in ancillary collections for another term?

To close, a TL:DR summarized aptly from an exchange I had on Twitter shortly after the announcement was made. The situation, as far as I perceive it to affect student affairs and services, is this: if there are significant numbers of students who are disengaged enough to be willing to opt out of these services en masse, student affairs units, professionals, and leadership must ask themselves: was there ever a really good reason to collect money from students via mandatory ancillaries and fees in the first place?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. However, the retort I hope SA pros and other players across higher education will make is this: some students will never get “value for money” from student affairs and that’s fine. Individual value for money isn’t the point. Some things are valuable enough to justify mandatory fees even if they don’t benefit everyone directly.

And a final aside – I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind readers how dire this situation becomes when mapped onto labour more broadly. If student unions can’t automatically collect fees from their members, then where does that leave the rest of organized labour? And if worker unions can’t, then, collect fees from their members, what will the future of work look like for labourers and students together?

Eric Schwenger is the Coordinator, Co-Curricular Student Engagement at Centennial College in Scarborough, ON, where he also chairs the College’s research ethics board. He is completing his masters degree in higher education and education policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Eric would like to send a special thanks to grad school colleagues Sania Hameed, Meagan Lau, Kate Fowley and Victoria Wert who assisted him with this article. 

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