Two students are launching a major class action lawsuit against a number of Ontario colleges, accusing the institutions of breaking provincial law by charging students ancillary fees. The Canadian Federation of Students(CFS)are also involved in the suit in an advocacy role.
Amanda Hassum and Dan Roffery, who are students at Conestoga College and George Brown College respectively, are suing Ontario colleges for $200 million, alleging that ancillary fees they paid were illegal. They are seeking damages for all students who have paid the fees since 2004. Hassum said that she was shocked to find out that the fees were “directly related to the capital costs of my education.”
In Ontario, it is illegal for post-secondary institutions to enforce compulsory tuition-related ancillary fees. Compulsory non-tuition fees can only be charged if approved by a student referendum.
In a press conference at provincial legislature, Hassum and Roffery argued that the government knew that the fees were being collected illegally and did nothing to stop the colleges. Their legal counsel Doug Elliot–whose firm Roy Elliott Kim O’Connor LLP won a $1-billion settlement last year for victims of the tainted-blood scandal–said that they intend to add the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to the suit in the near future.
“There is an issue of concealment here because the colleges … used deceptive names to describe these fees to try to disguise the fact that they are improper fees,“ said Elliot.
“Premier McGuinty broke his promise to students by claiming to lock the front door [by freezing tuition] while leaving the back door wide open,” said Hassum.
Jesse Greener, CFS-Ontario chairperson, said that his organization is acting in a supportive role to assist the students but are not a plaintiff in the case. “We were asked to provide some analysis and so on,” said Greener. Hassum, one of the plaintiffs, is the sister of incoming CFS-O chairperson Jen Hassum.
Student societies at more than 80 universities and colleges, with more than 500,000 students, are members of the CFS, making it Canada’s largest student lobby group. The CFS conducts research and lobbies on a national and provincial level, as well as providing services such as student discount cards, health and dental programs, and discount travel.
Ontario colleges have been accused of going around the ancillary fee regulation by imposing mandatory locker rental fees, technology fees, and laptop lease fees(without the option of purchasing the laptop at the end of the lease). Ontario colleges have collected considerable funds from these fees and if the class action suit is successful, colleges could be required to repay those fees to past and present students. Earlier this year the College Student Alliance successfully fought similar fees at Sheridan College and Sault College.
A document released by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities in July 2006 informed colleges they should not be charging fees for information technology, laboratory or library services, or mandatory leases of laptop computers. However, nothing was done to follow up.
Chris Bentley, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, would not comment directly on matters that are soon to be before the courts.
“Ontario’s college students have been paying illegal fees for years and the Ontario government turned a blind eye,” said Roffery.