On the Hill – Buyer Beware

In Ontario, consumers have certain rights that are clearly spelled out on the Ministry of Small Business and Consumer Services website.

Whether you signed a cell phone contract or bought a cemetery plot, there’s plenty of information explaining what to do if you haven’t received the goods you paid for (or didn’t receive all of them).

What you won’t find, though, is a category labelled ?Education,? and that raises some interesting questions for all Canadian post-secondary students, not just the 50,000 York University students who have been locked out of classes for 12 weeks.

We could go back and forth on the merits of each side’s position all day. The Globe and Mail reports that York’s striking teaching assistants are ?the country’s most well-paid,? a group that turned down an original offer of a 9.25 per cent pay increase over three years. They also shot down a revised offer that included additional benefits and wages. On the employees? side, one of the major issues is that, even though contract workers may have been employed at York for over a decade, they still have to apply for their jobs every year. As contract workers know, this can have a serious effect on such essential things as getting a mortgage.

York staff have been legislated back to work, but that doesn’t address the problem: What consumer protection do some of the poorest consumers have when it comes to one of the largest investments they will ever make? (In Ontario alone, tuition fees are reported to have increased in 2008 ?between 4% and 8%, after a 200% increase over the past 15 years.?)

Sure, each college and university has policies for refunds when it comes to course withdrawals, but what happens when students are denied a large portion of the time and instruction they’ve laid out big money for? On January 24, York University spokesman Alex Bilyk was standing firm on that point. Students will not receive refunds on tuition. As he told reporters, the school will ?still squeeze in a complete academic term, cancelling reading week, condensing exam time and extending the winter term to June 2.? In other words, a lot like those ads that warn the product may not be exactly as shown.

In some cases, Canadian universities have paid compensation to students after a strike. St. Thomas University in Fredericton did so in 2008 after a labour dispute cancelled a month of classes. For York students, there’s hope in a class-action lawsuit That’s been launched.

But they shouldn’t have to resort to that. There should be clear legislation on this issue. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is now considering it, talking about measures to protect university and college students during strikes, including ?an agency that would determine when their education is in jeopardy.?

It’s an issue that needs to be tackled sooner rather than later, because an even bigger strike is more than just a vague worry. One of CUPE 3903’s sticking points is that it wants a two-year deal, not the three-year one offered. If they get it, agreements across many Ontario campuses will expire in 2010?giving them a much bigger collective stick to bargain with. And the way things stand now, it will be university and college students who end up getting hit with it.

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