Ontario's student newspapers, unions could lose funding after government decision

Ontarian student unions and newspapers are worried following the Ford government’s announcement of an opt-out option for “non-essential” student fees.

The “Student Choice Initiative” was described by Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities Merrilee Fullerton as a way to bring “predictability and transparency” to extra fees and allow students to take control of their own finances.

“For the first time ever, the government of Ontario is putting students first when it comes to their students fees,” said Fullerton.

According to Fullerton, the goal of the changes — which include a change to the OSAP funding structure and a tuition freeze — was to make post-secondary education affordable and sustainable. The ancillary fees, she said, are going to services students do not use and organizations they do not support.

Universities will have the ability to determine what services are deemed “essential” and therefore non-optional. According to a ministry spokesperson, essential fees are those that fund campus-wide services and facilities, including those that work towards the health and safety of a campus. Non-essential fees could include those paid towards funding student newspapers, government and clubs.

Without these fees, these student organizations could lose the bulk of their funding.

Most schools are waiting on more information from the ministry before making any decisions about what fees to call “non-essential,” but student newspapers have already begun to worry about how the changes will affect them.

“This decision is a direct hit to institutional transparency, healthy democratic dialogue on campuses, freedom of the press and the free speech,” wrote Emma McPhee, president of the Canadian University Press (CUP), an organization that represents student newspapers throughout Canada, including 27 in Ontario.

Student newspapers have various ways of funding themselves, including advertisement revenue and these “ancillary fees” that are tacked onto tuition bills. Those fees range from $3.40 at the University of Ottawa’s The Fulcrum to $18.36 for Western University’s The Gazette.

At UBC, students pay a set fee of $6.71 towards The Ubyssey as part of their overall tuition fees. Students can choose to opt out by filling out a form to submit to UBC Finance, and about 300 students choose to opt-out each year out of the more than 55,000 students on the Vancouver campus. Most of The Ubyssey’s expenses as a non-profit society are covered by these student fees, while the rest come from advertising.

But the online process the Ontario government has mandated will make it much easier for students to opt out of paying fees, which could potentially cripple papers themselves and the services they provide.

“It is often first within the pages of campus newspapers,” said McPhee, “that ideas are shared, community events are highlighted and student issues are brought to light.

“Without access to this funding, Ontario student publications will not be able to operate.”