“What’s disgusting? Union busting!”
Vaulted at the parliament building standing before them, the chants of students, faculty and concerned citizens reverberated around Queen’s Park in Toronto Saturday.
“Fuck Ford,” read one sign.
Organized by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-Ontario), the rally called for Premier Doug Ford’s government to scrap their plan to cut tuition fees by 10% while reverting to the 2016-17 Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) framework. It means students will receive less financial assistance. Ford’s plan will also see the end the six-month grace period on paying back student loans.
The changes also allow for students to opt-out of certain ancillary fees. These are additional charges added onto students’ tuition to fund on-campus groups and services. These fees makeup the majority, if not the entirety, of student groups’ budgets.
While the types of on-campus services and groups range from institution to institution, ancillary fees can be integral to the operation of students’ unions, which run groups such as on-campus press, food banks, women’s centres and LGBTQ+ groups.
“These democratically chosen fees are potentially being made optional, which completely negates the purpose that they were voted for in the first place—because students said that they needed them,” said Gayle McFadden, a survivor and mental health and wellness advocacy coordinator at York Federation of Students.
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McFadden, a martial at the event, is a second-year student in George Brown’s assaulted women and children’s counsellor/advocate program. She said she doesn’t believe that her job as a coordinator would continue to exist if ancillary fees become optional.
“Students are going to be making these decisions, I think, without all the information and that’s a problem,” said McFadden “When these referendums happened students had all the information and they knew what they were voting for, there were campaigns.”
In a press conference Thursday, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities said that ancillary fees are allocated to services students do not use or even support.
Essentials like health services or athletics would not see any changes in funding, however, an opt-out feature would be provided for groups and services deemed non-essential, according to Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton.
“Students are adults and we are treating them as such by giving them the ability to see where their money is going,” said Fullerton.
Optional ancillary fees could also mean that student organizations and services would never be able to create a long-term plan. Funding could change from year-to-year or semester-to-semester depending on how many students chose to opt-out at a given time.
“It’s being framed as though [the government is] trying to save students’ money, but what it’s actually going to do is take services that students rely on,” said Kaitlyn Teller, student rights and advocacy coordinator at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “The overall effect is that they are going to be paying more and getting less.”
Nour Alideeb, chairperson for the CFS-Ontario called the decision “paternalistic.”
“These services didn’t just pop out of nowhere,” said Alideeb. “They came out of students organizing referendums and elections to vote on these issues. I feel like the government is really just targeting the student groups which are actually going to hold them accountable.”
On-campus media outlets known for holding administration accountable could also find their bottom line significantly damaged by fee changes.
Student publications like University of Toronto’s The Varsity, rely heavily on funding levied from students, “We're very lucky. We have quite a robust advertising revenue, but we couldn't survive without our student fees,” said editor-in-chief Jack Denton.
Around since 1880, The Varsity has broken numerous stories that have made policy impacts or affected “national discourse” according to Denton.
In 2018, the student newspaper investigated repeated surprise visits from RCMP and CSIS officers to U of T’s Muslim Students’ Association. The story was later picked up by VICE and other outlets.
“That wouldn't have got the same platform as it did if it weren't for this sort of dedicated, you know, nose-to-the-ground student journalism that exists at places like The Varsity, as well as across the province,” said Denton.
The specialized, local reporting that campus media offers can play an integral role in holding administration responsible when such stories go unheard by larger city-wide, provincial and national publications, said Denton.
“Chasing the truth and reporting it as such, without favour or bias, is important in a campus context,” said Erik Preston, the president and chair of the Canadian University Press’ (CUP) board of directors. “The stories that student papers are chasing are ones that will be ignored by the broader media because they largely only affect the student body.”
CUP is a national non-profit which is owned and operated by student-run newspapers all over Canada. The student news service released an official statement via twitter calling the changes to ancillary fees “a direct hit to institutional transparency.”
To Preston, on-campus press plays an integral role in ensuring that marginalized student voices are heard and their stories are told. “Without a campus press or a functioning press, it will be hard for those voices to be heard and communities will suffer as a result.”
Preston says he hopes that such media will be deemed an “essential” service for students, “I think that would be the responsible decision to make. Do I think it is the decision they will make? Probably not.”
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