“Fuck Ford! Fuck Ford! Fuck Ford!” yelled dozens of students in front of Queen’s Park. The crowd gathered outside the Ontario legislative building on a cold Jan. 18 afternoon, holding signs to protest the Conservative government’s announcement on changes to tuition and the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
The day before, Premier Doug Ford’s government announced that university and college students will have the power to choose how the additional fees they pay will be allocated. The ancillary fee, also known as a student levy, is paid on top of tuition and goes towards funding campus groups, services and student media. Students will now be allowed to opt out of paying fees for services or organizations they don’t support, according to Merrilee Fullerton, minister of training, colleges and universities.
Journalists and student organizations say the move could jeopardize campus press, as some student media rely on the fees to function.
“Without access to this funding, Ontario student publications will not be able to operate. The jobs they provide to students will be gone,” says a statement from the Canadian University Press, which represents over 40 student publications.
Fullerton also says the government is eliminating free tuition for students from low-income families while also cutting tuition fees by 10 per cent. The government announcement also states that while some fees will continue to be mandatory, such as WalkSafe programs and counselling, post-secondary institutions will be required to provide an online opt-out option for “all non-essential non-tuition fees.” This appears to leave universities and colleges to decide which other fees are considered essential.
Emma McPhee, vice-president of CUP, says most newspapers in Canada are funded through student fees. She says without the funds, the quality of student journalism could deteriorate or campus media could outright vanish.
Of late, campus media has been under attack at many universities, highlighting the precarity of their existence.
Last year, a motion was put forward to the University of Manitoba Students Union to hold a referendum to defund the Manitoban after the student newspaper published an editorial criticizing the student government.
Student newspapers face adversity at times from student unions, which oversee the distribution of student fees at some post-secondary institutions. When student journalists report on student government, it can create tensions and publications become concerned that their levies could be in jeopardy.
For The University of Ottawa student paper the Fulcrum, the existence of the paper is uncertain and the recent government announcement puts the paper’s funding in a more vulnerable position. In October 2018, the student union’s contract was cancelled by the university administration, resulting in the freeze of student levies, according to Anchal Sharma, editor-in-chief of the Fulcrum. She says the student union distributes the levies to various groups, services and the student paper. Sharma says she hasn’t heard from the student union or the university about when or if the paper will receive the fees.
“The fact that the government itself doesn’t deem student press an essential service to pay into says a lot, especially since this government was all about freedom of speech policies,” says Anchal. “This is just so disappointing.”
Campus newspapers are the only media dedicated to holding post-secondary institutions and student governments accountable. In some cases across Canada, student journalists often act as the only local news source.
“Student journalism isn’t some arts and crafts project,” says Jaren Kerr, deputy news editor for Canadaland and former managing editor of University of Toronto student paper, The Varsity. “The loss of (campus media) is the loss of accountability.”
Gavin Adamson, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s journalism program, says campus media are usually the only reporters in the room at university and college finance meetings.
“Where else would you find independent information about the school?” he says.
Student newspapers and radio stations are also where aspiring journalists get their start. Reporters that have gone to work in mainstream media after graduating often attribute their careers and skills to their work at campus publications.
If campus media were to be eliminated, it would be a major loss of opportunity for students to hone their journalism skills. Adamson says while students can learn a lot in the classroom, the experience they get at student publications is invaluable. He says Ontario journalism schools could put pressure on universities to consider campus media an essential fee.
Adamson says student unions could also take responsibility to ensure campus papers continue to be funded, but they may not want to support publications that hold them accountable.
It’s unclear how exactly fees for student papers will affect Canadian campus media as a whole and some papers are unsure of how much support they’ll receive from students who want to continue paying fees to campus media.
McPhee says some students looking to save as much money as possible may be likely to opt out of paying for campus media and some may think student journalism isn’t important enough to pay for at all.
“But you’re not going to miss (student journalism) until you need it,” she says.
When Kerr was at The Varsity, he would see comments online from other students stating they no longer wanted to fund the campus paper because they didn’t like or agree with the publication’s content.
At times, such criticism can also come from student union officials who fall under the publication’s scrutiny.
This can be complicated because many campus publications across Canada are overseen by student unions either financially or through governance, according to The Varsity. This can often lead to student unions firing editors they don’t agree with or cutting funding altogether.
The McMaster Students Union approves the budget and publishing schedule of the Silhouette, the campus newspaper. In 2006, the editor-in-chief of the paper was fired by the student union “without cause.”
In 1994, editors at The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper, were fired and the paper was shut down after it published satire that criticized the Alma Mater Society, which published and funded the campus paper. Ubyssey editors then collected signatures from students and held a referendum for a student levy that made the publication independent.
The provincial government’s decision puts the onus of responsibility for a free press (on campus) on the university itself.
“If no one is covering campus issues, no one is going to know those issues are there,” says McPhee. “I hope all students would realize that what their campus media does is vital.”