01/17/2019 22:04 EST | Updated 01/17/2019 22:04 EST

Ontario Tuition Reforms Could Spell Disaster For Student Newspapers, Unions

“This is an attack on the voice of students to advocate for themselves."

Student journalists Jack Denton, Andy Takagi and Josie Kao stand in The Varsity's office on the University of Toronto's St. George campus on Jan. 17, 2019.

TORONTO — When Jack Denton started university, he thought he would one day work for the government or for a non-profit group. It only took about four weeks for him to change his mind.

In his first month at the University of Toronto, the political science undergrad found out there was a man filming women while they showered in his residence, Whitney Hall.

"It was a really big deal ... My female friends were using the buddy system to go to the bathroom at res."

The school's student newspaper, The Varsity, happened to be holding an open house that week.

"I walked in and pitched a story to the news editor. The next Monday, I was on the front page and I thought, 'Well, this is easy,'" he said in an interview at The Varsity's office on Thursday.

"Boy, was I wrong."

Jack Denton's first story for The Varsity hangs on a bulletin board in the student newspaper's Toronto office.

With that, Denton realized he wanted to be a journalist. He moved up the ranks at The Varsity and now serves as editor-in-chief (and no longer believes that putting together a weekly newspaper is "easy").

Changes introduced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government on Thursday may mean that fewer students get the chance that Denton did in his first year. Papers like The Varsity are funded through mandatory student fees. Charges included in students' tuition go toward campus newspapers, student unions and centres that support racialized students, LGBTQ students and survivors of sexual assault.

Students will now choose which fees they want to pay, Minister Merrilee Fullerton announced Thursday. Colleges and universities will decide which services are "essential" and which are optional, leaving the latter without funding.

Fullerton said the change could save students up to $1,000 a year. Students shouldn't be forced to pay fees for things they don't use or support, she told reporters.

Government of Ontario Announcements/YouTube
Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton speaks to reporters at Queen's Park in Toronto on Jan. 17, 2019. (Credit: Government of Ontario Announcements/YouTube)

"Students are adults and we are treating them as such by giving them the freedom to clearly see where their fees are currently being allocated," Fullerton said. "I believe students will make good decisions."

The Varsity's weekly paper is the main source of news for 90,000 students, plus faculty, staff, and other community members across the University of Toronto's three campuses. It employs 26 students part-time, Denton is full-time, and dozens of others earn stipends for their work.

"Our business model ... isn't particularly flexible," Denton said. "This poses a huge operational risk to us and a risk to students and institutions that rely on us to hold everyone from sports teams to university administration to student unions accountable."

Campus media are an essential part of the student experience.Jack Denton

He pointed to The Varsity's stories about homeless students, RCMP officers dropping in on Muslim Students' Association executives, and allegations of sexual assault within the school's theatre community.

"Campus media are an essential part of the student experience. I really hope that provincially, or on a case-by-case basis, they're recognized as essential."

Opposition MPPs said the change will result in less vibrant campus life.

"This is a slippery slope for the universities," said Chris Glover, the NDP's critic for post-secondary schools.

"For anybody who's attended a university or a college, you know that you benefit a lot from the programs ... If the universities and colleges aren't able to offer those, the wealth of the education, the richness of the education, will be cut."

Liberal Mitzie Hunter, whose party brought in other education reforms that Fullerton rolled back on Thursday, said the effect on student unions will be particularly egregious.

"This is an attack on the voice of students to advocate for themselves," Hunter told HuffPost Canada.

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Denton echoed the sentiment.

It will be "disastrous" if large numbers of students opt out of paying for their unions and other associations, he said. Student unions are instrumental in fighting to lower fees and make education more accessible.

"I wonder to what extent that has been a motivation of the Ford government. This could potentially debilitate student unions, which are a core element of students' organizing abilities."

Earlier On HuffPost: