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Auston Pierce says it is the student experience that attracts students to Queen’s University in Kingston.

JOHNNY C.Y. LAM/The Globe and Mail

Fifteen cents for the food bank, a quarter for sexual education and peer counselling, a little less than three dollars for the student newspaper. The list of student fees made optional by the Ontario government is different at every postsecondary institution, but to many student leaders, these lists, and the services they fund, represent the foundation of campus student life. They say that life is now under threat.

Student groups have been bracing for a fight since the Doug Ford government introduced the Student Choice Initiative this past January. The government said the move would help students save money and allow them to choose which ancillary fees they wanted to pay. Student groups called it an attempt to silence political opposition.

Campaigns to persuade students to pay the fees voluntarily kicked into gear across the province this week. The results won’t be known until the opt-out period ends in late September. Many student leaders say they’re nervous.

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“What worries me is that the landscape of student life we’ve been privileged to have won’t be the same,” said Joshua Bowman, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

At the U of T, students are presented with a list of more than 25 optional fees, ranging from scholarships to student clubs.

For each student, the decisive moment boils down to a long list on a computer screen. Each item has a price and a description limited to 150 characters. For many students, Mr. Bowman fears, that one- or two-sentence description will be the extent of what they know about the groups whose future depends on them.

“Looking at the opt-out portal, I don’t believe you can really understand what you’re opting out of. You can’t make an informed decision,” Mr. Bowman said.

As orientation week begins, he and student leaders at every other school are planning an information campaign centred on social media and face-to-face politicking. He’s hopeful students will see value in the fees, but he knows budgets of the fee recipients will almost inevitably shrink.

The UTSU has prepared three budget scenarios. The most optimistic anticipates a 30-per-cent drop in funding.

Josie Kao, editor-in-chief of The Varsity campus paper, said the vast majority of its funding comes from the $2.87 levy on undergraduate students. With funding now up in the air, the paper has cut reporter positions at its Scarborough and Mississauga campuses, withheld pay from editors and will consider further cuts.

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“We’re in limbo right now,” Ms. Kao said. “It’s not good.”

Ms. Kao acknowledged that even if this year goes well, the funding campaign will have to be fought every term.

Universities and colleges are leaving it to students to decide what they will do, but they have an obvious stake in the outcome. If the student experience suffers, some students may look elsewhere.

“The university is not asking or advocating for students to fund any specific initiatives: Ultimately the students’ choices will determine the impact of the framework,” Queen’s University’s interim provost Tom Harris said in a statement.

Auston Pierce, president of student government at Queen’s University, said his organization has already reduced the number of jobs available to students, which he considers a loss of vital learning opportunities. Student bursaries, the food bank, legal aid and the campus newspaper are all at risk.

What attracts students to Queen’s in Kingston is the student experience, he said. That experience is likely going to change; the question is by how much.

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“We’re doing our best to mitigate the damage,” Mr. Pierce said. “It’s a pivotal moment for student organizations. We haven’t faced anything like this in our history.”

Paul Axelrod, a historian of higher education in Canada, said students fought for decades to earn the right to administer and fund their own activities.

“This really does turn the clock back,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Campus life is never just about going to class, going to the library and going home. You need this range of activities. Universities and colleges are better for it.”

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