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The Ontario government announced in January that all non-essential postsecondary student fees would become optional, which it defended at the time as a way to make education more affordable.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Student groups are cutting services, slashing budgets and preparing for a years-long fight to maintain aspects of campus life affected by the Doug Ford government’s move to make some student fees optional.

Most student organizations are facing lower revenues, but the size of the shortfall differs from one campus to another and from one group to another.

“It’s very inconsistent. We’re seeing that some groups are getting as little as 40-per-cent retention from the membership, and others, they’re getting up to 80 per cent. So across the board it’s very unstable,” said Felipe Nagata, Ontario chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.

The Ontario government announced in January that all non-essential postsecondary student fees would become optional, which it defended at the time as a way to make education more affordable. Student unions protested, saying it placed at risk one of the most valuable aspects of a postsecondary education, the opportunity to participate in a range of campus clubs and activities. They said it was an attempt to weaken student unions opposed to the government’s agenda. In a fundraising letter Premier Ford later referred to student unions getting up to “crazy Marxist nonsense.”

The opt-out policy has been applied differently by every institution. Some had an opt-out period of just two weeks, while others had nearly two months. Some schools made a large proportion of their fees mandatory while others offered students as much choice as possible. One possible consequence of the initiative is that differences in the level of campus services will emerge.

Lakehead University in Thunder Bay appears to be one of the schools hit hardest by the changes. Farhan Yousaf, vice-president of operations and finance at the Lakehead Student Union, said in most cases Lakehead has seen 60-65 per cent of students opt out of their fees. Some of the services affected include aboriginal programming and a campus daycare, which will see their funds cut by about 75 per cent on preliminary estimates, and services such as a food bank, which will likely lose about 65 per cent of its funding.

Mr. Yousaf said he told the university’s clubs, approximately 200 groups that range from the poetry society to the Indian Students Association, that they will no longer receive funding from the student union.

“We’ve seen a sharp decline in events on campus and student life overall,” Mr. Yousaf said. “We don’t have the resources we used to. We’ve had to lay off staff and I think next year it could have an even bigger impact.”

At Trent University, the opt-out rate for student-union funding was nearly 20 per cent. At York University it was 17 per cent, while at Ryerson University it was 39 per cent. Student unions are now debating how the services they offer should differ for those who opted to pay the fee and those who didn’t. At Trent, for example, those who opt out are still eligible to vote in student elections but can’t run for office.

Student media groups have also been affected. At Ryerson University, The Eyeopener student newspaper had a 55-per-cent opt-out rate, which will reduce its budget by roughly $125,000, according to editor-in-chief Sarah Krichel. The paper reduced the size of its masthead and started a public campaign on the value of student journalism.

At Carleton University, a 17-per-cent opt-out rate from its fee forced The Charlatan to cut staff and shift from printing weekly to monthly. At Queen’s University, the Queen’s Journal had an opt-out rate of nearly 30 per cent, better than expected but still difficult to absorb.

“We still have a massive deficit as a result of students opting out,” said editor-in-chief Meredith Wilson-Smith. “We’ll have to raise … tens of thousands of dollars by the end of the semester to ensure the paper’s viability next year.”

Many student groups say they worry they’ll suffer a death of a thousand cuts, as each opt-out period results in progressively smaller revenues.

After a long campaign to convince students not to opt out this fall, the winter opt-out period begins next month.

“We have a month to breathe and then we have to go at it again,” Mr. Nagata said.

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