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People walk on the grounds of the University of Toronto, on Sept. 9, 2020.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Joshua Chong is a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and an associate features editor with the student publication The Varsity.

I have a lot to lose if the Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) is revived.

The controversial policy, announced by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in 2019, allowed postsecondary students to opt out of the mandatory fees that support various campus organizations, including student newspapers. During the one semester that the SCI was in place, funding reductions meant The Varsity’s biannual print magazine had to be slashed in favour of a digital version. At schools where a larger proportion of the student body opted out of fees supporting their student publications, the SCI prompted significant cuts to print issues.

But just a few months after it was introduced, the SCI was struck down by an Ontario court, which ruled that the policy was an overreach by the province. Crisis averted – or so the student papers declared. The policy is now back in court, however, as the government appeals the original ruling.

The SCI should still be struck down. On balance, it does far more harm than good, especially for vital university clubs, as well as mental health and sexual assault services that rely on fees to survive. Yet, for Ontario’s campus newspapers, the policy could present an opportunity for reinvention and reconnection with the communities we serve.

At U of T and other schools, most students recognize the value of campus media. These community publications hold their schools – the majority of which are publicly funded institutions – to account. They also act as a rigorous training ground for aspiring journalists.

And despite vows from politicians such as Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole to defund the CBC, Canadians tend to support public media institutions; a 2019 Nanos poll found that just 17 per cent of Canadians want to decrease the CBC’s funding levels. When the SCI was in place at U of T, there was an average opt-out rate of 23.6 per cent across all optional services and organizations – a considerable figure, but nowhere near enough to cease The Varsity’s 139-year-old operations.

While SCI-prompted cuts are unlikely to shutter other school papers, the sudden removal of stable funding from student levies did reveal a lack of accountability among them. While many publications have mechanisms such as a public editor and a board of directors, it’s hard to have true accountability when the public editor is merely an adviser or when the board of directors is stacked with journalists acclaimed to their positions. Do these individuals truly represent the views of the wider university community that the paper serves?

The only time student publications listen intently to what their readers have to say is when it comes time to ask for student levy increases every three years or so. The best form of accountability is direct accountability – and the SCI offers that.

The SCI also offers campus newspapers the opportunity to spur innovation. The funding cuts may not have been enough to derail the train, but they were significant enough to make many student publications realize that, without switching tracks, we’re heading toward a cliff. Traditional media is on the decline, and campus publications are no exception. If they don’t cater to new audience demands, they risk joining the ever-growing list of defunct community papers in the country. Such innovation requires bold ideas and leadership, but under the current system, there is no impetus for either. Funding remains consistent, no matter the quality of the work.

People are often inclined to take the path of least resistance, in keeping with the status quo. But this leads to slow, incremental changes, not the systemic transformations that may be desperately needed. For the journalism industry, something jarring that shakes up the status quo – something like the SCI-prompted funding cuts – could force editors to re-evaluate their operating plans and innovate.

When The Varsity Magazine moved online as a result of the SCI cuts, it was arguably the best issue in recent memory. There was more diverse multimedia content and greater readership engagement. Other university papers were also forced to cut their print issues and move to more digital operations, and for most, it led to an increase in readership and community engagement.

The SCI may be bad policy. But as it winds its way through the courts again, student journalists shouldn’t lose the sense of existential urgency it sparked.

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