By Alia Karim
On January 17, 2019, the Doug Ford government announced the entirety of its plans for changes to the post-secondary system in Ontario. Its announcement on ancillary fees (i.e. “student fees”) is undeniably an attack on students’ unions, and signals a chilling effect on left-leaning campus activism. The Conservatives announced this without any consultation in the post-secondary sector, except for some input from a small group of alt-right “free speech” student activists. To fully understand the threat posed by this announcement, we need to review it in more detail, beginning with the proposed reduction in tuition fees.
Ford’s proposed tuition fee reduction
The trickiest part of the government’s announcement is its proposal of a guaranteed four-per cent cut (but which might rise to as much as 10 per cent) to tuition fees for all students. Under this framework, tuition fees would decrease for the 2019-20 academic year, then be frozen for the following year.
Let’s be clear: reducing user fees for post-secondary education is undeniably a good thing. Socialists oppose the application of user fees to fund vital programs like education and healthcare because it undermines access for working-class families. In fact, the right-wing argument against reducing tuition fees has always been to say that eliminating tuition fees would damage the quality of post-secondary education because it would eliminate a funding stream.
Now that Doug Ford has moved in this direction, how should we respond? Unfortunately, too many progressives have fallen into the trap of opposing the tuition fee reduction altogether because it cuts revenue from post-secondary education funding. Instead, we should support the move to reduce tuition fees, but demand that the government fully fund it.
For the last few months, post-secondary administrations and student unions expected a cut to core operational funding for universities and colleges. If the Conservatives impose a 10-per cent tuition cut, it would take an estimated $360 million away from universities and $80 million from colleges. There’s no doubt that the post-secondary sector is starved and needs more resources and support. But if we accept the argument that core operational funding and tuition fees should be linked, then it bindsus into an argument of supporting tuition fees, when we should clearly support the call for free and accessible education.
The Conservatives are smart in their deployment of this strategy: technically, it is not actually a cut to post-secondary public funding, as tuition fees generate a separate stream of private funding to post-secondary education (paid for directly by students and their families), in addition to the public stream that comes from government. The problem is that, over the years, the proportion of revenue that comes from tuition fees has dramatically increased, while the proportion that comes from government has shrunk. This trend represents the slow and steady privatization of post-secondary education.
Minister Merrilee Fullerton argued that it’s up to post-secondary administrations to make decisions about lost revenue from the tuition fee cut. At a time when thousands of post-secondary administrators and deans earn over-the-top, bloated salaries (for example, William Moriarty, the President and CEO of the University of Toronto’s asset management corporation, earns at least $1 million, while Meric Gertler, the President of the University of Toronto, earns well over $400,000), it’s entirely possible for them to re-allocate and re-distribute their funding. This might not be enough to make up for the shortfall, but we have to remember that the ways universities and colleges are internally organized right now are not working and need to change.
Some post-secondary critics are speculating that the lost revenue from tuition fees may result in cutting courses and faculty positions (which would be devastating, considering the many thousands of contract faculty struggling to access permanent, tenured faculty positions). It’s entirely possible that courses and faculty might face unnecessary cuts. But instead of arguing to maintain high tuition fees, socialists should be putting forward an argument for a united fightback that calls for even further reductions in tuition fees and to stop any layoffs of staff or faculty and to stop any program cuts.
We need to be clear that we want reduced tuition fees: indeed, we want to see the elimination of tuition fees altogether. This is the essence of free, universal education. There’s a reason why Ford is selling a tuition cut—to appease a huge part of his working-class base that are low-income and struggling to get by (and still furious at the Liberals for hiking the cost of essentials like Hydro). I have no doubt that many ordinary students are excited about a reduction in tuition fees, for the same reason people are excited when Ford promises to cut taxes. Reducing tuition fees is not something that we as socialists should oppose, no matter who brings it in: Liberals, Tories, or the NDP.
But we must link it with an argument for continued mobilization for increased funding and to eliminate the bloated salaries of senior administrators, not to mention the massive advertising budgets that are now endemic on college and university campuses alike.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the BC NDP froze tuition fees in that province. But student leaders with links to the NDP opposed criticizing the government for its failure to provide adequate funding. Instead, faculty and staff were forced to campaign for additional funding, largely by themselves. Without official students’ unions actively involved in the call for additional funding, some faculty and staff unions wound up calling for higher tuition fees. The failure to join forces to call for additional funding damaged solidarity and normalized the neoliberal logic of applying user fees as a source of funding for universal programs.
We have to avoid falling into that trap here.
Changes to OSAP
The issue is made more complex with the Tories’ announced changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP): the removal of the six-month grace period for loan repayment and the elimination of the Liberals’ “free tuition” to low-income students. Only students whose families earn $140,000 or less per year will be eligible for OSAP. The majority of OSAP grants will go to students whose families earn $50,000 or less, while the rest will receive funding in the form of a loan.
Some students who are upset by the Conservatives’ announcement are praising the Liberals’ “free tuition” policy. But to unpack the current situation, we need to better understand what the Liberals were actually doing with their so-called “free tuition” program.
The previous Liberal government had introduced “free tuition” via a grant for low-income students whose families earn less than $50,000. That the Liberals ended the previous policy of offering tax credits to fund education (a cumbersome process that in no way addresses access issues for lower-income families) was a victory for students who campaigned for grants instead of tax credits or loans. In addition, the Liberals rightly eliminated requirements that made students who took time off between high school and post-secondary ineligible for many grants. But as the student movement has argued for decades, a grant is not the same as eliminating tuition fees, and calling the program “free tuition” is misleading–especially since the Liberals had overseen a doubling of tuition fees during their time in power, after freezing them for two years when they were first elected.
The Liberals also increased the cap (ceiling) on the amount students could borrow to pay for their education, thereby increasing the student loan debt revenue stream for funding post-secondary education. This was not a government working for free education. Instead, they were on track to allow tuition fees to provide for a growing portion of revenue, while also paving the way for corporate funding in the post-secondary education sector. This latter point explains the ballooning of corporate advertising and fundraising in both the university and college sectors. The means-tested grants for students was merely a fig-leaf for a massive expansion of private funding (corporate and student) for post-secondary education.
But campaigning on “free tuition” and grants–however popular they sounded–weren’t enough to overcome the justifiable anger many people felt toward the Liberals, which helps explain their huge defeat to the Conservatives in June 2018.
Unfortunately, many left-leaning student activists and allies didn’t entirely understand the changes made under the Liberals, and now are calling all changes made by the Conservatives entirely regressive: this is even more confusing for students who want to see tuition fees reduced. This is a trap set by Conservatives: to get progressives campaigning against reducing tuition fees and supporting means-tested grants, instead of addressing accessibility directly. By taking these positions, students and other well-intentioned allies will undermine their own base among low- and modest-income students and families. It is this confusion that winds up generating support for the likes of Doug Ford.
Voluntary students’ union fees
The Conservatives’ planto makeancillary fees optional is a clear attack on left-leaning students’ unions most critical of government. While the Conservatives have yet to release the full details about how voluntary student fees will be implemented, it’s a huge threat to students’ unions.
Here again, the Conservatives are smart. They are selling this proposal as the “Student Choice Initiative.” Their basic argument is this: if you, as an individual, don’t support the work of student unions (and they really mean the political work), then why should you fund them? This comes at a time when campus Conservatives are present and well organized on nearly all campuses, and even far-right student activists have spread hate propaganda, like the racist and anti-Semitic illustrations found at York University.
groups have long been critical of some students’ unions who support
left-leaning social movements (e.g. Indigenous solidarity; support for trade
unions and university workers; anti-racist, feminist, and LGBTQ2S+ activism;
etc.). Where progressive students’ unions have not built support among their
members for these kinds of initiatives, it has been easy for the Conservatives
to undermine them. In other cases, campus Conservatives have built on the
justifiable anger in response to students’ union leaders who have mismanaged money or
engaged in fraud. In the wake of Ford’s announcement, there’s no doubt that
the campus Conservatives will push for voluntary students’ union fees to
destroy their left opposition. And with the Conservatives already successfully
pushing through “free speech” policies on campuses, they’re on a roll.
There are numerous reasons why we have to fight the voluntary fees proposal. Student unions were created as political organizations by students to challenge what the powerful administrators and government dictate. We absolutely need students’ unions to push back against cuts and actions that threaten our quality of education and rights as students. These organizations didn’t unilaterally impose fees (these are almost always decided in democratic referenda), and the amount students pay to their student unions is nowhere close to the $2,000 sum that Conservatives have claimed (on average, students contribute $100-200 per year for a full range of services and supports).
union fees–just like union dues–are the monies that students themselves
decide to pool collectively to fund independent political and advocacy work.
They are set democratically through referenda and are thus supported by the
majority of the student population.
Student unions not only lead and tend to support left-leaning social movements (think of the immense success and influence of the Quebec Student Strike), thereby creating a crucial training ground for young activists, but they also provide crucial services such as academic advocacy; emergency loans and funding; support for accessibility, equity, and social justice work; paid student worker positions; peer counselling; anti-oppression training; food banks; vibrant campus-community spaces; and more. If voluntary fees come into effect, new students will be asked whether they want to pay into a student union they have never had time to know or engage with, so they may be likely to opt out. Of course, this is not inevitable, but given the financial constraints experienced by so many students today, and their lack of knowledge of the value their dues provide, they may well take the Conservative bait and opt out.
Fighting back against Ford
As the Canadian Federation of Students’ emergency rally on January 18, 2019, at Queen’s Park indicated, there’s going to be a fightback by student unions. As the president of the York University Graduate Students’ Association, I know we’ll do everything in our power to resist and defeat this attack on students.
But many student unions and their allies are in for an incredibly tough battle. The Ontario student movement has been weakened over the last decade or so. The Canadian Federation of Students hasn’t made many gains in important “bread-and-butter” issues that directly respond to students’ material needs, especially on tuition fees, and their support has been eroding, especially in the last few years. In 2013, CFS lost all of its Quebec members in individual decertification campaigns, and last year all CFS locals in British Columbia broke ties. There have been numerous attempts by other locals to de-federate–Carleton University students only narrowly voted to stay in the CFS Ontario (by 262 votes) in 2018. In Toronto, there have been recent right-leaning takeovers of student unions at Ryerson and the University of Toronto. These new leaderships publicly oppose membership in the CFS.
Internally, there has been much debate within the CFS about whether to call for a tuition freeze and more modest reforms or to explicitly demand free education–an unfortunate counter-posing of the issues that has been disorienting for their members. In 2016, the CFS Ontario “Fight the Fees” rally only saw a few hundred students attend–at York, the numbers were even fewer, showing that ordinary students were not supporting the campaign. The praise of the Liberals’ decisions by some CFS leaders (including a photo-op with Premier Wynne) were met with confusion and disapproval from left-leaning members who were skeptical of the Liberals’ “free tuition” claims. Whereas former CFS elected leaders and staff were often employed by the NDP apparatus, recently, a former Ontario chairperson went to work for the then-governing Liberals in Ontario.
CFS work has focussed on “get-out-the-vote”-style campaigns during municipal,
provincial, and federal elections, which have failed to engage their members to
raise their level of politics (and actually duplicates the work of bodies such
as Elections Ontario, which provide information on voting). Their other
campaigns are mostly shaped as broad awareness campaigns without concrete actions
or demands, or they’ve made demands on so many issues that there’s no progress
on any one issue (for example, their 2018 municipal election campaign outlined
12 issues: divestment, child care, climate change, food security, French
Language education, housing, Reconciliation, transit, tuition fees, etc.). It’s
not that rank-and-file members haven’t been active or haven’t tried to debate
these issues at CFS meetings, but there is a lot of rebuilding and
reorientation needed to strengthen the CFS. Some students have already called
for a province-wide student strike, but without any real sense about how to
bring it about.
As socialists, we need to see, and prepare for, the long-term vision of the Conservatives. As some union leaders indicated at the CFS emergency rally, it’s quite obvious that, if the Doug Ford government is successful in its attack on students’ unions, then the Conservatives will be that much more confident to attack trade unions through right-to-work law (a ban on contractual agreements between employers and union employees requiring workers to pay for the costs of union representation). This would be a huge blow to the labour movement, and seriously threatens the sustainability of trade unions to defend and advance workers’ rights. Sadly, it’s entirely plausible that Mike Harris’ and Tim Hudak’s dream of right-to-work legislation may be realized by Ford.
point can’t be overstated: Ford’s attack on students’ unions is merely the
dress rehearsal for what his government has in store for unions. If Ford
defeats the students, unionized workers will be next.
That’s why we cannot back down now. The activation of left-leaning rank-and-file networks is badly needed within our student unions and trade unions. As demonstrated in the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, it’s entirely possible to build a mass, grassroots movement of labour and student activists who can win. Although Ford has since rolled back most of its gains, this movement won much needed reforms in Bill 148 and made the call for $15/hour, sick days, and equal-pay so wildly popular that most Ontarians support these demands. Despite the set-back by Ford, the movement’s success in popularizing these demands among broad sections of workers, including those who have illusions in Ford’s “for the people” rhetoric, has made the terrain easier to build a working-class-based fightback against the Conservatives’ agenda, and to unite unionized and non-unionized workers, along with the broader student movement.
One other ingredient must be stated explicitly. The weakness of the revolutionary left is also a contributing factor in the ideological weakness of both the students’ union and trade union leadership. There is an urgent need to extend the reach of socialist ideas. We can do this by combining our intervention in the movement with the development of clear political analysis as we go. With patience and with socialists intervening, mass movements can be built to push back against the onslaught by the Ford government. Whatever the outcome of this particular struggle, we must emerge from this round with stronger rank-and-file networks, armed with clear politics, and– crucially–more socialists, so that we are better prepared for the struggles sure to come.