Wait—a 10% tuition fee reduction, followed by a freeze. In [checks notes] Doug Ford’s Ontario?
If you didn’t hear the record scratch after Tuesday’s sneak peek announcement, you weren’t paying close enough attention. Since assuming office, Doug Ford’s conservative government has made public funding for universities contingent on institutions adopting free speech policies; cancelled funding for three satellite campuses (which could very well open the door to public-private partnerships as the three affected universities say they are looking for “other ways” to build the campuses); and scrapped plans to provide further funding to support development of a French-language university in the province.
So, given that history, what could possibly be coupled with Tuesday’s rumour about a significant cut to some of the highest tuition fees in the country?
Thursday’s announcement saw the other shoe drop like a hammer, squarely on low-income Ontarians, middle-income Ontarians, and student unions.
Let’s be clear: loans are not a student assistance program. They’re a debt delay program. So it’s somewhat duplicitous that the replacement of “zero tuition” (which, while a significant reduction for low income students, wasn’t actually free) for low income families with a combination of grants and loans — though the details about who qualifies for grants and how much are a bit foggy, probably because it’s hard to fit them on a podium sign emblazoned with “For the Students” in 400 point font—be promoted as a commitment to assisting low-income families. That “whopping” $660 savings in reduced tuition fees for university students and $340 for college students in 2019-2020 will be eclipsed by the higher debt loads that students will bear—further compounded by the government’s decision to cancel the six-month interest-free grace period on loans—at a time when a number of provinces have eliminated interest on provincial student loans altogether.
In addition to the burden they place on students and their families, the sad truth about tuition fees is the degree to which post-secondary institutions rely on them and other ancillary fees as income in the face of insufficient federal and provincial funding—a reliance that varies from province to province. So, does Ontario have a plan to compensate for the $360 million and $80 million less that universities and colleges (respectively) will receive?
Why, yes! “They will make choices in terms of what they need to do,” explains Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrliee Fullerton. “They will be able to determine what they need to do to change, to adapt and innovate.” No doubt this “juggle your plates” vote of confidence will serve as cold comfort in the face of already insufficient operating grant funding. (It’s currently unclear whether Minister Fullerton is rearranging the name of her department to Colleges, Universities and Training—CUT for short.)
One of the most insidious aspects of this announcement is the decision to make student fees—with the exception of those for health and wellness—optional. This is a direct attack on student unions which have been vocal opponents of regressive policies including downloading the costs of higher education onto students, privatization, and insufficient public support for universities and colleges.
Student unions have been at the forefront of debates for safe and harassment-free campuses, electoral initiatives and a number of progressive causes including just transition, gender equity, Indigenous reconciliation and academic freedom. For dues of $100 per year on average (according to the Canadian Federation of Students), they provide academic support and a number of advocacy services and support including equity centres, refugee support centres and food banks, and in other cases provide non-profit commercial services like bookstores and campus cafes.
They also—and here’s the bigger thing—ensure students have the opportunity, the established infrastructure, and the training to become engaged in politics, campaigning and organizing in the long term. And student unions have proven extremely effective in pushing for progressive change on their campuses, across the country, and internationally. Anyone recall Quebec’s Maple Spring in 2012 and the 400,000 people in the streets protesting the Charest government’s anti-democratic legislation? That action—one that ultimately brought down a government—was initiated, led and sustained by student unions, several of whose representatives and participants have gone on to affect change in the legislature.
So yes, this is a “make fees voluntary” trial balloon—or, rather, lead [sic] zeppelin—being dropped on one key element of progressive movements and other formal mechanisms for collective action. But it’s more than that. It’s a direct blow to some of the most vocal opponents of neoliberal, slash-and-burn governments of all political stripes, whose policies reinforce socioeconomic inequities that hurt us all—but especially the most marginalized. Other unions and union members, take note.
When student unions call for affordable education and safer campuses, they’re not doing it for themselves—they’re already dealing with debt, high rates of sexual assault and insufficient student services. They’re doing it for everyone else’s kids. And at this moment when they’re being targeted—for critiquing and resisting some of the ways this current (or a previous) government is making higher education less accessible and less publicly funded which has implications for all of us—we need to stand with them.
Erika Shaker is the editor of Our Schools / Our Selves and the Senior Education Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You can find her on Twitter at @ErikaShaker.