Students, activists, and labour movement leaders are sounding the alarm about the devastating impact the Ford government’s plans for post-secondary education will have on the system’s accessibility and democracy.
On Jan. 17, the Ford government announced it was – ostensibly – taking three major steps towards ensuring affordability of post-secondary education. It will lower tuition fees by up to 10 per cent at every publicly-funded college and university in Ontario, give students “more choice” over the fees they pay, and “restore financial sustainability” to OSAP, the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
But the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) called the tuition fee reduction “nothing more than a red herring” in a statement posted to its Facebook page on Jan. 17. Then, in a Jan. 18 press release, the CFS further denounced the changes as “reckless” and “severe.” Lowering tuition fees, which skyrocketed under the Liberals, is something students should support. Universal programs and services should not be means tested and university administrations should looked at skepticism if they argue that lowering tuition fees, without increasing funding, will automatically lead to a reduction in the quality of service.
According to CFS, the government’s announcement includes a guaranteed four per cent cut to institutional funding, a reduction to needs-based grants, an increase in student loans, and the elimination of the six-month grace period for loan repayment and interest accumulation.
“The proposed cuts to OSAP will harm those students most in need,” the CFS stated. “Moreover, without an increase to operating funds for institutions, this tuition fee reduction will most likely come at the hands of cuts to campus workers and services. Students were not consulted in this process. The Ford government is looking to dismantle public post-secondary education and is attempting to eliminate the opposition to do it.”
CFS estimates that colleges and universities will face combined funding cuts of up to $440 million annually, which is expected to result in larger class sizes, fewer course options, and downward pressure on workers’ wages and benefits.
The Ford government is also changing the definition of ‘dependent’ from being four years out of high school to six. This means higher education will become less accessible for mature students, since students’ parents’ income will be part of the OSAP assessment for loans and grants even if those students are living independently.
Graduate students and students in professional programs like medicine and law will be denied grants and forced to rely entirely on loans.
Nour Alideeb, CFS-Ontario chairperson, noted that because of compound interest, “The reality of loans-based financial aid programs is that students from low-income families pay more for their education in the long-run.”
Labour leaders also weighed in on the government’s plans.
“Students will be ultimately the big losers,” said Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). “OPSEU is going to devote whatever resources it takes to stop Doug Ford from jeopardizing our children’s future success in the job market with this backdoor scheme to make cuts.”
Fred Hahn, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario division, said in a statement that “Workers and students are united against Doug Ford’s proposed cuts because we know the damaging impact they will have on students, workers and families across this province for years to come.”
Attacking student unions
“We will also take action to defend the autonomy of students’ unions because we understand that students’ unions, like labour unions, are democratically controlled by their members and should be free from government interference,” Hahn added.
The Ford government seems to be taking unprecedented aim at students’ unions since, according to the government’s release, colleges and universities “will be required to provide an online opt-out option for all non-essential non-tuition fees.”
In response, CFS declared that “students’ unions are under attack” because the “Ford government is encouraging students to opt out of their students’ union dues” which will “reduce the ability of students’ unions to represent and service their members.”
Conservatives have campaigned for years on university campuses to attack student unions and defund student-funded groups like CFS and OPIRG, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group. OPIRG is a decentralized network of campus-based groups that work locally for social and environmental justice through research and popular education, community organizing, and direct advocacy.
Although right-wing students were able to take over the undergraduate student union at Carleton University in 2012, successive campaigns to eliminate OPIRG and CFS from the campus through democratic referendums were defeated. A similar campaign at Queen’s University succeeded in defunding their OPIRG in 2012.
Conservatives seem to have now seized this moment of provincial power for a top-down implementation of these strategies to attack, undermine, and ultimately destroy progressive forces on campus.
Numerous groups in addition to CFS and OPIRG operate on campuses across the province, based on student fees implemented through a referendum process, typically ranging from the $1-7 range. These include Pride and disability awareness centres, sexual violence support centres, food banks, and peer support programs.
Not every student uses every service but, collectively, this broad array of student-run groups enriches the academic experience and provides valuable services otherwise not offered to students and, for that matter, the broader community.
This includes student media, such as community radio stations and newspapers.
All of these will become optional under the Ford government’s plan.
An attack on democracy
On Twitter, Joel Harden, the Ontario NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, called the Ford government’s opt-out plan an “American-style ‘right to work’” scheme. “This is an attack on services students rely on, an attack on democracy, and an attempt to muzzle Ford’s critics.”
The national representative for CFS-Ontario, Sami Pritchard, agreed. “Students’ unions are the independent, democratic voice for students ensuring they may have a say in their own education,” she said in a statement.
“Students, through their students’ unions, have long fought for government action on accessible, affordable high quality public post-secondary education, so it’s no wonder they are the next target of the Ford government,” Pritchard added.
CFS also pointed out that average student union dues are only about $100 per year and are used to “advocate for students’ best interests and provide cost-savings services.” Dues are established democratically by student union members.
Among other services, student unions provide health and dental insurance plans, transit passes, peer support programs, academic advocacy, orientation programming, volunteer and job opportunities, and non-profit commercial services – such as cafes, restaurants, and bookstores – on campuses where students have limited choices.
Activists are planning to hold a rally on Jan. 21 to oppose Ford’s measures. One of the rally’s organizers, identified as Carolyn S., said that collective grassroots action was necessary to stop the Ford government’s cuts to post-secondary education.
“The fight against Doug Ford and his cuts should be fought by the people,” she said. “No police or state measures can give us what we are demanding. It is important that we all share the responsibility of standing up to these changes. They affect our day-to-day living and our futures.”
A version of this article was first published by the Leveller.