By Nora Loreto
NDP delegates overwhelmingly voted in favour of free higher education on Sunday afternoon in Ottawa at their policy convention. Of the hundreds of motions served, it was endorsed by the greatest number of riding associations.
The NDP’s new policy on tuition fees now explicitly supports eliminating tuition and other administrative fees, eliminating student debt through zero-interest loans, removing any cap on the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, and converting tax credits into upfront grants.
“It’s incredible to see so many people have finally realized that this is an issue whose time has come,” said John Hutton, one of the organizers behind the motion.
Hutton, a representative from the riding of Hochelaga in Montreal and a former Vice-President for the Dalhousie Students’ Union, was beaming after the vote passed.
The motion was served to the resolutions committee with 28 endorsing riding associations, but by the time it reached the convention floor, Hutton said that it had earned the support of 47 riding associations total.
Free education poses a logistical problem for the federal party, as it needs to navigate the limitations of federalism while it advocates for it. Provinces fund higher education and set tuition fee levels, but the money to do this is flowed from the federal government through social transfer funding. The party risks receiving sharp criticism from the Liberals and the Conservatives, and from provincial governments, if it can’t clearly describe its plan to implement this policy.
Students in Canada owe nearly $30 billion to the federal government.
Many delegates expressed frustration over what they felt was bureaucratic wrangling to try and stop the motion as it was served to come to the floor. It had originally been placed in the middle of the Investing in a Canada where no one is left behind policy block, but delegates organized at the prioritization panel held on Friday to ensure that it would be moved up the block’s agenda.
When it came to the floor, it was referred to another prioritization panel to further debate the question of Treaty status as the motion’s last clause referenced the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, the federal government’s program to support education as a Treaty right. It was then put at the top of the emergency motions block on Sunday afternoon.
Tuition fees and student debt are primary policy planks for both the Labour Party in the UK and for Bernie Sanders, who promised to make college free if he won the Democratic nomination.
Ontario has a “free” higher education policy that’s actually a funding scheme that allows governments and institutions to continue to increase tuition fees. The Liberal government created a combination of grants and loans that defers and reduces tuition fee payments for some students, while inaccurately billing the policy as offering free education. Since they were first elected in 2003, tuition fees in Ontario have more than doubled.
Hutton sees the Ontario policy as proof that there’s a broad, public appetite for free higher education, but that the NDP is the only party that will create a universal system with no fees at all, unlike what exists in Ontario. “People are ready to do something big to win something big,” said Hutton.
Free higher education played prominently in the NDP leadership race. Both Niki Ashton and Jagmeet Singh committed to making it a priority.
Singh’s Saturday convention speech didn’t mention the issue.