Students are under attack, and the situation is only going to get worse. Undergraduate tuition fees have steadily risen over the past two decades, as student debt has rocketed to an average of $28,000. In Ontario alone, tuition fees increased from an average of $2,076 in 1993, to $5,951 for those attending university in 2009. This amounts to a 300% increase, far outpacing inflation or increases in wages.
Youth from working class and poor communities have been particularly hard hit by the increasingly inaccessible education system. The cost of education is frequently cited for the reason youth do not attend university or college. For those who do, part-time jobs and financial hardship are becoming the norm. This puts working class and poor students at a significant disadvantage, which is reflect in the ever-increasing average family income of those who do graduate, particularly in professional and graduate programs.
In the current economic crisis, the reality is that many graduates face the prospect of unemployment and low-pay employment (despite their high skill level), making student debt a nightmare many understandably choose to avoid altogether.
Attacks on academic workers and the quality of education
At the same time as tuition fees have rocketed, we are seeing the quality of education steadily decrease as business-minded university administrators take aim at the campus workforces by slashing wages, cutting courses, and laying off staff. Class sizes in the thousands are to be expected at Canada’s major universities, while at the same time, we have teaching staff who are struggling to get by on meagre salaries.
Over the past decades, there has been a shift from well-paid, full-time professorships to contract employment at low wages. More and more, universities are expanding the proportion of teaching and research done by graduate and post-doctorate students who are not given stable positions. Taking advantage of a vulnerable and desperate pool of highly skilled labour has become commonplace at the universities, where some 30% of teaching instructors are contracted, and teaching assistants and researchers are paid pitiful wages.
The impact of these changes on the quality of our education has been significant. Teachers who are thrown around from course to course and through different departments are limited in developing interesting and engaging curriculum. Large class sizes have turned universities into a factory-like institution with mass produced lectures and testing having replaced genuine discussion, debate, and inquiry.
These attacks on academic workers have sparked a fighting spirit among many young academic workers who have, through their unions, started to take matters into their own hands. This was seen most evidently at the 2009 York University strike by contract professors, teaching assistants, and graduate assistants, with the support of many students from the broader York University campus.
The economic crisis and budget cuts
The frequent argument made by government and university administrators is that there just isn’t enough money to fund post-secondary education. This same argument is regularly repeated whenever we demand an end to the underfunding of schools, childcare, community centres, housing, healthcare, and various public services.
The argument that there just isn’t enough money just doesn’t sit with the facts.
Stephen Harper’s federal government spent $275-billion bailing out the big banks, buying toxic assets, and supporting large corporations, reaching into the pockets of working class people to guarantee the obscene profits of the rich in Canada. To add to this, the Conservative federal government and the provincial governments have shown a commitment to serving the richest Canadians, through corporate tax cuts, while increasing taxes that hurt working class people the most (such as the HST in BC and Ontario).
When it comes to military and police spending, wasting our tax dollars also doesn’t seem to be an issue. The recent G20 summit in Toronto cost working class people $1.2-billion, and saw over a thousand youth and workers illegally arrested, beaten, and thrown into detention centres. Police department budgets have similarly swollen; for example, almost half of Toronto’s municipal budget is spent on policing.
On the military front, Stephen Harper has recently given the go-ahead to a massive $16-billion purchase of jet planes for the Canadian military. This is at the same time that the majority of Canadians make it clear that they want an end to the costly imperialist war in Afghanistan, and the immediate withdrawal of Canadian forces.
It is true that both federal and provincial governments are facing serious deficits. This, however, is not our fault. The economic crisis, caused by the rich bankers and corporations, is now being placed on the backs of the working class. The Liberals and Conservatives gladly gave handouts to the rich in the form of bailouts, and when this caused the current deficit, we are supposed to smile as they make cuts to our services and carry out layoffs. Meanwhile, the banks are posting record profits.
This money could have been invested into post-secondary education, housing, healthcare, good jobs, and various social services. We do not accept the lie that the money for post-secondary education isn’t there, and we demand a drastic increase to government funding.
Organizing the fight back
Only through the co-ordinated fight of students with the working class, both on and off campus, can we effectively fight tuition fee increases, the broader cuts to post-secondary education, and for stable and dignified standards of living for academic workers and teaching staff.
Students have a long history of fighting alongside the labour movement, and over the past years, there has been significant coordinated action around tuition fee protests. In fact, labour unions have given considerable support to students who have been targeted by university administrations and police for their political activities, and have regularly raised the demand for free education.
The majority of English-speaking students in Canada are members of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a student union that has consistently spoke out for reduced tuition fees and is naturally linked with the labour movement and the New Democratic Party (NDP). These forces, united on a concrete program and through militant action and strikes, could easily provide leadership in fighting for free post-secondary education. They could even go further in fighting the broader attacks on working class people.
Unfortunately, this movement has not taken shape. The CFS has not taken the lead in building a mass, participatory, and militant student movement. . The CFS needs to adopt the slogan for free education if it is to really inspire people in meaningful struggle. In Quebec, mass student strikes have been able to keep tuition fees at the lowest levels in Canada. On the other hand, the CFS has oriented itself to lobbying and pressure protests that tend to dissipate the energy of students, without making any concrete changes
Join our fight to build a movement for free accessible education, to support campus workers, and for a socialist society.
For a militant and united movement of students and workers!
Stop the attack on campus workers and teaching staff!
Free education now!