Few may realize it, but the Ontario government’s policy changes for postsecondary education have far-reaching, long-term consequences for Canadian society and culture as a whole.
Led by ultra-conservative leader Doug Ford, the government announced a $600 million cut to student grants and changes to public student loan policies that will hurt low-income students. The announcement was packaged with a mandatory 10 percent reduction in tuition fees in an attempt to spin the massive cutback as a good-news story for students.
But there was another insidious policy change that was part of the package, the implications of which most media outlets did not report — perhaps because they did not understand it.
The government also announced a provision making compulsory, non-academic fees optional. The minister in charge of colleges and universities in Ontario, Marrilee Fullerton, described the policy change as a way to give students “choice” in the fees they pay.
The odd thing about this is that students already have a choice over these fees. Current regulations require that students provide their consent prior to the collection of these fees. This consent is obtained collectively via campus-wide referendums.
The fees fund programs that either enrich the college and university experience or provide much-needed support and services to students — things such as student newspapers, student unions, food banks, health and child-care centers. Most of these programs and services are run by students themselves.
The Ford government’s intention is to attack these democratically established fees in the same way that his Progressive Conservative Party has previously floated attacking labor unions — by establishing a “right to work” mechanism through which individual students can opt out of fees in contravention of the democratic will of the student body.
Ontario’s tuition fees are the highest in Canada, and this government is providing less support in financial aid. In this context, some students will feel they have little choice but to make the decision to opt out of these fees.
But it is unlikely that the demand — and thus the resources needed — for the food bank, child-care centers and student newspapers will decrease. This situation will significantly destabilize student organizations and lead to massive job cuts and a loss of resources for thousands of organizations across Ontario. And make no mistake, this is a direct, political attack against independent student organizations and a precursor to establishing the same sort of policy for labor unions.
Independent student organizations, student unions and the student press have a strong history of advocacy and contributing to social change in Canada. These organizations often organize against government policies that are harmful to the members of their organizations, much like labor unions. In the case of students’ unions, in particular, they see themselves as advocacy organizations primarily tasked with fighting to make education accessible, whether that means taking on the university administration or the government itself.
This is a nuisance to a Conservative government. What better way to reduce the strength of public critique and weaken the ability of student advocacy groups to influence government policy in the long term than to cut these organizations off at the knees?
Student organizations play a large role in Canadian society on issues far beyond affordable education. The legalization of abortion in this country can be traced back to student organizing on campuses. Changes to human rights legislation that include queer and transgender people were also rooted in campus organizing. Because of the strength of their collective organizing power, they are an important societal force behind significant rights we enjoy in Canada.
The involvement of these organizations in public cultural events and advocacy year after year means they serve as a training ground for young people who later go on to become journalists and government representatives and who create community organizations with well-trained members who are able to make their mark on policy.
Conservative political operatives in Canada understand that this policy change will have broad consequences to progressive organizing and have been planning to weaken student organizations since 2009, as revealed through WikiLeaks and reported on in the now-defunct student paper, the Ryerson Free Press. What is seemingly a small, inconsequential policy change is really a part of a long-term strategy meant to shift politics in Canada to the right.
As someone who worked in the student press, served different roles in student organizations and then went on to use the skills that I honed in these spaces to found Black Lives Matter - Toronto and in my work at the Black Legal Action Centre, I can say that the cultural impact of weakening students’ rights to collective organizing and progressive policy change cannot be overstated. If permitted to stand, this policy change will affect Canadian society for years to come.