By Jen Gerson
They took to the streets one afternoon in early February.
Piling on toques and furry mittens, 600 students from York, University of Toronto and Ryerson carry identical highlighter-yellow signs, provided by the Canadian Federation of Students, demanding reduced tuition fees printed in purple ink.
The students gather at Ryerson. From Jorgenson Hall, they march two blocks north to College Street, which closes Yonge Street to northbound traffic. The protesters then head west on College Street.
After picking up more protestors at U of T, the gaggle heads to Queen’s Park, dispersing on the south lawn of the provincial legislature. Photographers from the major papers are also out in full force, snapping photos of the leaders, the photogenic and the dreadlocked. After the protest, RyeSAC’s president-elect Rebecca Rose and incoming vice-president education Nora Loreto carry their crumpled banners trumpeting demands for affordable education, calls ten years in the making.
The duo, along with the rest of the student-centred slate, won votes by promising to lobby for a continuation of the tuition freeze.
After a decade of tuition hikes under the former Harris government, and subsequent lobbying by students, Dalton McGuinty granted students a two-year tuition freeze, to end in 2006.
Student lobby organizations advertised their success on hallway posters and in full-page advertisements in student newspapers while administrators across th eprovince lamented the reduction in funding. This expectation is at best laughably naive–at worst dishonest and misleading.
In February, McGuinty bluntly stated that fees would go up after 2006, but said the hikes would be moderate. With the release of the Bob Rae review in February some pessimistic pundits have pinned the hike at as much as 20 per cent.
“Students in Ontario now are facing a situation where the government has promised one thing on the campaign trail and now is saying another thing,” said Frank Klees, the Conservative education critic.
The fate of the fees is one topic that social democrats and conservatives can agree upon. “(McGuinty’s) made it quite clear, tuition fees will go up,” said Rosario Marchese, NDP education critic. “The question is, how much?
The Rae review, released in mid-February, outlined how the government may try to revitalize a crumbling post-secondary education system. Rae acknowledged that Ontario’s universities are underfunded and suggested a $1.3 billion infusion into the cash-strapped system. But, he also said that regulations governing how much universities can charge in tuition fees should be loosened, leading many student activists to voice concerns that impoverished universities would resort to leeching off of their students instead of demanding more money from the government.
For the poorest of Ontario’s students, Rae suggested the government provide grants of up to $6,000 per year. For anyone whose family registers a smidgen above poor, more loans would be available at a cheaper interest rate. For the CFS, the review is old, bad news. “The important phase now is working to convince the government that our position on tuition fees and on funding is the way they should go,” said Jesse Greener, Ontario Chairperson of the CFS.
He and the incoming executives at RyeSAC, which spent the first part of the year organizing postcard campaigns in an attempt to encourage Rae to reconsider his suggestions, are now focused on stemming the inevitable tide of rising fees. “We need to put pressure on those MPPs to follow through. Petitions are one way; letter-writing campaigns are another way.
Personal meetings and phone calls–those are all very effective,” Greener said. Those are strategies that Marchese would approve of but he says that students haven’t done a great job of lobbying the body politic so far. “Most students don’t realize that this is something they should be doing,” he said. “I believe a lot of students suffer silently–they don’t thank about what they can do about it.” Marchese advocates individual action, the power of a single student to affect change.
The best way to get the government to pay attention, he said, is to call and meet with MPPs in local ridings. As for membership with larger special-interest organizations like the CFS, he says, “I don’t think they’re ignored, but I believe that MPPs listen to individual constituents as much, if not more.”
Klees, who isn’t ideologically opposed to students paying for a percentage of their education, has been the subject of letter-writing campaigns, petitions, pickets and near-riots. He said he finds the pity-me-and-my-student-loan activists unmoving.
“(Change) is not going to happen on an emotional basis, he said. If students want to convince him to increase funding, they have to present a factual, substantial case.
“I don’t know if a government would decide to respond just because a student camps out on their doorstep,” Klees said.
For the foreseeable future, calls for lower tuition fees will be hampered by the fact that, for most Canadians, health care and social welfare are higher priorities than elite education.
Students, seniors, the sick and those who are down on their luck are always clamoring for a piece of an ever-tightening budget and an ever-shrinking social safety net. “We’re not prepared to defend the finances of a student who refuses to make a contribution to his education…It’s not pie in the sky, it’s not about what (students) want, it’s about what (they) need,” Klees said.
In Montreal last month, the latest drama in the student movement unfolded: Almost 40 students occupied the Conseil du patronat du Quebec, the province’s biggest business lobby organization to protest funding cuts.
Another 200 students faced off against riot police outside. Police say the protest turned violent. Several were arrested. The cuts to education continue.