Drip drop, goes the fee movement

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Drop Fees is back, but will it actually drop anything this time around? Arts and Life Editor Allyssia Alleyne takes a look at what the movement’s revival means

On the glass walls of the Student Campus Centre, a red-and-white poster covers one of the panes. The silhouettes of a few students, fists raised in rebellion, are framed by the words “Drop Fees End Poverty.”

There was a time when the poster was new, promoting the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario’s campaign that lobbied the provincial government to drop tuition rates to 2004 levels. The poster’s colour and relevance have now faded. In 2010 CFS-Ontario dismantled the Drop Fees campaign, choosing to focus on the national Education is a Right campaign, which lobbies the federal rather than provincial government for lower tuition fees.

A tired campaign, but one the RSU wants to bring back to life. The RSU is going to join the CFS in reviving the Drop Fees campaign starting this week with an initial workshop to educate students about the economics of free post-secondary education on Oct. 27.

Over the two years of the initial campaign, gains were made, but tuition fees continued to rise until Ontario became the province with the highest tuition fees for undergraduates. Students continue to feel left out of the movement and some say it will only meet the fate of its predecessor.

“I think it’s something that resonates with people,” said Melissa Polermo, vice-president education at the RSU. “We had Education is a Right, but everybody kept talking about Drop Fees.” Palermo says it will be different from the Drop Fees that roused about a 1,000 students, workers and community activists to march to Queen’s Park on Nov. 5, 2009 in a flurry of colourful signs and rhyming couplets. This time around, the event will culminate in a National Day of Action on Feb. 1, 2012 and unite students across the country instead of just Ontario students.

That being said, Ontario universities will centre their campaign around the recent provincial election, using Drop Fees to call-out the Liberals, who frequently told the media that they would be reducing tuition fees by 30 per cent, when in fact they were only offering the deal to certain students in the form of a grant. “We’re sort of like, you know what? You called it this. Let’s hold you to your promise,” Palermo says.

In spite of Drop Fees’s magnitude, tuition fees have been neither decreased nor frozen. The last freeze happened in 2004, under the Ontario Liberal government, but was lifted in 2006. Palermo doesn’t think this should discourage potential participants. “Just because we didn’t get a tuition freeze or reductions doesn’t mean we didn’t have victories,” she says. She cites the fact that since the Drop Fees campaign, OSAP has instituted a six-month interest-free period after graduation and $310 million in funding was added to the University and College sector in the 2010 Ontario budget. That being said, she hopes that this campaign will lead to a tuition reduction this time around.

Alex Gill, an instructor at Ryerson and founder of Mendicant Group a Non Profit consulting and charity management firm, says that although lowering tuition fees and making education more affordable is a “laudable goal” governments usually ignore the campaigns. This is because they know students don’t vote and “being a student is a temporary issue for them and their parents” he wrote in an email. After their education is over, it’s no longer an issue.

Jesse Greener, was chairperson for CFS Ontario between 2004 and 2007 is now a post-doctoral fellow, researching chemistry at the University of Toronto. He was part of the campaign to reduce tuition fees that later morphed into Drop Fees. He sees first hand how the day-to-day grind can put political issues on the back-burner for many. “When you get into a work environment,” he says. “People tend to lose their connection to political issues that they were impassioned about as students and they just kind of are dealing with the daily grind.”

However, it’s not the students losing interest he says, but the government finding it easy not to listen. “[H]ow students organize themselves, that’s actually the one thing that I think is actually very, very positive. What I’m cynical is about the politician interest in what student’s are saying.” It’s easier for politicians to cut taxes, rather than explain why “a well-funded, public education system is going to benefit society in economic terms.”

But no matter how well intentioned the campaign, the RSU will need to pull their weight if they want to get the student body behind them. In the two years since the campaign, many supporters have graduated, replaced by students for whom Drop Fees is nothing more than a poster on a windowpane.

Joanna Dass, a second-year photography student, came to Ryerson after the original Drop Fees campaign, and is considering getting involved on the Day of Action if her schedule will allow. “It feels like everybody needs lower fees,” she says, even though her parents are footing her tuition. “And there is that drive and compassion that comes with working in a group towards something.” But she’s also afraid that her efforts will just be a waste of time. “All that protesting for nothing?” she says. “That would turn me off.”

But even if the past campaigns had been successful, Carmen Galvan would have no desire to get involved with the Drop Fees campaign even though, on paper, she seems like the perfect candidate. The daughter of Latin American revolutionaries, Galvan attended her first rally when she was four years old (“It was for the release of Basque prisoners”). During the 2010, G20 summit in Toronto, she was one of the many peaceful protesters who took to the streets to draw attention to their own causes, walking under the banner calling for increased maternal rights and abortion funding overseas. She’s currently completing a placement at the AIDS Committee of Toronto.

She also works 20 hours a week as a sale associate at a Mississauga Value Village to pay off her OSAP loans. But still, fighting for lower tuition has never been a priority. When her professor gave her class the chance to leave the lecture to attend the 2009 Drop Fees protest at Queen’s Park, she didn’t attend. Instead, she went home and took a nap before work. “It seemed really lame. I would never have a rally about that,” she says. “Women are forced to have back-alley abortions, while we want cheaper textbooks?” she says. “It just doesn’t compare.”

Though Palermo acknowledges that the issues are different, she doesn’t think that it’s necessary to neglect one cause at the expense of another. “I don’t think it’s an either or sort of thing, and it’s not putting one issue over the other,” she says. The campaign rhetoric has argued continuously that making education more accessible by dropping tuition fees would lead to a more equitable society.

First-year social work student Alana Shaw, on the other hand, has no doubts she would get involved because, in her eyes, tuition fees will affect students for a long time. Her only worry is that she won’t even know when the campaign kicks off. Though she has walked by the myriad posters plastered inside the SCC, she doesn’t know how she personally can take part in campaigns. She also says lack of publicity around opportunities discourages first years like herself from getting involved, and sends the message that the RSU is content to function without their participation. Palermo says the RSU is only beginning to craft its message. It will be a Drop Fees revival, but the union will also advocate its Education is a Right campaign as well. There have been different forms of getting the same message across she says “so you can talk to people about the same thing in different ways.”

But with Ryerson’s commuter culture, it’s doubtful that people will be motivated to stick around to do so. Alicia Sikora recalls how active students were in movements at residence-focused Western University, where she studied before transferring to Ryerson’s retail management program this fall.

Sikora, who lived in residence for one month before moving into her own apartment, thinks that a lack of school spirit and group consciousness at Ryerson — which she attributes to the fact that Ryerson has low residence numbers and doesn’t have a gated campus — could impact her desire to get involved with a campaign. “There’s not much of a student community,” she said. “There are just a lot of commuters here.”

“We’re cognizant to the fact that we’re part of a commuter campus,” said Polermo. Though she couldn’t offer any definitive solutions, aside from trying to offer teach-ins and other related events at diverse times of day. She herself was first introduced to the Drop Fees campaign as a first-year new media student living on residence, where the campaign was promoted through posters and members of residence council.

In spite of any doubts that students may have about the revived Drop Fees campaign, Palermo is hopeful that many will take advantage of this opportunity to make their voices heard and students will shake their fists once more. “[Drop Fees was a success because we were] showing the government that students are angry,” she says. Tuition debt follows people long after they are done university, adds Greener. And people who “poo, poo” the movement are missing the bigger picture. “My point is that if students aren’t the ones who are going to be bringing forward challenging ideas that are complicated and important such as those economic and social concerns that come with high tuition fees, then who’s gonna do it?” And Gill sees potential at the moment too. “Now that we have a minority government provincially, they may have a better opportunity to have governments listen to them.”

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