Tag Archives: OUSA

Drawing blood from stones: the relentless tuition fee hike

28 Mar

ABasQPsmallOntario announced a new tuition fee framework today. It’s the first time that the Liberal government has changed it in seven years

In 2006, Dalton McGuinty punched students in the face with a five per cent, on average, fee increase. It was supposed to last four years, but was extended, painfully, until 2012.

During the 2011 Ontario election, the Liberals introduced a grant to help offset the burden of these fees for some students. To those of us who spent days analyzing the Liberal proposal and strategy, it was clear that they had hoped to divert some of the negative attention on their tuition policy by offering a confusing, runner-up prize.

In the same vein, the kinder, gentler Liberal party, now lead by a grandmother rather than a seemingly ageless dad, is trying to help students out.

Today, they announced that the fee increases: 5% for most programs, 8% for the programs where university administrators want to screw students the hardest, has been replaced with 3% and 5% respectively.

McGuinty’s (and now Wynne’s) fee increases were historic: they pushed Ontario’s fees to be the most expensive and they allowed for different fees to be charged to different programs. Today’s increase puts tuition on track to double under the Liberal reign alone.

Now, students sitting in a second-year elective are paying a combination of a bunch of different fees for the same class. I say “a bunch” because I stopped counting at 10 different combinations, depending on the year they started, the actual year of the class, their program of study or their citizenship. Yes, added bureaucracy is necessary to keep track of these divisions. Yes, students will pay more and receive the same instruction as other students.

This was a clever idea: charge incoming students the most (because high school students don’t protest), charge engineering students the most (because they’re way too busy to protest), charge graduate students the most (because they’re too busy rocking back and forth under their desks to protest) and charge international students the most (because Jason Kenney will deport them if they protest).

For some, it has meant an increase of more than 71%.

High tuition fees are the best example of the insanity of austerity. Despite the fact that people who are better educated will earn more and pay more taxes (thereby paying for the cost of their education), Kathleen Wynne and her Neoliberal crew don’t care about the facts. They care about privatization. They care about eliminating the public system by stealth so that they don’t have to pay for it.

Indeed, Liberal, Tory… you know the rest.

Some “student groups” call it a step in the right direction. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a smaller step in the same direction. And, when walking towards a cliff, any steps in the direction of the cliff will lead to the same result. Wynne has smaller legs than McGuinty, this is just a difference in stride.

Actual students know that any tuition fee increase is simply going to exacerbate an already crisis situation. The Liberals hope that the pressures that are created by high tuition fees will be enough to continue to keep Ontario students quiet. And, it may. The crushing combination of high fees, high rents, youth unemployment and needing to, you know, live, depoliticizes and disenfranchises.

But, there is a breaking point. The question will just be how it manifests among Ontarians.

Today’s announcement does not come in a vacuum. The sustained political pressure that students have placed on the Liberals has helped to “win” this policy. The highly unpopular 30% off grant exposed a floundering, rudderless Liberal party that realized that they were losing the war over the message. Ontario students should take some comfort in that.

But the other political context, the waves made by the student protests last year in Québec must also be considered. The impact their protests had on Ontarians, to teach that another system is possible, cannot be understated. The Maple Spring created spaces in Ontario where student activists could actually talk about free tuition fees and be taken seriously by their peers.

That’s the power of a peoples’ movement: raising consciousness and building capacity. Ontario was lucky to benefit from some side effects. Québec students will be reaping the harvest of their work for years to come, and the story isn’t anywhere near finished yet.

But the 3% fee increase is a necessary reminder: Wynne, bowing to pressure and trying to distance herself publicly from McGuinty settled on a tuition fee increase lower than the past seven years. In Québec, Pauline Marois picked the same percentage to increase students’ fees, despite the fact that she rolled in on a wave that was absolutely opposing a hike. What’s the lesson here?

The line between demands made by social movements and minor policy changes is sometimes direct, sometimes crooked and most times non-existent. Marois tricked Québecers into voting PQ and turned around and went all Charest on them. Wynne was elected as the moderately progressive alternative and has turned around and gone all McGuinty on Ontarians.

Meanwhile, students in both provinces will be paying 3% more next fall.

Political ideology is the domain of the Conservatives. Today, the remaining Neoliberal parties are populist, gauging where public interest is and governing accordingly. Under these conditions neither Ontarians nor Québecers have any chance of witnessing fundamental change. Austerity and populism has too great a control over the brains of our politicians. Instead, we’ll have to force it.

What the student movement in Québec does is reminds us that these battles, if fought and won in the streets, will be won by the people. The campaign will last longer than a semester. It’s origins will be theorizable but it’s effects can only be told in retrospect. Its existence gives hope and a path to follow.

So Ontarians, how will you play your hand?

Lobbying, activism and non mutual exclusivity

22 Oct

The Canadian Federation of Students’ annual lobby week is happening right now in Ottawa and some unsophisticated trolling from a cyber activist (those two words cancel each other out, by the way) has motivated me to write this.

What’s the point of lobbying? Is lobbying activism? Can we achieve anything through lobbying?

When I worked at CFS my job was to be “the” lobbyist in Ontario. With the elected reps and other staff, I’d coordinate and attend meetings with MPs, MPPs city councilors and bureaucratic staff. All in, I’d spend probably about 20 per cent of my time on lobbying and related activities (like writing submissions) and 60 per cent organizing (the rest of my time was administrative/report writing). So, despite the fact that I was supposed to be lobbying the most, I spent way more time organizing than lobbying. While the CFS engages in lobbying, it hardly represents a majority of its campaigns work.

But why lobby at all? If the state bureaucracy and system of government is rotten, why waste our time engaging with it?

This is a really good question. While sitting in meetings with MPs hearing racist comments flow as if the man is talking about the weather, I’d often find myself wondering what the hell I was doing in that meeting and if it was worth my time.

First off, lobbying is important for young people to engage in. Young people need to have the veneer of power vanish before their eyes in a meeting with a politician so that they can more easily challenge and speak truth to power. I have seen many, many times, the scales fall from students’ eyes during their first meeting with a politician. We would always hold our breath until we reach the elevator, then we vent. “Are all politicians this scattered/bumbling/out of touch/dangerously unqualified/etc.?” I’ve been asked probably hundreds of times.

(I’m actually considering piling my experiences with lobbying politicians into a book. The things I’ve witnessed…).

Lobbying is also important because students’ enemies engage in it. In Ontario, where the common criticism of the CFS is that it’s too activist, Ontario students have to go through the painful process of meeting with politicians who have otherwise heard from “students” from “student organizations” (the quotes are a replacement for the word “scab”) and who, after being given a pat on the back from these “students,” actually believe that their policies are helping. So, unlike in Québec where CLASSE members could assume that at least the FEUQ and FECQ were saying that they oppose tuition fee hikes when they would meet with government, students in Ontario, or students who lobby federally can’t make the same assumption. Instead, you have the asinine opinion of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the last powerhouse of the Liberal Party of Canada, that tuition fees aren’t a federal matter and so they actually refuse to address the question of tuition fees (never mind that tuition fees and student debt are kind of related, and that the Canada Student Loans Program gives out the majority of aid to Canadian students, or that federal transfer cuts fuel tuition fee increases.) So, when CFS reps walk into an MP’s office and notice a CASA coaster sitting on the coffee table (really), they know that they are not only presenting students’ priorities, but that they’re also trying to undo some of the work done by those students propped up by the Liberals or administrators.

On Friday night, I was asked whether or not I thought street demonstrations or lobbying won victories in Ontario.

Of course, the answer has to be that it’s in the streets where victories are won. But, it is possible to make policy changes through lobbying too. This shouldn’t be ignored. While the real fight is in the streets, making changes that allow for international students to work off campus (an important victory through lobbying, for example) is really important for the students it affects. This is my third reason for why lobbying is important. While the ultimate goal for the CFS and many student activists is free higher education, some people do have to engage in the painful work of fighting for minor policy changes. And, while rallying for more Ontario Graduate Scholarship funding is what most graduate students dream about (in between all that writing they have to do to win the funding, then actually carrying out the research), lobbying does play a role in making changes like these. Funding to OGS was increased by 50 per cent in 2010 thanks solely to lobbying and solely to the lobby work of the CFS.

The existence of well-resourced, highly-controlled or front organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, the College Student Alliance or CASA makes lobbying a necessity for the CFS.

The good news is that not everyone has to do it.

Some of us, me included, have a special talent for talking to people who we fundamentally disagree with. It’s not for everyone. But for the few on the left who can stomach this life, they/we shouldn’t be made into the targets of other progressives’ crossbows.

So, if you’re the kind of dude (sorry dudes but it’s SO OFTEN DUDES!!) who likes to rail against Ontario students for not doing enough because they haven’t landed 300,000 people in the streets of Toronto demanding free education, I must insist you troll someone else. Start with someone actually *with* power. There absolutely are problems within the Ontario student movement and the national student movement, but those problems are not “Lobby Week.” They are more fundamental and are the result of a failure of generations of activists to get their shit together and actually build something that could grow into a broader progressive movement. Unfortunately, the CFS is left to re-create itself year over year through new and young activists, while a broader social movement structure, ready to absorb aging student activists, simply doesn’t exist.

It’s not the fault of the 18-year-old who just got elected to council because she believes in free education, and when you make her the target, it’s just because, deep down, you know you’ve failed to build anything better than what she’s found herself involved in.

Ontario’s fractured student movement: the wheat from the scabs

30 Jul

The other day I wrote this for the Huffington Post blog I write from time to time: [LINK TO ARTICLE]

I conclude that becoming a candidate for the PQ was probably the best (and most predictable) decision made by Léo Blouin-Bureau, former president of the FECQ.

I’ve watched many people move into politics from the student realm. Zach Churchill out in Nova Scotia is probably my favourite. He was the national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (created in 1995 by the Liberal Party) and ended up getting elected as a *wait for it* Liberal. We’ve lost contact but I assume he’s doing well.

While writing the piece, I was thinking a lot of people who use their position for political gain. To explain this properly, it must be said that the student movement in Québec is really, really different than in Ontario. CFS-Ontario is like FEUQ, FECQ and CLASSE all combined in one, kind of. The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance is like that woman from Montreal who was the lone Liberal voice at the start of the strikes most famous for “debating” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois on Tout le monde en parle. The College Student Alliance is like…. ….   I don’t know. They just don’t exist here.

All student organizations in Québec grew from students directly. There’s been ebbs and flows. FEUQ and FECQ have leaned toward the PQ for most of the years I was involved. ASSE grew from a rejection to this politic and evolved into the impressive CLASSE. This must be stressed: they grew from within their own members: students. So, no matter what kind of leadership they produce, the tactics they choose and their successes were at least at the hands of autonomous student organizing.

Not the case in Ontario.

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance is a training ground for eventual Liberal staffers. Just this past year, their Executive Director and Communications guys landed jobs in the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (you know, the cerebral cortex of the absolute worst PSE policy Ontario’s had since since they were all private universities). OUSA has been pretty consistent in delivering their cream to the Liberals and pushing the dirty, grey milk into the ether.

The College Student Alliance is the farm team of Colleges Ontario. Their past (or second past?) Director of Advocacy actually works in Communications in the Premier’s office and I’m sure nodded enthusiastically in favour of the ridiculous branding of the 30% off campaign lie.

Both organizations serve the following functions:
Support government policy
Promote government policy to the small network of local representatives
Justify these policies
Lightly criticize when it’s not going to hurt anyone
Advocate for exactly what the government is planning to do.
Claim victory when it comes to pass
Discredit students who disagree with government policy

There’s lots of examples of each of these online, so google away if you’re curious. Or ask me about any of them…I can dedicate a whole post to each one.

Neither of these organizations are autonomous from the masters they serve. An Alumni Council (a good chunk of whom are current Liberal staffers) at OUSA green lights future plans and staff aren’t allowed to stay long enough to have any real influence (2 years is the max someone can serve as Executive Director). As for CSA, I’ve seen the president of Colleges Ontario whisper into the ear of the CSA rep and then him attempt to relay her message. This was in a government consultation. (He didn’t get what she wanted said correct, so she cut him off and explained).

So, when these folks go on to their government positions, I think back to every single time that I witnessed them in government meetings, behind closed doors, sell out their members and my stomach churned.

This brings me back to Blouin-Bureau and my somewhat charitable take on his candidacy. Maybe Ontario has jaded the hell out of me and anything less shitty than we experienced (and experience) doesn’t seem as bad. But really, it isn’t. Even when FECQ’s leadership was ready to accept modest fee hikes, their members rejected them and the strike continued.

Hell, the existence of a no negotiation pact if other groups weren’t around the table is the height of solidarity.

Imagining OUSA or the CSA anywhere near a picket line, without being the folks who try to protect administrators as they cross it, is ludicrous.

This is really important.

These two shell organizations are the key to why Ontario’s student movement is so weak. Administrators know this. The Liberal Party knows this. It’s in their interest to prop them up as high as they can. And unless students at those member schools start demanding to know certain things (like, how the hell can a so-called student organization support tuition fee increases??), students will continue to lose.

Just ask the students’ union at the Thames Campus of St. Clair College. Theirs has been a quiet battleground on which this exact war has been waged…