Students need more than Kraft Dinner protests

On Monday, May 27th 2013, students at the University of Ottawa rallied at a meeting of the University’s Board of Governors to protest proposed tuition fee increases. The Board was slated to vote on a motion to raise tuition fees three per cent each year for the next four years. The multi-year proposal is an unprecedented approach, in lieu of an annual debate on tuition hikes.

Approximately seventy-five students were in attendance at the meeting, boxes of Kraft Dinner in hand. The proposal was taken off the table in response to this strong student presence.

Kraft Dinner is not only a staple of the student diet, but also of the student tuition fee protest in Canada. I recall one protest in particular, during my first year at the University of Ottawa. It was an exciting year for the lower tuition movement. The February 7 Student Day of Action saw thousands of students on Parliament Hill, protesting against tuition fee hikes. I felt inspired.

Sadly, the reality of the past seven years is that not much has changed. In fact, when considering the cost of post-secondary education, the situation is worsening. There are fewer scholarships, fewer research grants, less government funding for universities, escalating tuition fees, and higher student unemployment. Meanwhile, universities are teeming with students, and administrators are earning more money than ever.

Since I started university in 2006, tuition fees for my political science program at the University of Ottawa have risen from $4,364 to $6,341 in 2012. During the same period, fees for law school have risen even more dramatically. My future earning potential and my ability to pay back my students loans hasn’t risen that much – though perhaps my cost-of-living has.

Having served on the University of Ottawa Board of Governors from 2009 to 2011, I know precisely what university administrators will tell you:

Universities are receiving less funding from federal and provincial governments, but they are mandated to accept more students every year. The costs of maintaining quality levels of education are escalating, particularly when it comes to infrastructure, and students are their steadiest and surest source of income.

Besides, a degree is guarantee of future earnings! Win-win.

Anyway, we didn’t raise fees to the full 5 per cent per year that the government allows – never mind that 4.5 per cent hikes seem pretty darn close.

Of course, there’s some truth to this. However, I want to know what universities are doing to save costs. What are they doing to cut their overhead?* What are they doing to raise funds aside from hiking tuition? Why are university presidents supporting government efforts to raise or remove the cap on tuition fees? And why aren’t they lobbying the provincial and federal governments alongside students for more funding?

If you ask, you won’t get any answers. At least when I was around, the Board’s response was always that “our hands are tied.”

Universities and students should not be at odds like this.

The trouble for students is that we do not have a coherent or effective student movement when it comes to tuition fees and funding for post-secondary education. We are a long way away from universal post-secondary education, and I am conflicted as to its feasibility in Canada. However, I do believe the cost of post-secondary education in Canada as it stands is far too great.

An effective student movement for lower fees needs to fight its case on multiple fronts, with a sophisticated policy approach.

Some issues I’m particularly concerned with:

  • Colleges and universities should work in partnership with their student advocates.
  • Universities should not be forced to increase enrollment. The argument that universities must respond to “demand” for degrees is ludicrous and just another aspect of the commodification of education. Rather, admissions standards for university should be elevated to recognize the the skills and background required to receive credentials in a particular field. (Though university class should remain accessible to the general public). Admission should be based on merit, not user-fee entitlements.
  • Secondary education is sorely lacking. Improving curricula and consistently providing quality education at the secondary school level is key to ensuring universities accept qualified and capable students who want and will benefit from a degree, while also emphasizing the importance of colleges and trade schools.
  • There is a mythology that a university degree is necessary for employment in the modern Canadian job market. Degree inflation is a real problem. Meanwhile, many university degree holders find themselves in college after-the-fact to obtain the hard skills necessary for their desired careers.

The organizations that speak for student are silent. They are hardly present in policy debates, elections, or public discourse. A day of action every year (or every other year) is not enough, and lobby days on Parliament Hill are only valuable if your organization is already well-regarded. Students themselves are disenchanted. Those currently enrolled are too distracted trying pay bills and study to act, or are short-sightedly disregarding those who come up after them.

I believe in the importance of a student union that speaks for all students in Canada and in each province, one that lobbies for greater funding and support for students. Unfortunately, the Canadian Federation of Students, the largest such union, has been running a losing campaign for over a decade, resting on the laurels gained from their successes in the 1990s.

It’s time to shake more than a box of KD at the problem. We need a creative, new approach to resolve the issues underlying the barriers to post-secondary education, the decline of Canadian universities, and the impact on students’ futures.

I do not know what the answers are to achieving this ambitious goal, but I know it’s a goal worth fighting for.

*Note: there’s been some discussion at uOttawa and other universities that the answer to the issue of overhead is online course and degrees: virtual university. I am opposed to moving towards this model. Nothing compares to being in a classroom, to physical presence. And to buy and sell degrees online with minimal effort on the part of universities and students, I believe, will only further degrade the quality of education and the further bolster its commodification.

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