By Coty Zachariah, National Chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students
For decades, student unions and associations have driven systemic changes in education and increased access for potential and current learners. On campuses across Canada, students have organized with each other to collectively improve conditions on campus and create and sustain services that are beneficial to our realities. When there is a threat to students' access to education, students unions have been the vanguards challenging damaging policies and uplifting the voices of affected individuals.
Student mobilization has won many victories, including tuition freezes, standalone sexual assault policies, service centres as well as increased funding for Indigenous and graduate students.
Now, thanks to the Ford government, this could all be overturned.
Doug Ford wasn't fooling anyone when he announced the 10 per cent reduction in domestic tuition fees. In the same breath, the Ford government launched the insidiously named "Student Choice Initiative," a move that launches a transparent attack on autonomous student organizing.
Ford used the 10 per cent tuition reduction announcement as an ill-planned smokescreen to hide the blatant union-busting legislation that will reduce the resources of some of his biggest critics.
Watch: Students protest Doug Ford's OSAP cuts. Blog continues below.
With this, the government intends to limit ancillary fees to "essential" services, opening the door to subjectivity. An equity service centre that supports a student on campus could be more essential to a student's experience and success than the athletics centre. Unfortunately, the Ford government prefers to believe that every student uses a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness, meaning the equity centre, which serves thousands of students, could suddenly no longer be a priority.
Students create student unions via democratic processes at their institutions by voting for executives and boards every year after a campaign period governed by constitutions and bylaws. For many of us, our college or university student union is the first meaningful opportunity we had to take part in governance and organizing work. Despite using services like academic appeals and peer counselling, many remain unaware that the students who came before them made these benefits possible through collective action. Future students must be given the same opportunity to organize in new situations. They need to be given a chance to realize their power and agency to create change and transform institutions and shape their academic experiences.
Aside from organizing, student unions run countless essential services:
Coordinate non-profit health and dental insurance plans;
Negotiate discounted transit passes for students;
Provide academic support and advocacy services (for example, challenging academic misconduct decisions and representing students on tribunals);
Represent students on academic councils and academic departments;
Run essential support services such as peer support, sexual violence support centres, food banks, and equity centres (e.g Pride centres, gender resource centres, disability advocacy centre, racialized and Indigenous student centres);
Create volunteer and paying job opportunities for students;
Collect fees for independent campus press, such as newspapers and radio;
Operate non-profit commercial services, such as bookstores, restaurants, cafes and food services;
Resource causes and programs that students have democratically decided to fund, such as the World University Service of Canada's Student Refugee Program;
Coordinate move-ins and orientation weeks;
Offer funding for student clubs;
Provide the first contact for international students.
All this is made possible with hundreds of full-time staff who make sure students on campus are able to enjoy these services without noticing the tremendous amount of work taking place behind the scenes.
The Ford government is repeating the oft-heard union-busting excuse that students are better off saving their dollars since unions are not worth the price of admission, and that the services provided are not relevant enough to justify the cost. But this messaging ignores the fact that union advocacy leads to policies that open doors for students, like the 230,000 individuals who have accessed the Ontario needs-based tuition grants since 2017.
Ford's strategy targets both impoverished and privileged students, with anti-union messaging designed to divide and dilute the strength of a united student body. "Strength in numbers" is not just a campaign slogan; it is a fact that we have proven repeatedly when agitating for the rights that students currently possess.
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The Ford government's move isn't a new one. Similar anti-union legislation was passed in Australia and New Zealand years ago. The result? An 80 to 90 per cent opt-out rate in some instances, which destroyed student unions and services like child care and peer counselling that had been built up over the years. A 2007 report by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations showed that eight universities no longer had independent postgraduate associations. Many associations were forced to lay off all staff members and relinquish control of the union and its services to university administrations and corporate bodies.
The provincial government's interference with student unions can be seen as a reflection of Canadian society. If taxes were optional, many Canadians might individually save money in the short-term, but public services would suffer and so would Canadians' quality of life. Health, education, infrastructure, safety, and justice would all become private services catering to the rich rather than rights that we all share. This is why student unions need to be protected through legislation, not gutted. The Ontario government should take its cue from Quebec and British Columbia and entrench independent student unions rather than dismantling them to silence the opposition.
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