03/01/2019 16:27 EST | Updated 03/01/2019 16:29 EST

Why Students Like Us Are Fighting For Our Right To Free Tuition

We disrupted Queens Park in protest of Doug Ford's cuts to OSAP.

Protesters at Queens Park rally against cuts to OSAP.

In association with Ontario Student Action Network, Hamilton Student Mobilization Network, Independent Student Solidarity Network - George Brown College, and Revolutionary Student Movement-York University.

The crisis of never-ending student debt grows as our neighbours down in the U.S. are spending more time at work than they are in the classroom. With Doug Ford's recent cuts to post-secondary financial aid, it seems that it will not be long until Ontario students follow suit.

On February 19, the first day of legislature after the winter break, we took the opportunity to let the Ford government know that we will not take his blatant assault on students and workers. We disrupted Queens Park, chanting "No cuts! No fees! Tuition should be free!" while attempting to hold up a banner that said "free tuition now."

After the demonstration, a number of us received comments and messages online claiming that we're "lazy students" who just want free stuff. We, the students who took part in the Queens Park disruption, are all working-class students. Many of us have jobs during and between our semesters and, like most students, we'll all end up dealing with an insane amount of debt.

Many working-class students are stuck in an impossible position of trying to keep their grades up while caring for family, paying bills, having a social life, and dealing with the mental and physical health issues that come from being overworked and underpaid. With so many people stretched so thin, we have massively inadequate services to support these students in their ability to actually finish their degrees. Meanwhile, tuition and cost of living goes up every year and these problems are only getting worse.

Many working-class students are stuck in an impossible position.

The old Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), which covered tuition for low-income students through grants, helped make education more accessible for working-class students. Ford's elimination of free tuition for low-income students leaves people wondering if they will have to drop out of school because they can no longer afford it. Others are forced to come up with alternative solutions — like taking a year or two off of school, or becoming a part-time student so that they can work more hours.

On top of making post-secondary education inaccessible, Ford's changes directly attack student governments and student organizations. Ford has reduced student groups to "crazy marxist nonsense," when in reality they offer vital services and resources to students, including student newspapers, food banks and transit discounts.

While Ford tells us that we should have our mouths washed out with soap for using profanity, he has no trouble associating with white nationalists and racists. This past month, he endorsed the incredibly racist pro-pipeline movement. Doug Ford may have a problem with the use of a few swear words, but we have an issue with his apparent support of racists.

Ontario Student Action Network
Making the banner.

Ford is not an anomaly.

While we criticize Ford, that does not mean we believe other politicians or parties are exempt from scrutiny. The Liberals like to distinguish themselves from PCs by opposition but fail at accountability. Despite running on a platform of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the federal Liberal government has sanctioned the building of a gas pipeline on Indigenous sovereign land — without their consent — and the B.C. NDP failed to challenge this assault on Indigenous rights. Unsurprisingly: Canada is a settler-colonial state, after all, based on the systematic and sustained genocide of its Indigenous peoples.

These changes to OSAP are part of a broader attack.

Ford's Bill 66, reversing many of the previous government's policies, is deeply reminiscent of Harris' "Bully Bill" of 1995. Bill 26, introduced immediately after election, enacted sweeping changes to everything from health care to labour rights: closing schools, hospitals, endangering environmental protections, infringing upon labour rights. Does that sound familiar to you?

Why free tuition?

We have been subdued into thinking it is natural to graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Tuition has tripled since the '90s and continues to rise: a 10-per-cent tuition cut is meaningless in the face of staggering debt and rising inflation. It is unacceptable to have creativity, livelihood and opportunity denied alongside increasingly inaccessible education. Education is a right, not a privilege — and this government is actively suppressing education and its spaces.

Ontario Student Action Network
Ontario Student Action Network rally in Ottawa.

These changes to OSAP are part of a broader attack on social services by the Ford government. Over the past months, we've seen: cuts to living wage, social assistance, ODSP and disability rights; cancellation of Ontario's basic income pilot project; Indigenous culture funding cuts; the Greenbelt nearly opened up to development; extensive cuts to education; looming privatization in the health-care and transit sectors; regressive changes to the sex-ed curriculum; we've seen legislation strengthening and stripping accountability from police forces.

The Ford government has clearly demonstrated that "the people" it is "for" excludes our most vulnerable communities: but Ford does value industry and corporations.

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We recognize OSAP, as a loan-based program, inevitably makes poorer students shell out more for school than their wealthier peers. We don't care to #saveOSAP, to save a broken system. We want free tuition, for real, for good.

Ultimately, the disruption was a call out to our fellow students. It's a call out for students to talk about how it's not fair that most of us will end up in a boatload of debt. It's a call out to students to demand more from their student governments. It's a call out to students to hold general assemblies and actively participate them. It's a call out to students to not back down — even if that means going on strike.

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