Last week, the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) government announced devastating changes to the domestic tuition and student fee frameworks for postsecondary students. While disturbing, this move was not surprising. 

Since taking office, Premier Doug Ford has re-introduced an outdated sex ed curriculum to children, mandated universities to develop ‘free speech’ policies in a perverse attempt to silence campus opposition to the far right, prevented minimum wage from increasing to a fairer standard as needed by student and youth workers, and cancelled funding for three new GTA university campuses. 

In other words, what happened this week is the latest in a series of actions by a government that has little respect for education as an institution and students as an electorate. And it’s only been seven months. There’s 41 still to go, and we must settle in for the long haul. 

Lose-lose: less affordable, lower quality 

Last Tuesday, when the PCs announced a 10 per cent tuition cut for domestic students, the story was met with skepticism. While lower, or even free, tuition is a cornerstone of the student movement, critics were concerned that the PC version of this would be coupled with other cuts detrimental to students. 

This turned out to be true when the complete PC framework was revealed on Thursday. Under the sly slogan of “for the students,” Ford plans to implement major cuts to affordable education and debilitate the student voice and capacity to organize, starting in September. 

Fewer students will qualify for financial aid. Fewer still will receive substantial grants. No longer will students from low-income families receive non-repayable grants amounting to free tuition, which was the model introduced by the previous Liberal government. Furthermore, the PCs have eliminated the six-month interest-free grace period on OSAP loans, meaning that interest will start to accrue immediately after graduation. 

The PCs have tried to sell their plan as “refocusing” on lower-income students. But exchanging free tuition grants for lower-income students with a 10 per cent tuition cut for all students is giving an unnecessary cut to those who can already afford the cost of education, while reducing assistance for those who actually need it. 

These changes mean an increase in the amount of debt that students will accrue, deterring many low-income students from enrolling in postsecondary education at all. It will also force many graduating students to seek employment immediately after graduating to pay off their debt and avoid accumulating more, rather than continuing to graduate or professional programs to which they may have aspired.

Not only is this model ineffective, given that students lose financial stability and are at a higher risk of defaulting on their loans, but it is also unethical to profit off student debt in the pursuit of “financial sustainability” and to “reduce complexity.” The PCs fail to understand that education is a public good and a long-term investment. Investing in more affordable and accessible education lays the groundwork for a larger and more skilled labour force that will ultimately produce wealth and give back to society.

These changes undermine the ideal to which meritocracies should aspire: that students, no matter their financial circumstance, should be supported to go as far as their abilities can take them. Now, universities and colleges might become a place primarily populated by privileged students.

Such exclusion also affects marginalized communities who relied on free tuition the most. For example, Indigenous students and single mothers benefitted greatly from the previous plan. These groups will certainly lose out. 

Alongside affordability, the quality of higher education is also at a serious risk. The PCs announced that there will be no corresponding support from the government to offset the loss of revenue caused by the tuition cut for universities and colleges. The Varsity projects that U of T will lose at least $43 million in revenue from undergraduate students, although such a big institution will likely bear this loss better than smaller universities and colleges. 

This inevitably means that institutions will intensify their corporate model, transferring their losses back to students in the form of cost-cutting measures. This could mean reduced services, fewer staff, increased class sizes, fewer course options, and an increasing reliance on contract instructors. 

Ultimately, a reduction in the price of education is meaningless if quality is compromised. Tuition reduction and elimination work only if the government increases funding for students and institutions — yet per-student funding at Ontario colleges and universities is already among the lowest in the country.

The end of student democracy?

An equally dangerous aspect of the Ford model is that students will be able to opt-out of “non-essential” incidental fees, which go toward student unions, media, clubs, and services on campus. The PCs argue that this will provide students with more choice regarding how their money is spent, and like the tuition cut, will put more money back into their pockets. 

This opt-out model is problematic because it treats students as individual, private consumers, as opposed to members of a broader community to which we belong. 

Student fees are the product of past democratic endeavours to collectively pool resources and produce services from which all can benefit. Consider the analogy of our single-payer health care system: we all pay into and benefit from essential health care services. 

However, the dilemma, as with health care, is that students do not always know that they need a particular service until they actually need it. Some services covered by student fees, like the Health and Dental Plan, are already refundable for students. Moreover, student fees are only a marginal part of the overall costs that students pay. 

It is clear that the PCs failed to adequately consult the student community in making these decisions. When The Varsity questioned them on this matter, the PCs defended their consultation process but failed to be transparent about which specific groups were heard. 

Perhaps some students will feel relieved that they no longer have to pay into organizations that they feel abuse their fees. When it comes to student unions specifically, the frustration and distrust that many students feel is justified, and The Varsity is the first to sympathize. We’ve reported frequently on issues of accountability and transparency within our student unions. We all expect functioning democracy from them. 

However, the solution is not to destroy institutions that aren’t working. Rather, it is to increase political participation and effect reform. Student unions are ultimately what students make of them. Through elections and referenda, students can democratically change how their fees are allocated. When we are dissatisfied with the government, we don’t opt out of paying our taxes. We participate in campaigns and elect better leaders to change how our taxes are spent.

Aside from the services they provide, student unions also play an important role in advocacy. Through the opt-out option, Ford is opening the door to the destruction of the student voice as a political movement that negotiates with powerful forces like the university administration and the government.

Since student fees fund clubs, community life on campus would be compromised, especially at U of T, where students often feel alienated from one another. Student groups are also vital for marginalized communities, as they offer a space for solidarity, inclusion, and voice. Groups like LGBTOUT and the Muslims Students’ Association would likely lose funding. By casting student groups and activities as “non-essential,” Ford implies that the marginalized students of Ontario too, are non-essential. 

We will not go down without a fight 

The PCs indicated that it will be up to the university to determine which fees are “essential” and “non-essential.” Student media like The Varsity are funded primarily through student fees and are essential to student democracy: they are often the only watchdogs to hold both student unions and the university administration accountable. They also give a platform to the stories and struggles of students who might not otherwise be heard. 

The broader media landscape also relies on campus media to elevate underreported stories from campuses to a national platform. The Varsity has a track record of doing this, with our reporting on Muslims Students’ Association executives receiving surprise visits from law enforcement, and our dogged reporting on the progress of the university-mandated leave of absence policy as recent examples of U of T stories that have received national attention. 

If the province institutes an option for students to choose which student fees they pay, we’re concerned that students will opt out of fees for campus media without knowing the value lost from such a choice. Moreover, the unpredictability of the student fee opt-out would prove to be a grave challenge to our operational and financial stability. 

It is therefore vital that U of T categorize and protect student media as an “essential” service. We do recognize that this dynamic is problematic: student unions and the student media suddenly find themselves at the mercy of administrators, even though they are meant to operate independent of the university. Nonetheless, we will advocate to ensure that the university makes the correct decision. 

If we have to launch a wider petition campaign, we will call on the students who benefit from our reporting, and our alumni working in Canadian media from coast to coast to coast to help make our case to the university. We are in close contact with our colleagues in other campus media outlets, primarily organized through the Ontario chapter of the Canadian University Press (CUP). We have also not ruled out a formal lobbying approach to this issue, whether through CUP or individually.

Last Friday, student unions and other groups gathered at Queen’s Park to articulate their rage against Ford’s decisions. It is clear that all of us — low-income students, student unions, clubs and associations, and the student media — must continue to organize and fight against the assault of this government. Whichever people Ford is for, it’s certainly not the students, and we will not go down without a fight.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].