Approximately 150 UTSG students walked out of their midday classes on March 20. They assembled in front of Sidney Smith Hall to protest the provincial government’s recently-announced Ontario Student Assistance Program changes and the Student Choice Initiative. Similar walkouts took place at UTM, UTSC, and across Ontario.
At UTSG, the protest was organized by the Canadian Federation of Students and campus groups. Not only did they demand a reversal of the planned changes, but they put forth a list of additional demands, including the elimination of tuition fees for all students, increased public funding for education, and more grants instead of loans.
This protest was an excellent starting point for organized opposition to changes that will detrimentally affect student life. Low-income students will face increased barriers to postsecondary education, and student clubs and student journalism could lose funding.
The cuts aim to override student needs and to silence our voices. To this end, we must react by publicly expressing our disapproval — by raising our voices and claiming space. We must not stand idly by while spheres of academia are rendered exclusive and inaccessible by politicians who do not have our best interests in mind.
I consider this protest only a starting point because it should not remain our sole reaction. A walkout on a single day over the course of a few hours communicates our dissatisfaction. But truly making an impact requires a more coherent disruption. Effective political protesting will only succeed if it manages to disrupt the current system in a significant way.
As students, we have to recognize that educational institutions cannot continue to exist without our cooperation and participation. Without us, a school is nothing but a collection of buildings. To be a place of learning requires not only instructors, curricula, and infrastructure, but also a body of students eager and willing to learn.
These institutions require our continued presence. And so does the province: it needs an educated population in order to continue to function and to prosper economically. The government may attempt to frame our relationship to it as one where we need its benevolence and care in the form of funding, but in reality, it needs us much more.
For a relevant example of how students might weaponize their presence as a powerful political tool, we can look to the widespread student protests that rocked Québec in 2012. Over the course of several months, students objecting to ludicrous tuition hikes refused to attend their classes and took to the streets. They organized swelling protests, disrupted transit systems, and occupied central highways. They made their dissatisfaction at the tuition changes palpable and material.
Their disruptive tactics were, in the end, successful. Not all of the students’ aims materialized, but the province was forced to enter negotiations with them that stalled the tuition hikes significantly. The operative word here is ‘forced’: a powerful institution like a provincial government will not change its course of action unless it somehow becomes inviable.
We should consider adopting some of the tactics used by students in Québec. A lengthy and coordinated strike effectively communicates not only that we will not stand for the planned changes, but also that these schools are unable to operate without our presence. If the province realizes that the institution of academia has been severely disrupted, those in power will scramble to find a way to return to normalcy. Their hand will be forced and they will be required to find a compromise with us.
If we want the government to take our needs into account, we must articulate them in a way that forces their ear. We cannot passively wait and hope that eventually someone in a position of power will feel sympathetic toward our needs. The institutions of education in Ontario are in danger of regressing toward heightened exclusivity and inaccessibility, and this threat requires organized and powerful action.
We must recognize that we belong to a political force: the student movement. This fall, when the government forces its cuts onto students, let’s show them our force in turn.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.