On November 8, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) — a national organization established to lobby the federal and provincial governments on behalf of students — organized a nationwide Day of Action to call on provincial governments to fund free and accessible education. Students held protests in six provinces and in cities across Ontario, including Thunder Bay, Ottawa, and Sudbury. 

In Toronto, students from many universities, including U of T, marched downtown on the afternoon of November 8. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) held a number of events leading up to its participation in the protest. 

The protest 

The protest began at 12:30 pm in Grange Park. Around 200 students from schools including U of T, George Brown College, Trent University, and Toronto Metropolitan University joined together to begin the march. 

SCSU Vice-President External Khadidja Roble helped organize many of the union’s events leading up to the protest, including a banner drop, poster-making workshops, and a game-day rundown on the day of the protest. The SCSU provided breakfast for protestors and buses for students to arrive downtown and head back safely. 

Amrith David, the president of the SCSU, told The Varsity that the union aimed to have as many students as possible attend the protest. “We want to actually encourage students to understand that it is their fundamental right to protest, it’s their fundamental right to organize, and education is a human right,” he said.

Before the walk, the CFS created a circle in the park for protestors to practice rally cries and keep their energy up in the cold. David and CFS organizers gave speeches while others beat drums and chanted. 

After the speeches, the protesters began marching. Their main chants included “The students united will never be defeated” and “Fight the fees.” The street remained open, and bike cops had to intervene to keep traffic flowing alongside the protesters. The protesters arrived at Queen’s Park around 3:00 pm, where CFS organizers and Roble gave speeches, with students departing around 6:00 pm.

Protesters’ demands

The CFS represents over 530,000 members from more than 60 university and college student unions across Canada. CFS-Ontario — the provincial branch of the organization — represents the SCSU, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students at the University of Toronto.

A news release issued by CFS-Ontario ahead of the protest highlighted increasing tuition fees — particularly for international students — and decreasing government funding for education. The statement also noted students’ increasing living costs, with rising rent and food costs impacting Toronto. In his interview with The Varsity, David specifically noted the importance of the protest to form solidarity between all students, including domestic and international students. 

Ultimately, the CFS-Ontario news release calls on the Ontario government to publicly fund education. Across Canada, around half of funding for public education comes from the government — a far smaller proportion than in most other countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international group of largely high-income countries.

“It is possible to have a free education system in this country and this province. Budgets are about priorities and so far what we have seen from the Ford government is that they do not prioritize education,” the release reads. 

On the CFS’s national website, as a part of the Day of Action, the organization also posted a petition that demands Canadian provincial governments provide grants instead of loans, and focus on supporting students with disabilities and Indigenous students

Some students at the protest discussed how tuition can pose a financial barrier to students. Irene Wang, a third-year new media and arts management student, told The Varsity that she decided to participate in the protest after one of her friends couldn’t continue studying at U of T due to the high tuition fees. 

Sadah Saleem, a third-year molecular biology, immunology, and disease student, told The Varsity that she decided to participate in the protest because of the barrier that rising education costs pose to low- income students. “Education, as we all know, [is] a fundamental right. It shouldn’t be something we are paying for,” she said. 

The scoop on tuition

The Ontario government cut tuition for domestic students by 10 per cent in 2019. In 2020, the provincial government froze tuition for all domestic students, and this price freeze has remained in place for domestic Ontario students since then. At U of T Governing Council’s March meeting, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr said that, given these measures from the province, tuition fees for Ontario domestic students studying in the Faculty of Arts and Science were lower in 2022–2023 than in 1999, after adjusting for inflation. 

The Ontario government began allowing universities to increase the tuition of non-Ontario domestic students by three per cent per year for the 2021–2022 school year and has since raised the permitted annual increase to five per cent per year.

However, the provincial government does not regulate international student tuition fees. For 2023–2024, tuition fees for a full-time international undergraduate student studying in most Faculty of Arts and Science programs amounted to almost 10 times the fees for a domestic Ontario student in a comparable program. The university has recruited an increasing number of international students, making up 30 per cent of total enrolment as of August 2023. 

The university has argued that international student tuition fees reflect the true cost of providing its education. However, tuition fees for international students at U of T remain far higher than those at similar Canadian universities

In 2019, the amount of funding the university received from international student tuition surpassed the amount it received from either provincial grants or domestic tuition. In its proposed 2023–2024 budget, U of T projected that it would receive $661.1 million in general operations provincial grants — approximately 20 per cent of its total operating revenue. 

The university’s 2023–2024 budget report noted the decrease in provincial operating grants, after adjusting for inflation, since 2019. It argued that the combination of frozen provincial tuition, required domestic enrolment percentages, and decreasing value of grants posed “increasing financial pressure” on the university. 

The government of Ontario did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment in time for publication.