The Fight Against Fees: A Look Back on a Year of Student Activism

Part One: Why We Fight

| Chantelle Spicer |Following years of governmental neglect, mismanagement, and under-funding in post-secondary, students across the province are organising to fight back against ever-increasing fees.

Decreased operational funding for post-secondary institutions has resulted in capitalist funding models that view students as consumers and undermines the values of a post-secondary education to our communities. This shift in how we view and publicly support education through funding is a violation of social contract that has existed in Canada since the Second World War, whereby working class families could rely on their ability to send their young people to post-secondary.

Instead, what families and young people are facing is institutional and public policy culture that requires individuals to shoulder all the costs of education. This results in students being deterred from entering post-secondary due to fear of debt, escalating drop out rates due to financial burden, or debt loads averaging $34,500 at graduation. On top of these costs are things we all share as a community – decreasing affordability or accessibility of housing, food insecurity, and lack of child care.

For many this means not even considering a post-secondary education as a reality in their lives or plans. Selkirk College Students’ Union Chair, Santanna Hernandez, did not believe that higher education was attainable for her as an Indigenous woman. Now, completing her Bachelors of Social Work with an Indigenous specialization, she recognizes that this is more than personal, but part of a larger conversation of accessibility nation-wide. 

“As someone who found post secondary inaccessible until my adult years, I want to ensure anyone who wants to access post secondary has the opportunity. We need to continue to fight so no one grows up like I did thinking it was out of reach.”

Students at Selkirk College attend the Board of Governors meeting for the vote on increasing domestic student tuition fees.

This neoliberal post-secondary structure has resulted in decreased accessibility to education for may working class students and communities already marginalized. It has also resulted in exploitation of whole demographics of students.

Phil Henderson, a student organiser at the University of Victoria recognizes the insidious impacts of this, stating: “this results in more homogenous and increasingly bourgeois student body – a phenomenon that is only deepened and exacerbated by the way in which institutions like UVic have chosen to target international students for such exorbitant increases because they lack the protected status afforded to domestic students. In this way, importantly, neoliberalization of education both relies on and reinforces processes of othering and of structural racism and xenophobia.”

Organisers with the Tuition Freeze Now campaign from Simon Fraser University speak to this further, stating: 

“We are students who find ourselves within institutions that exist to reproduce a complex social system. This system is based on the gendered exploitation of more than half the population and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and it sustains it through white supremacist violence..the world we find ourselves in is not organized for equity or fairness.”

Students rally together as part of the Tuition Freeze Now campaign during the SFU Board of Governors meeting

Though many reading this do not need an education on issues facing students, building a consciousness about the systemic issues facing students is important. Having an understanding that issues faced by students are shared and fought against is also important. In the face of growing inequality in our society and removed decision-making happening within institutional governance, knowing there are those out there fighting for rights to education can provide perspective or inspire further action.

During the 2018-1029 academic year, student groups at the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, Langara College, and our own Selkirk College students fought for a tuition freeze, one of the first steps towards acknowledging the cost of education and the need for affordability. This series will provide voices of student organisers on the frontlines of fighting for student rights as they move forward with intent towards affordable and accessible education. The shape of these campaigns played out uniquely according to the environment of each campus and directive of organisers, though all show dedication to providing a socialized system that allows our community members to pursue their goals through a quality post-secondary education.