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

Part Two: Building Campaigns and Solidarity

| 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. In the previous section, we discussed what brings students on campus to this fight and how we see our current educational culture. But how do we take these realizations and frustrations and turn them into powerful action?

Each organisation from our own SCSU to the SFU Tuition Freeze organisers to the UVic Graduate Student Society took a different tact to mobilize and address the needs of their fellow students. However, the need to recognize support and intersections with other organisations was foundational.

The Selkirk College Students Union began building consciousness and gathering support amongst students at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year. This is the third year that the SCSU has organised around a tuition freeze campaign, which includes gaining solidarity within the local and campus community. Partners in solidarity on the issue of affordability in post-secondary and the freeze on Selkirk Tuition included CGEU Local 709, SCFA Local 10, USW 480, BCFS, West Kootenay Labour Council, Nelson and District Women’s Centre, West Kootenay EcoSociety, and Wait’s News.

Partners in solidarity from many labour unions in the region spoke at the Tuition Freeze Rally in January of 2019

President of the Selkirk Faculty Association Lui Marinelli states its important to recognize the role Selkirk plays in the region and its impact on students.

“Selkirk College is critical to our region in providing education to young and old, to prepare those now ready to work, to those who need to change their work, and to those who just want to learn. As tuitions increase, an education becomes less and less affordable and available. The administration needs to do more to find alternative sources of income to offset cost of living increases. The students have been burdened for far too long.”

Numerous reports show that this burden effects students well beyond their educational lives and into their careers, shaping the types of jobs they are able to take and where. A recent survey by the SCSU showed that even when finding summer work between semesters, 40% of student responders stated they were forced to find jobs outside of the Kootenay region. By partnering with labour unions, students not only strengthen their voices in calling for an affordable education, but recognize the link between their educations and future work experiences.

Samson Boyer, Director at-large with the SCSU explains besides the lived experiences and hopes of the students themselves, this solidarity is the heart of the Tuition Freeze campaign.

“The SCSU has had strong connections to our local labour unions for many years and have stood together on many campaigns. This solidarity comes from a place of mutual benefit, as many of our members come from a working class background and have to work to pay for their tuition. The fight for worker protection, rights and fair wages are battles that many students are thrown into and become committed not only to student issues but worker issues as well. The solidarity between students’ unions and labour unions is a vital one as students inevitably join the work force to pay off their student debt and they need a fair wage to do it.”

Student organisers with SFU Tuition Freeze Now also recognized early that this was not only a fight about affordability in education, but also reproducing larger social issues rooted in capitalism and exploitation within post-secondary structures. Every day, in institutions of higher education, students are offered a vision of the world that tries to legitimize this system, to keep it going – given tools to justify why this system is the best we can do, and why we, as students, should be thankful for our freedom. 

Tuition Freeze Now organiser Jorji Temple describes this, stating:

“Whether it’s the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en or a group of undergraduate students, we’re told we are wasting our time, and not to bother – not to get involved. And if we do, if students at university resist in a meaningful way, there’s always security guards to escort us away, or police to arrest us. We’re spared the worst of the violence, and we become advertisements for the tolerant ‘free’ country that we live in. We have to interrupt students’ hopelessness about our futures and the future of our communities, and empower each other to resist – for ourselves, each other, and those who come after us.”

Tuition Freeze now organisers identified many community partners both on and off campus to call for more affordability in education, tying their work into larger movements in the city that address growing rates of inequality and injustice.

Activist and Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson joined students in a rally in March.

“We have a huge wealth gap in our society. One thing that’s making that gap worse is rising tuition,” explains Swanson.

“It means wealthy people continue to have access to ways to get wealthier, while lower income folks either can’t access it or are saddled with debt. It’s absolutely possible to allocate wealth differently and many young folks know that. They’re at the centre of organizing for change because they’re feeling the effects and know we can do better. They’re working toward free tuition so post-secondary education is accessible to all.”

Student organisers from UVic tied their fight into inequality as well, specifically the impacts of tuition rate increases on students and community member already marginalized by current structures of post-secondary. An open letter to the UVic Board of Governors, students expressed urgency and dismay regarding the proposed increase to international student tuition fees that would be voted on at their March 2019 meeting. This letter clearly outlines the ongoing student outcry and protests to the decoupling of international and domestic student fees in 2017 and the increases and exploitation that followed.

Phillip Henderson, a student organiser with the UVic Graduate Student Society states that students on campus recognize:

“The steady hikes to tuition fees since the 1990s have resulted in one of two things: (1) a ballooning of private student debt, which results in a disciplining of the student population on campus and of the workforce post-graduation; and (2) those without financial means to risk taking on debt deciding not to go through post-secondary education at all.

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.”

It should be noted, that during the Spring 2019 term, students of Langara College in Vancouver were also organising through the efforts of the student club, Langara International Socialists (though I have ben unable to reach them for quotes and insights into their organising).

Student organisers in Vancouver also worked across campuses to raise awareness on a variety of issues from Indigenous sovereignty and the Uni’stot’en Camp to housing as a human right.

An event titled “Burn the Palaces: Tuition Freeze Now,” hosted by SFU Tuition Freeze Now took place in February and featured speakers Annie Bhuiyan and Kayla Phillips, from SFU Tuition Freeze Now and Left Alternative; William Lin a student activist at SFU in the 60s; Matt Rowan from the UBC Social Justice Centre; Bradley Hughes from Langara College and the International Socialists, and Vincent Tao of the Vancouver Tenants Union and Our Homes Can’t Wait Coalition.

This event was important in showcasing the importance and promise of cross campus solidarity in the long-term. Quentin Rowe-Codner of SFU Tuition Freeze now stated:

“As socialists and activists, we are all familiar with the all to common sight of a movement that we have helped build from the ground up reach an extraordinary peak, only to wane and lose momentum after the smallest of gains have been won. However, in practical circumstances, great efforts will still need to be made in order to retain support, momentum, and struggle. This is where cross campus solidarity comes into the mix. Having a central network of various campaigns allows for consistent organizing and reliable support when there is a urgency or lull in action.”

In our next instalment, “The Thick of It,” we will take a look at the culmination of campaigns themselves before Board of Governors and administrative responses to students standing up for their rights.