On Wednesday, November 2nd students and activists across the country mobilized in coordination with the Canadian Federation of Students to advocate for substantial reforms in the financing of post-secondary education.
The Trent Central Student Association, in conjunction with the Peterborough Revolutionary Student Movement (RSM), organized a day of mobilization and advocacy. The event began at noon at Bata Podium. Approximately forty people gathered and began to march across campus chanting and waving signs. The event concluded with Ken Kollontai (RSM) and Brendan Campbell (TCSA) addressing the crowd to highlight the importance of this issue.
In recent years we have seen students around the world begin to mobilize in response to high education costs. Students across Québec famously protested tuition hikes in 2012. Students at universities in Hessen, Hamburg, and across Bavaria gathered en masse back in 2012-13 (ultimately pushing a nation-wide referendum that led to the scrapping in tuition fees in 2013) while 2016 has already seen national student movements challenge their governments in both South Africa and Ireland. Students all around the world are being gouged by tuition, and many of them are finally showing their exasperation
Over the last half-century, the Canadian government has drastically decreased available funding for universities. As a result of these decisions, the price of higher education has fallen on us, the students, rather than society at large.
The problem here is that funding has steadily shrunk over the years while universities still require the same amount of funding as before, if not more. Schools have had to take matters into their own hands in order to survive, and have moved to supplement government funding by adopting creative, albeit manipulative methods to raise revenue. These include initiatives to; increase tuition, inflate compulsory fees, and reduce budgets for critical support services.
To understand why students are so outraged, we must first understand how we have arrived here. In 1967 the Canadian government funded post-secondary education through a cost-sharing model. Provincial governments made all decisions on policy, programs, and spending, while the federal government simply matched provincial capital contributions.
The federal government moved to adopt the Established Program Financing framework (EPF), which saw funding allocated through tax points and cash transfers. Finally, in the 1990’s the federal government abandoned the EPF in exchange for the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) system, which saw available funds for higher education shrink even further.
Canadian Federation of Students, a group the Trent Central Student’s Association is an active member of, estimates that even when accounting for variance in enrollment rates and inflation, current federal funding available for higher education is $2.4 billion less than what it was in 1992-93, and students are now paying 160% more in tuition.
Institutions have begun charging substantially larger compulsory fees in order to circumvent provincial tuition fee-increasing regulatory caps. These are things like: library fees, administration fees, and other ancillary costs. This is done because while there is currently legislation in place that limits the amount universities can increase tuition, there is an absence of regulation regarding compulsory fees. Trent’s ancillary fees have increased 14% since last academic year alone.
With smaller operating budgets comes the inability to hire much-needed tenured staff. As a result, we now see academia becoming a hyper-competitive industry where professors are contending for short-term, non-tenured contracts. Not only have we seen average class sizes increase because of a lack of full-time staff (traditionally a selling point for schools like Trent), but this inability to hire academics actively discourages this generation of students from embarking in a career in academia. In the long term this threatens to incredibly stifle social, economic, and technological development for the entire country.
Finally, in the name of budget reduction, we the students are denied access to a variety of crucial services. As a Trent student myself, let me ask, how many weeks in advance do you have to book an academic advising appointment? How many times have you arrived late to a class because two fully packed buses drove by you before one came that you could finally fit on? How reliable do you find the overused and underfunded university wifi-networks? How long does it typically take you to buy food on campus? Not only is university costing more, but it would appear we are paying for a poorer product.
Rather than having state subsidized education, what we have seen is an initiative to move towards loan-based financial assistance. Said differently, if you want a degree, and your family cannot afford to send you to university, you must go into debt. This has important implications for students, as University of British Columbia researcher Lori McElroy has found, students with high levels of debt were more than twice as likely drop out of university than those with no debt.
The attainment of post-secondary education has become an important prerequisite for participating in the labour force, and in a period characterized by record high levels of student debt, high youth unemployment, 40% underemployment among post-secondary graduates between 25-30 of age, and increasing demands by employers to take unpaid internships, massive debts appear all the more daunting.
Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey tallied the reasons cited by high school graduates who did not participate in post-secondary education. By an overwhelming margin, the most frequently reported barrier to attending university and college were “financial reasons.” Not only is education less accessible than ever, but we are actively discouraging future generations from even attempting to procure a degree.
What we have to understand is that an educated and highly skilled workforce is a crucial element for the continued economic and social development of Canada. When the ability to pay becomes a deciding factor in who gets an education and who does not, our country loses the chance to benefit from the skills and capabilities of many of its citizens. Because financial barriers to education reduce social mobility, we should not be surprised to see social inequality continue to grow and perpetuate.
As students of this generation we must ask ourselves a difficult question: is having a well-educated population beneficial for the public entirely, or is it simply the means by which an individual can secure high quality work for themselves? Understanding this can help shape the way we as a nation decide to finance higher education. Do we support one another as a community and pay into this system collectively, or should it be financed exclusively by the individual?