Poster and promotional image for The Right to Learn (2018), a documentary film by Conor Devries.

On Wednesday, September 19 the TCSA hosted a film screening of the documentary The Right to Learn, as well as a panel discussion on the accessibility of post-secondary education. The film, made by Ryerson Film student Conor Devries, captures the lived experiences of three unique students and the barriers they face to accessing education in Ontario universities. Conor Devries made the 30-minute film as part of his thesis project. It investigates “the drastic increase in higher education costs in Canada… and the impact seen within Canadian culture at large.”

The film began with a brief introduction to the issue at hand. Over the past 20 years, Canadian tuition fees have tripled, with Ontario’s being the highest at $9500 per year on average. It traces the origins of the ‘runaway increase’ of tuition fees back to Paul Martin government when in 1995, his administration tabled a budget that would cut $25 billion out of social spending. The film also notes a recent trend in the rise of corporatization of post-secondary institutions, coinciding with the proliferation of neoliberalism in recent decades.

The Right to Learn goes on to introduce the students whose stories comprise much of the film: third-year Ryerson Business student Nikida Wright, York Master of Environmental Studies student Melissa Sobers, and Ryerson Master of Documentary Media student Pearson Ripley. The film illustrates the various challenges each student faces in trying to complete their degrees.

Wright works full-time and attends school part-time just to be able to afford her degree, all the while contributing to her household mortgage and other family expenses. This impacts her academic performance and inevitably forces her to take time off school to work more hours and save up enough money to finish her degree.

Sobers also works full-time as well as performs the role of caretaker for her sick uncle. She also had to start working on her degree part-time and consequently lost eligibility for funding through the province of Ontario.

Ripley is from the United States, which means he not only fails to qualify for OSAP, but he is also subject to international student fees, which are often over double that of domestic students. At the time the film is made he is in over $30000 of debt. He struggles to accept this because he has “done all of the right things financially” but still managed to accumulate so much debt.

Devries’ film does an excellent job of showcasing how debt and financial pressure negatively affects students’ mental health, familial commitments, employment opportunities, volunteering/community work, physical health, and social lives.

The film also problematizes the corporatization of the university, arguing that post-secondary institutions treat the student as a customer. The film notes that 11 presidents of Ontario universities make more than the Prime Minister of Canada. Daren Smith, President and Chief Investment Officer of the University of Toronto, tops this list with his salary coming in just under one million dollars.

The Right to Learn locates this trend in its broader trend toward neoliberalism, a political and cultural project that not only disenfranchises student through raising tuition costs, but creates a culture of apathy towards the marginalized. It locates neoliberalism as the ideology that underpins the transformation of the university from a public good to a private one.

The film closes with some optimistic sentiments about the power of student movements in light of the progress that has been made in both Ontario and Quebec due to student resistance.

After the film, a panel discussion facilitated by Trent Alumni and Arthur co-editor Leina Amatsuji-Berry took place. The panel included Trent Gender and Womens Studies Student Zoe Easton, The Right To Learn filmmaker Conor Devries, Arthur co-editor and international student alumni Lubna Sadek, and Ian McRae from the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

Panelists for The Right to Learn documentary screening in the Student Centre Event Space on September 19, 2018. L-R: Zoe Easton, Conor Devries, Lubna Sadek. Photo by Nick Taylor.

The panel began with a question directed at Zoe Easton on how the rising cost of tuition has impacted her on- and off-campus. She noted that while she comes from a background of relative privilege as her parents were able to save some money dedicated to her tuition, she still spent her first year of university working 30 hours a week on top of a full academic course load. This amounted to an 80-hour week that had detrimental effects on Easton’s mental health and compounded the difficulties associated with her learning disability.

Zoe Easton also spoke to the corporatization of universities, saying, “The overall attitude at a corporate university like UOttawa was that if you are struggling, then you need to work harder.” She noted that this attitude towards students impacted both her mental and physical health as well as her academic success, subsequently impacting her decision to come to a less corporate university like Trent.

The panel continued with a question directed towards filmmaker Conor Devries on the relationship between neoliberalism and the rising cost of access to post-secondary education. He spoke about how initially he knew very little on the issue but through attending protests he developed a more macrocosmic perspective on the issue: “The more I talked to people, a lot of very educated and aware people, the more it dawned on me that this is a symptom of a larger problem in our capitalistic society.”

He drew a link between decreasing corporate taxes and other policies that benefit the 1% under neoliberalism and the rising cost of tuition as students are forced to pay the difference. He also discussed the cultural effects of this neoliberal project as our cultural values have become increasing competitive and individualized, fostering apathy towards struggling students.

Amatsuji-Berry then posed a question to Lubna Sadek on the unique experiences of international students as their fees are not subsidized by the government and are even more inaccessible. Sadek shared some of her research on the issue, noting that in Ontario the average cost of tuition for international student has risen from $25000 for the year in 2014 to $34000 for the year in 2018. She said that international students are being perceived as ‘cash cows’ and are being treated accordingly when this stereotype does not hold true for many international students, who are simply seeking out better opportunities abroad. Not only are international students subject to astronomical fees, but they also do not qualify for any form of government assistance.

International students have to navigate these huge financial barriers while adapting to an entirely new country, all the while dealing with lack of access to much of the resources that domestic students enjoy such as healthcare.

Next Ian McRae spoke on the work that CFS Ontario is doing to facilitate student mobilization around the issue through their Fight the Fees campaign and other projects. He noted that CFS has many demands of the government and that the issue at hand is one that is multi-faceted and complex. The movement also deals with loan to grant conversion and debt forgiveness, while taking an intersectional approach that also advocated for Indigenous students who lack access to post-secondary education due to inadequate government funding.

CFS also works to advocate for related issues like student housing, workers rights, accessible child care, food security, divestment from war, fossil fuels and resource extraction. More information about CFS and the work they are doing to advocate for students can be found at cfsontario.ca.

More information about Conor Devries’ The Right to Learn can be found at therighttolearn.ca or on the film’s Facebook page.


Correction (September 25 2018): Against the print edition (Volume 53 Issue 2), it is Daren Smith, not Meric Gertler, who makes nearly a $1-million CAD salary. The editors regret the error.