Thousands of students have been demonstrating against tuition fees across Canada. They are being mobilized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) under the banner of the “Fight the Fees” campaign. For many students, this could not have come at a better time.
Despite living in a country as rich as Canada, the situation for youth has grown dire. As noted by the CFS, average tuition fees in Canada have increased by more than 137 per cent over the past 25 years. In a province like Ontario, tuition fees are nearly triple what they were just 20 years ago. Public funding, which once helped to soften the blow of high tuition, is being clawed back with each passing year. 20 years ago it accounted for 77 per cent of university and college operating funds. Today it accounts for less than 49 per cent.
The increase in student debt has been no less forgiving. The average student in Canada now graduates with $28,000 of education-related debt, according to the CFS. The Canada Student Loan program is owed a total of $19 billion, with that figure increasing by nearly $1 million a day.
The situation is just as gloomy outside of school. Youth unemployment is hovering above 13 per cent in Canada, which is almost double the national average. However, this figure also overlooks the quality of jobs on offer. It is no secret that the bulk of jobs “recovered” since the 2008-9 collapse were either part-time or low pay. Things taken for granted in an earlier period, from employment insurance to pensions, are being stripped away and gutted at an incalculable rate. When asked about the precarious nature of work, Canada’s Finance Minister could only suggest that people get used to it “because it’s going to happen.” Even the Liberal Party’s most talented spin doctors can’t hide the fact that things are bleak.
For these reasons Fightback welcomes the November 2nd Day of Action, which has drawn attention to the impact of high tuition costs on students across Canada. However, this should only be taken as the first step in a protracted and increasingly militant process of mobilization. As of now, student union leaders have not made clear where they plan to take the movement beyond November 2nd. We consider this a mistake. A single demonstration can serve as a launch pad for a broader struggle, but to suggest that a demonstration in and of itself can force significant concessions would be a dramatic overestimation of our forces. Nothing worth winning ever comes that easy.
How do we fight?
Fortunately, the Quebec students have already done us the favour of providing a way forward. In 2012, they introduced Canadian students to the tried and tested method of the student strike. The Quebec students showed they could achieve more with a single strike than years of lobbying and petitioning combined. This put to rest once and for all the mistaken belief that moderation would lead to victory, and proved in practice that weakness only invites aggression. In fact, it was militancy that was required to force the government’s retreat in Quebec. No matter how politely we ask, there is no other option but militancy to wrest concessions from government’s hell bent on austerity. The deeper the economic crisis becomes, the truer that statement is.
With this in mind, we believe November 2nd should serve as the debut of an ongoing national campaign, which would culminate in a nationwide student strike for free education. The experience of Quebec proves that this is not only possible, but necessary. To those who say that we are “not ready” for a student strike, we reply by saying that you can never be ready for something if you don’t prepare for it. To those who say that preparation would “take too long,” we reply by saying that waiting for the government to concede would take even longer. In our view, every day spent making excuses is a day lost preparing for a strike.
In anticipation of a strike, campus assemblies or committees should be struck up at every university and college by the local student unions. These bodies should be created with a mind to drawing in the broadest layer of students on campus. They should be widely encompassing and highly democratic bodies – not echo chambers for paid staffers. These democratic bodies would be responsible for educating students on the need for a strike, as well as presenting on various topics related to the student movement. At a certain stage, these local bodies would become responsible for electing regional and then national strike committees or assemblies. The aim of these leading bodies would be to gauge support for the idea of a strike, and then to hold a nationwide strike vote when the mood is sufficiently ripe.
The success of a student strike can measured by its ability to draw in not only the widest layer of students, but also the broader working class. As in Quebec and South Africa, student strikes have proven more successful to the extent that workers have been called into the struggle. While students can at most withhold revenue from the universities, workers have the power to grind the entire Canadian economy to a halt. This is a far greater weapon in our hands against the government.
To ignore the power of the working class would severely weaken any student strike from the very beginning. The student movement should be built with the perspective of sparking a movement of the working class struggle against austerity and inequality.
All of this should only be taken as a general template for how a student strike may develop. The exact way in which it unfolds will be determined by the actual course of events, as well as the thousands of students who alone can push it forward.
What do we demand?
Thus far, we have dealt with questions of strategy and organization in the student movement. While these are vital considerations, the movement is ultimately only as strong as the ideas and demands that underpin it. This requires that we also formulate demands that are as clear as they are bold. There can be no place for vague or moderate formulas in the movement, as demands like these tend to confuse more than they do enthuse.
The most important slogan going forward should be: For Free Education, Now! This leaves no room for guessing as to when tuition fees will be removed. When the Ontario Liberals unveiled their “free education,” it was presented in as convoluted a way as possible, to hide the fact that it wasn’t free at all. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that political jargon makes people cynical. For that reason, jargon or vagueness of any sort should be avoided like the plague in the student movement. It should present its demand for free education in as clear and simple a way as possible. By doing so, it can appeal to a wider layer of students and undercut cynicism. The same applies to the next most important demand: For Living Students Grant, Now! These should be made to cover the full price of any costs associated with attending university or college, including housing, groceries and textbooks.
In the past, the student movement has limited itself to demands which focus almost exclusively on education costs. However, this overlooks a number of other important issues which demand our attention. The most important of these is student debt.
Abolishing tuition fees would mark a huge step forward for students, but its benefits would not be equally shared. Namely, it ignores students who have already accumulated some debt or have graduated altogether. Therefore, in addition to the demand for free education, we believe it important to advance the demand for cancellation of all student debts. Why should students be asked to drown in debt for pursuing an education, when corporations are repeatedly bailed out by government due to their own negligence? This is a glaring hypocrisy that needs to be addressed by the student movement.
At certain stages, students will be reproached with the question: “but how do you propose to pay for all of this?” At which point, it is important to point out that there is enough wealth in society to provide for well beyond free education. Even if you were to take the most liberal estimates of total student debt and total tuition costs, it would only be a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly $700 billion in “dead money” sitting idle in the vaults of Canadian corporations. We should point out that this is money that could be invested in education, but which isn’t being invested owing to the logic of capitalism. From this, it naturally flows that these corporations should be taken into collective ownership, so that their wealth may be put to practical use.
Another demand that should be raised is the removal of the unelected board of governors at the universities. In the main, these are the same political stooges and millionaires responsible for the high cost of education in the first place. There is no reason why these unelected bureaucrats should be left in charge of our universities. Students should demand that existing boards of governors/directors be replaced with councils made up of elected representatives from the students, faculty, staff and local community. This ensures that those who make decisions in the university reflect those who study and work there.
These are only some of the most important demands that should be raised by the student movement. Many more will be thrown up by students themselves as the struggle develops, and each should be considered accordingly.
It’s time to fight!
As of now, the student movement has shown it can generate steam, but has yet to learn how to harness it. For that is required organization, experience and above all, strategy. These can be compared to what a piston box does with steam. Without the former, the steam will evaporate and be lost. But when harnessed, steam can be used to produce remarkable quantities of energy. It is precisely this sort of mechanism that is required in our student movement today.
Without a sustained plan of action, starting with the committees and resulting in a nationwide strike, all of our existing momentum will be squandered. It will also prove impossible to draw in the widest layer of students, when instead of a clear sighted pathway to victory, our leaders put forward half-measures and refuse to speak in clear and honest language. Students have never been more preoccupied with school and work than they are today. Their time is precious. They cannot be expected to take the student movement seriously, until the student movement takes seriously the fight for free education and its methods of struggle. This is the major task ahead of us today, and the best way to accomplish it is on the road to a nationwide strike.
The Canadian student movement now finds itself at a crucial turning point. A clear appetite exists for free education, but without yet any idea of how to accomplish it. The reason for this is decades of dithering by student leaders. But no mistake is so great as to set the student movement off track indefinitely. We hope that likeminded students from across the country will take up our call for concerted and militant action, and help to reorient the movement. There is no better time to do so than the present.
Forward to a nationwide student strike!
Revolutionary Student Manifesto
Free education for all
Class background should not determine access to education. Eliminate all tuition, registration and ancilliary fees.
Abolition of student debt
Cancel all existing student loans. Instead of bailing out the banks, we should end the “debt sentence” facing graduates.
Grants not loans
All student should be provided with living grants during their studies. Nobody should have to choose between rent and groceries.
Massive investment in student housing and free transit
All students should have access to affordable student housing. Provide free transit for all and adequate transit infrastructure for the campus community.
Remove the unelected board of governors
End the control of bankers, mining and corporate bosses on the campus. Replace the board of governors with an elected council made up of representatives from the students, faculty, staff and local community.
Research for social need
Remove the profit-motive in research funding. Research should be directed towards the furtherance of human knowledge generally.
Democratic, militant and socialist student unions
Rank-and-file control and participation is the way fowrard. Monthly student assemblies should be the highest decision-making body of the student union. Delegates to regional and national congresses should be elected directly from the student body.
Increase education funding
Massively increase funding for education. Lower class sizes, hire more educators and staff, and expand research funding. End corporatization of the campus. Take the banks and corporations out of frosh week, academic partnerships and building names.
Military and cops off campus
Military recruiters, police and private security firms off campus. Provide funds for the student and campus unions to manage security. No tolerance for racism, sexism, rape culture, homophobia or transphobia.
Unite with staff unions for better pay and work conditions. For union representation and a living wage for all campus workers. Build links with workers off campus to unite the struggle.
For a minimum wage set at two-thirds of the average wage, with automatic increases in the minimum wage with increases in the price of consumer goods.
Afforable and quality food
Get the expensive cardboard corporate food off campus. Students should run all the food services. Healthy and affordable food should be made available for all.
No unpaid work
End unpaid internships. All co-op placements should be paid at union rates and with union representation. Living wages for all co-op placement and campus workers.
Free speech on campus
No victimization of student activists. Protect the right to protest and the right to strike. End bureaucratic blockages for student clubs, room booking and postering. Defend freedom of speech on campus.
Towards a one-day national student strike for free education
The student unions to organize esclating actions, demonstrations, mass meetings, teach-ins and occupations to prepare for strike votes.
For socialist revolution
In the final analysis only a socialist society can take corporations and profit out of the education system, and guarantee quality and free university and college for all.