It’s that time again. Time for university and college students to head back to school for yet another year. And for yet another year, students will have to suffer record high tuition fees that restrict post-secondary education for more and more young people. This brutal affair has been going on for nearly a decade now; tuition is double what it was in 1995 and it’s only getting worse.

The average student owes $25 000 by graduation – a number that is estimated to reach $30 000 by 2009. This massive debt is having a devastating effect on university attendance by working class students. Since 1995, attendance has dropped by 30% within this demographic (CFS Website). Education is quickly becoming a luxury for the elite rather than the fundamental right it should be.

Why is this happening? The root of the increase lies squarely on the shoulders of the capitalist government. Federal budget cuts through the mid-90s resulted in woefully inadequate government funding for post-secondary education and placed an increased burden on students to pay for their own education. The gap between public funding and tuition is being filled more and more with a private sector, for-profit, presence on campus. Huge mark-ups on textbooks, put out by university bookstores and private printing firms, force students to pay over twice their true value. Even a student’s access to food is more expensive. Today’s students can’t even recall what a school subsidized meal program looked like, as funding for that dried up what seems like a generation ago. Now, meals are provided by catering conglomerates, such as Aramark, for prices that rival most ball game concession stands. Most first year students are forced to buy into a meal plan that pre-charges an average of $1500 for nutritionally inadequate food (a portion of this money is kept by the administration as a sort of premium). The capitalists need a well-educated workforce to improve productivity, but they have developed a nasty trick of making the workers pay to improve the profits of the bosses.

We’ve all heard the stories of student poverty and debt; the student unions repeat them ad nauseum. However, little has been done about it and tuition fees are higher then ever. So the question is, what is to be done? For the answer we need look no further than Québec. During the spring of 2005, in an inspiring show of courage and resolve, the Québec student movement initiated one of the largest student strikes in Canadian history. Strike action commenced on February 24th and on the first day students occupied the Collège du Vieux Montréal. The College St.-Laurent was occupied a few days later and the University of Québec’s Montreal campus saw an illegal occupation, in which police were called in to evict the students. The strike’s demands went beyond temporary monetary relief from loans and addressed the far more vital issue of universal access to education. Students called for free and open post-secondary education for all, without exception based on monetary conditions.

The strike showed that students have a voice, and a mind, of their own and are not afraid to fight back against government exploitation. The Québec movement was able to gain important concessions due, in part, to the radical leadership of the CASSÉÉ coalition (see “Successes and shortcomings of the student strike” in Fightback issue 5 for more background). But why have student unions in English Canada, lead by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), failed to improve, or even stop the decline of, our learning conditions? The answer is simple: a failure of leadership.

The current tactics of the CFS, unfortunately, are responsible for demoralizing the entire student movement. This has not happened through a lack of sufficient courage by students to carry through with radical action, but rather with a lack of sufficient courage to even talk about or discuss the possibility of taking action at all. The time for decisive action against the assault on our education was a decade ago, during the first major budget cuts and before the processes of privatization had taken root. The CFS leadership did not take decisive action. They did not rally the students for strike. They did not make demands that would defend post-secondary education. They only gave symbolic opposition. It is much better to fight and lose than to never fight at all – at least when you fight, the movement will learn something for the future. Now, after ten years of inactivity, and a continually worsening situation, students cannot even conceptualize the purpose of fighting back. The reformist CFS leadership has fostered this acquiescence through a yearly ritual, ironically named the “Day of Action”. This protest is, on the surface, a positive thing. It brings together students from all over Canada and helps to raise awareness. Unfortunately, after six years of the same protest, using the same slogans and the same methods, with absolutely no results, mentioning the Day of Action on a campus is more likely to bring cynicism, disgust or apathy, rather than inspiring students to resist the lowering of standards in their schools. These “Days of Action” are typically run bureaucratically from the top down, and students are discouraged from heckling the Liberal politicians invited to address the crowd. These are the same pro-capitalist Liberals responsible for the education cuts in the first place! Only the most vague and reformist demands, “Reduce Tuition Fees,” are allowed to be heard.

The actions of the reformists during their own protests are merely symptomatic of a much larger pattern, their inability to involve students in their own union and the fight for quality education. The lack of any concrete strategies to achieve a quality education system creates demoralization among students. There is no mention of strike action or occupations, no mention of universal education or student organizing. There is certainly no mention of linking the student movement with that of the working class. The only thing that filters down to students from the CFS bureaucrats are all the statistics accumulated over the last decade of degradation to education and the old tired line about how the “Day of Action” will fix all that.

In order to effect real and lasting change, we must address this problem of leadership. The Student Unions need a program that will prepare, organize and rally students towards a goal that will both inspire action and generate hope. This sort of struggle is only possible if there is extensive involvement of the students, a prepared leadership and a mobilized movement from below. It is a process that the CFS leadership has not so much as uttered a word about in the last decade. We are under no illusions that turning the movement onto the offensive will be easy. Undoing years of poor leadership will take extensive political education and organizing. However, history demonstrates the potential of a radical student movement. In 1968 students in France united with the working class, shook the foundations of the conservative regime to its roots, and caused Du Gaulle himself to flee the country. From Paris to Tiananmen Square to Québec, through every turbulent time in history, the youth have been the spark of change. The battle for education is a vital one in the greater struggle for a more just and equitable society. It is time for us to prepare our fight and organize for the future of our class and our world.

September, 2005