Opinion: Speaking with students about tuition fees

Monday, March 26, 2012


I recently ran in the CSA General Election for External Affairs commissioner. The election involved a huge commitment by my campaign manager, volunteers, and myself. We had to coordinate volunteers to sit by campaign materials at a table for four days during the week. We also painted the cannon and the campaign did well over 60 classroom talks. After doing 42 classroom talks myself and talking to students one on one during lunch time and dinner all week, I found myself pretty exhausted and of course disappointed that I lost in such a close race. However, I felt encouraged by how students were receptive to my platform.

I told students that if I was elected I would do everything in my power to mobilize students and connect with other student unions to win a tuition fee freeze. I have no delusions and realize that this would be an impossible task for me to do just by myself. However, by promising my commitment to winning a tuition fee freeze I was showing students that I was dedicated to building conditions, with volunteers and the general community, to be at a place where a tuition fee freeze could be won.

When I spoke with students, I did not come across anyone who confronted me on my stance on tuition fees and disagreed with me. In fact, many students were receptive and agreed with me when I said that education should be a right and it should be free. I did not come across one student who disagreed with me that there should be a tuition fee freeze. Students knew that conditions were getting worse and most of them were knowledgeable about the fact that tuition fees are rising each year in Ontario. When I asked students if they were in any debt, many of them said they were, while those who said they weren’t acknowledged they had friends who are in debt and felt for them. I told students that the student union is a place to fight for student’s interests. I also told them that we have to mobilize with the help of our student union in order to win a tuition freeze, and that in Quebec a general unlimited student strike was starting up to stop the Quebec government from raising tuition nearly 75% in 5 years. 

If I had more time to talk to students one on one I would have started discussions about many more things. I would have told them that tuition fee increases particularly hurt women, who on average get paid around 30% less than men so they end up taking more time to pay off their debt and consequently pay more for their education. If I had more time I would have also told them about how tuition fees are a regressive system while education paid for through a progressive tax system was not. I would have also told them that international students have to pay two to three times more than the average student. I would have spoken more in depth about how the new tuition grant implemented by the Liberal Party divides students, with two thirds of students in Ontario not qualifying for it. I also would have never passed up the opportunity to tell them that there are many countries across the world that have free education as a right, and that Canada’s choice to increase tuition fees is exactly that, a choice. It is not an economic decision that has to be made. Ontario has some of the lowest tax rates for corporations in North America. Banks in Canada gained a profit of 12 billion dollars altogether in 2008. Raising taxes on rich corporations could easily pay for free education.

We need an education system that doesn’t perpetuate inequalities in society today. Students from low-income families are more likely to take on more debt, and with that debt they start their lives on unequal footing. Barriers to education mean that more and more people are shut out of university. Students at Guelph realize this. They just need to realize that together we do have the power to do something about it and that the student union is where to fight against fee increases and for free, accessible, quality, public education. We also need to start a culture where students, even though many of them are overburdened with work and school, make time to fight for student and workers interests on the streets. I hope that the elected members of the student union realize they need to mobilize students in order to have a real voice, and will show this through their actions during their term.

Peter Miller is a student at the University of Guelph.

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