Doug Ford’s Ontario Conservative government launched its first substantial policy initiative around postsecondary education on January 17, 2019. It was wrapped around the headline of a 10 percent tuition cut. Anyone who has been following the direction of right-wing governments elsewhere might be a bit surprised to see the Ontario Tories cutting tuition.
The British Tories, for example, tripled tuition fees in 2010. The goal of that increase was to reorient universities around a complete commitment to user pay, meaning that those who receive a service cover its costs, rather than having the service paid for out of revenue from general taxation. Tuition increases have been a major theme of neoliberal governments around the world.
It was surprising then to see the Ontario Tories apparently heading in the opposite direction, actually cutting fees. But just beneath that headline were three details that indicate the real direction of this project.
First, the Tories began undermining the Ontario Student Assistance Program, the flawed but crucial program that helps students afford ever-growing tuition fees through grants and loans. Fewer students will be eligible for support, and some of those who had been eligible for grants will now be building up debt as they are forced to take on loans. Further, the government is ending the grace period after graduation to begin loan repayment and interest accrual.
Indeed, international students, who already pay at least triple the domestic student fees, will face tuition increases rather than a 10 percent cut. Ontario universities are increasingly using extraordinarily high fees for international students to make up for shortfalls in government funding.
Secondly, the Ford government is attacking students’ democratic and collective organizing rights (under the label of “Student Choice”) by halting the mandatory collection of “ancillary fees” (or fees for student services beyond basic tuition). Ford is blunt about the political character of this attack on fees that support things like student unions and student media, stating in a fundraising email: “Students were forced into unions and forced to pay for those unions. I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to.”
The “Student Choice Initiative” is linked to a pro-corporate playbook of attacking the democratic right to form unions, whether for students or workers. There is every reason to expect the Ford government to treat this as a rehearsal for a wider attack on trade unions. This initiative is also an attack on equity and social justice, creating a hierarchy of fees in which athletics is deemed “essential” while equity-oriented activities (such as student food banks or anti-racist, queer and women’s centres) are made optional.
And thirdly, Ontario’s Conservative government is cutting funding for postsecondary education, as the 10 percent tuition cut will be taken out of college and university budgets. (At this point, the overall level of funding for next year is unclear except that this reduction is taking place.) This will lead to larger classes, more limited course choices, and less out-of-classroom assistance to help students meet their needs. It will bump up the already high proportion of postsecondary educators and staff who are working part-time or on limited contracts.
Once you look beyond the headline, it is clear this is not a deviation from the neoliberal agenda, but a somewhat different route to the same destination: life without a safety net. The only difference is that the Tories have adapted this agenda to the specific circumstances on the ground in Ontario.
It is sometimes tempting to tag the Ford government as shoot-from-the-gut reactionaries, striking out randomly at whatever bugs them in the moment. Unfortunately, theirs is a much more deliberate strategy than that, not necessarily based on their own cleverness but on a right-wing playbook for postsecondary education in a neoliberal capitalist society that has been developed since the 1970s. This policy direction is not a mistake, and it will not be reversed by rational argument. Rather, it will require a massive mobilization to stop it.
Preparing for Precarious Lives
The neoliberal playbook for education has been developed through right-wing policy forums, implemented through various experiments since the 1970s and shared globally through organizations like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The core goals of neoliberal restructuring at the level of the state, the workplace and the community are to knock away the limited and inadequate safety nets created by the welfare state and union collective agreements. Social programs like unemployment insurance, social assistance and public housing are starved of funds and reframed around ever more restrictive rulebooks. Job security and pay rates are undermined as “good jobs” with decent pay and reasonable security are replaced by self-employment and limited-term contract or part-time work.
If colleges and universities serve as the preparation for work and life after graduation, then restructuring postsecondary education is an important dimension of changing expectations around employment and living standards. That is why the reorganization of postsecondary education, and particularly public colleges and universities, is an ongoing feature of neoliberal society.
The Ford attack on postsecondary education fits into a longer-term neoliberal project of undermining accessible state-funded postsecondary education, on the grounds that it generates expectations of citizenship framed around certain social rights, including the right to education. In the neoliberal frame, students have only the right to the education they can afford to buy. The Ford government is following a broader playbook based on the assumption that public postsecondary education creates a context in which people come to expect certain social rights. It seeks to dampen those expectations by modelling a world in which buying and selling on the market is the only thing that counts.
Further, neoliberal critics see those faculty members with secure employment as models of a mode of employment that is less and less a possibility for students. The Ford attacks aim to restructure colleges and universities so that they better prepare students for the hunger games life of precariousness ahead of them, where people only have “rights” to whatever they can afford to buy on the market and worker rights are profoundly weakened.
Governments are also seeking to orient postsecondary education completely around employers’ needs. Not only does education become a commercial transaction in which students are customers, but students also become “product” marketed to employers. Colleges and universities are increasingly saying to employers, “We build them with all the features you want.”
Capitalist education has always been about preparing people for the place in a world of domination and subordination, based on elitist ruling class, Eurocentric, masculine and settler-colonial ideals. Elite schools and universities prepare a tiny portion of the population to rule, while others have their spirits crushed in institutions aimed at normalizing subordination. Mass-oriented educational institutions teach dominant knowledges premised on the taken for granted superiority of some (men, people of European ancestry, heterosexuals, the ruling elite) and inferiority of others (women, Indigenous and racialized people, people with disabilities, etc.). Students in these institutions are habituated to rule-following, through timetables, routine testing and silencing except when officially recognized from the front of the room.
Neoliberal education takes this subordination another next step, making students into a product focused on selling themselves from the youngest age. This means refocusing education so that students themselves measure the relevance and usefulness of their learning in terms of what employers might want rather than what students need to know to live well. This marginalizes equity-focused education, creating a hierarchy in which the importance of learning is defined by market value.
Rebuilding the Resistance
Many students and campus workers see the severity of the threat posed by the Ford agenda. The Toronto demonstrations that I have been on since January have been a good size and spirited. There has been a variety of forms of action across campuses, including spaces that have previously been relatively apolitical.
We now face the challenge of building this resistance around a longer-term strategy (e.g. one to two years) for militant mass mobilization that can fight to transform colleges and universities from below into the kinds of educational spaces that meet student needs and serve as good places to work. Every campus will need a large core of activists working amongst students and workers to organize towards large-scale actions that ultimately have the power to stop business as usual in these institutions – from one-hour walkouts to sit-ins to student and campus worker strikes and days of action.
The Ford agenda is not an accident and the Tories will not back down from it easily. We need to develop a vision for organizing towards next fall and beyond that addresses the impact of the “Student Choice Initiative” by actively campaigning for students to opt in to fee payments for student unions, media and equity centres. But we need to go beyond that to building a democratic and activist from-below vision of student and worker unionism on campuses.
In 2012, Quebec students defeated a 75 percent tuition increase through a strike by tens of thousands of students that at its peak mobilized over 300,000 in street protests and campus shutdowns. That strike did not come out of nowhere, certainly not out of tiny numbers of people raising the slogan “general strike” without any strategy to get there. The strike was the result of a democratic activist mobilizing strategy rooted in the student union ASSÉ (l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante), which began in 2001 building on traditions of militant student activism going back to the 1960s.
ASSÉ was a democratic activist student union based on the principle that students have collective interests, as workers do (e.g., for quality, democratic, accessible, decolonized education). Students also have the potential for collective power to fight for those interests. The ASSÉ model of student unionism was rooted in identifying tools for fighting collectively around immediate and local issues as well as around broad responses to government policy. The core of this model was building activist involvement and democratic decision-making, particularly through general membership meetings at which students debated and passed motions that directed the student union most famously through the strike vote.
The 2012 strike was the culmination of a two-year mobilizing strategy that began with basic steps like petition campaigns in which large numbers of activist students stood in halls, cafeterias and classrooms to physically collect names while personally inviting those who signed into further involvement. In the next phase, students who signed the petition were invited to a mass gathering to deliver it to decision-makers. When the government and university did not budge, the next step was demonstrations that built the sense of collectivity and confidence that ultimately made a strike vote possible.
As someone who has been on Ontario campuses as a student or teacher for most of the years since 1973, I can testify that organizing at universities and colleges has fallen to a relatively low level in Ontario over the last number of years. There are fewer political tables, protests, leafleting events or occupations than in my earlier days on campus.
It is really important to develop deliberate strategies to rebuild mass activism. Campuses still have public spaces where it is possible to do political organizing, unlike for example a workplace or a privately owned shopping mall. Students operate with more political freedom than employees. For example, they can generally make an announcement or circulate leaflets in class without penalty. Further, students often have some control over their time. There is an urgent need for deliberate campaigns to rebuild activism, not only through calling actions but also by fostering capacity-building and political development among layers of students and workers, along the lines of the Feet on the Ground campaign launched by the Workers’ Action Centre.
The injustice and long-term damage of the Ford agenda can be the spark to rebuild a culture of activism on campuses if we organize around a transformative agenda. There are signs that even organizations like the Ontario Federation of Labour, which over the past 10 years has drifted away from any form of militancy, are beginning to assess the dangers of the moment and develop mobilizing campaigns. Students and workers need collective organization to be able to name and address the injustices, inequities and shortfalls of the postsecondary system as it is now organized and insist upon a system that puts education ahead of bean counting. We cannot rebuild the resistance through a slogan, but through escalating campaigns that include modest but consistent outreach and step up toward mass militancy.
Alan Sears is the author of The Next New Left: A History of the Future and a member of the Toronto New Socialists.
Photo credit: Emma King/ Ryersonain