Student Power, Worker Activism and the Democratic University

Teaching assistants at the University of Toronto, members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 , and teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants in CUPE Local 3903 at York University are on strike against precarious work and poverty wages. At the University of Manitoba, there is an emerging movement against severe cutbacks on campus that is showing some real mobilizing capacity and creative engagement with the wider student body and campus workers. In Quebec, the student movement is beginning to mobilize for the first time since the massive 2012 strike, playing an important role in a wider anti-austerity movement.

 These mobilizations are crucial to countering the accelerated neoliberal restructuring of post-secondary education that is underway throughout the Canadian state. Tuition increases are a crucial part of the process of restructuring, signalling a privatization that shifts post-secondary education from being a public good to a market product sustained by user pay. This privatization ethos goes much deeper on campuses, with the use of: market-model mechanisms to create a competitive ethos between programs and institutions; new technologies like on-line learning and clickers to transform the classroom experience even more in the direction of one-way information transfer from teacher to student; and the increasing use of precarious academic labour throughout the system. 

The rise of the public university

The goal of this neoliberal restructuring process is to kill off what remains of the public university. Historically, universities developed very specifically as institutions for elite education, preparing the next generation of rulers. Even by the end of World War 2, Canadian post-secondary education was largely restricted to the elite, with only about 4% of the population going to university and very limited community college education available.

This really began to change with the development of the public university associated with the broadening of the welfare state after World War 2. Sections of the working class won new rights through massive strikes and mobilizations during and after the war. This included collective bargaining rights, some degree of security through social programs like unemployment insurance and social assistance, and access to education and health care. 

Today over 50% of the population have completed some kind of post-secondary education, and over 20% have university degrees. Among younger people (age 25-44), almost 70% have obtained some kind of post-secondary certification. 

In the years after World War 2, existing universities expanded dramatically and new ones were formed. Provincial governments also developed community colleges (or equivalents) with a more occupational orientation to open up a wider range of post-secondary options. Access to education was seen as an organizing principle of the system, built right into government and institutional policies. It was cast as a fundamental basis for a fairer society based on increased equality of opportunity.

The expansion of the post-secondary system in the period after World War 2 was driven partly from below. In the 1960s, those excluded from fuller citizenship in the welfare state rose up in important movements to demand rights. They organized around anti-racism, anti-colonialism, feminism, queer liberation, ecological consciousness, national liberation in Quebec, worker activism and rights for young people. Access to post-secondary education was an important dimension in many of these struggles. In the United States, African-Americans fought for access to integrated schools. Women fought for new access to education and inclusion in the curriculum. Québécois activists demanded access to a French-language education system that could match the breadth and reputation of the English one. 

A radical student movement developed as part of the wide-based mobilization in the 1960s.  The character of the public university in the Canadian state partly reflected this wave of student activism.  The system of “in loco parentis” where universities acted as substitute parents supervising the lives of students, for example by attempting to banish sexual activity from campuses, was ended. Students won a level of enfranchisement, with some kind of representation in university governance and a transformation of student associations from social clubs towards student unionism. The student movement won a new level of freedom of expression on campuses, minimal tuition and, in Quebec, even the right to strike and organize general assemblies.

This wave of radical activism also saw the development and spread of faculty, teaching assistant and staff unionism in post-secondary institutions.. This led to relatively good employment practices on campuses, where for example teaching assistants gained leverage as employees separate from their status as graduate students. For permanent faculty members, unionization meant relatively high levels of job security, more transparent procedures for hiring and tenure and a more standardized distribution of workloads.   

The public university system in the Canadian state was built around an explicit commitment to access to education.  It developed as a relatively level system, so for example students graduating with high standing from any university could gain access to the most prestigious graduate programmes.This is in marked contrast with the highly stratified US and British university systems, where your trajectory is determined by your point of entry, so access to prestigious graduate programmes is limited to students from elite universities.

Neoliberalism and the end of the public university

Since the 1980s, government policy-makers, university administrators and employer representatives have sought to restructure the post-secondary sector in alignment with the reorientation towards neoliberal social policy. The core of this policy frame is to disentitle the population, based on the market principle that you have no right to anything you cannot buy.  This market orientation has gone along with lean production strategies aimed at undermining worker resistance, eliminating good jobs and spreading precarious employment. Sharp reductions in social assistance aim to drive people to accept work on any terms, while increasingly harsh immigration controls have created larger layers of workers with few or no rights.

The remnants of the public university are seen as a barrier to neoliberal restructuring.  The principle of access to education is not compatible with the production of a population who have no sense of entitlement or rights. The relatively level character of the public university system makes it somewhat inefficient in elite formation. At a time of sharply increasing social polarization, this public system makes it harder to target the elite with different educational opportunities and methods than the rest of the student body who are headed toward working-class employment. Finally, good jobs on campus actually model a kind of employment relationship that employers do not want the next generation to expect. 

A major offensive is underway to kill the public university and replace it with the neoliberal Austerity U.  In Ontario, the government is undertaking a differentiation process that is attempting to create greater distinctions between institutions, making possible a more stratified system that will be amenable to separate streams for elite education.

Information technology is being used to restructure teaching along factory lines, whether through on-line courses or wired classrooms. These technologies are being used to break down the craft of teaching in the same ways mass production methods eliminated much of the skilled labour in factories. The opportunity to build human relationships of learning and teaching is being reduced as larger classes and new technologies are being used to create a dehumanized mind factory. The content of university is also shifting, prioritizing an entrepreneurial ethos over critical thinking and problem-solving. 

Finally, universities have been downgrading employment conditions on campus. The student population at universities has grown much more rapidly than the workforce of permanent teachers, leading to much larger classes and a dramatic increase in the precarious employment of contract faculty with low pay and no job security. The current strikes at the University of Toronto and York University are addressing the poverty wages of teaching assistants and the low pay, insecurity and poor conditions of contract faculty.   

Towards the democratic university

It is tempting to defend the remains of the public university against Austerity U.  This approach pushes us to ignore the problems of the public university and to defend the impoverished remains of a flawed system. Rather, it is time to work towards a new kind of student-worker coalition that can transform the university in a new direction, building the democratic university. Such a vision was raised by CLASSE, the more radical wing of the Quebec student movement during the 2012 strike. CLASSE made it clear that they were fighting for a new kind of democratic accountability to students in every aspect of university life, from budgeting to instructional relationships.

There are four dimensions to the university we should be fighting for.  First, it needs to be grounded in principles of access that go beyond merely granting admissions to ensuring that students from historically excluded populations have the opportunity to find themselves at school. Second,it needs to be democratic in the sense that students need to have collective decision-making power over key issues ranging from budgeting to curriculum to classroom engagement. Third, the university system needs to be decolonized and transformed, recognizing the ways colonial relationships, whiteness, class power, masculinity and heterosexuality are hard wired into the foundational orientation of academic disciplines across the curriculum in order to move beyond that dominant frame. Finally, universities need to be good places to work for the whole spectrum of employees. Campus workplace struggles are really battles about the future of work, as students form important expectations about their own future lives through their post-secondary education. 

Building the resistance

The generally low level of activism on campuses makes even the task of defending the public university against neoliberal assault seem difficult. The idea of mobilizing for the democratic university can seem unrealistic But sometimes expanding the horizons of our movement can contribute to mobilization by exciting the imagination. It is precisely the transformative character of the struggle for the democratic university that opens up the possibility of new kinds of student-worker solidarity that can challenge state policy-makers, employers and university administrations. 

This will require a new kind of coalition building on campuses, aimed at deploying the collective power of students, faculty and staff to fight for access, democracy, decolonization and good jobs on campus rather than austerity and precariousness. Such a coalition will need to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable, particularly students facing forms of oppression and also precarious workers. We will need to explore new strategies to use the leverage of the most powerful workers on campus (generally permanent faculty) to improve the situation of precarious academic workers and students through solidarity to create good jobs, encourage a living wage for all on campuses, and improve the quality of education through limiting class size and ensuring democratic accountability to students.

Concretely, at the present moment this means building cross-campus solidarity for CUPE 3902 in their fight for a living wage for teaching assistants and for CUPE 3903 in their struggle to defend tuition indexation (so wages rise if tuition increases) for graduate student workers and job security for sessional instructors. We need to work creatively to find ways to build anti-cuts campaigns like the one at University of Manitoba into transformative mobilizations to make a more democratic university.

Quebec students are showing again this year that campus campaigns against cuts and privatization can make a major contribution to a broader anti-austerity movement. Austerity U. is not inevitable, but we will not defeat it by rallying around the ghost of the public university.  Instead, we need to be building our own transformative agenda for  a post-secondary system that is accessible, democratic, decolonized and a good place to work.


Alan Sears is a member of Toronto New Socialists. He is the author of Retooling the Mind Factory and his most recent book is The Next New Left: A History of the Future.