November 12, 2015

Tuition fees: How students are getting it handed to them and what we can learn

Drew Garvie

We hear a lot about skyrocketing tuition fees, but one of the challenges in the student movement is high turnover and a lack of historical memory. Which government did what when? And the most important question, which governments are never truthful about; why did they do it? Here Rebel Youth examines some short histories of tuition fee increases in five provinces in order to help understand the attack we are facing and what we can do about it.

Nova Scotia:

In 2008, Nova Scotia’s Conservative government froze tuition fees. At this time the province had the highest tuition fees in the country. In 2009, an NDP government was elected which kept the freeze in place for two years. NDP Premier Darrel Dexter commissioned a report by an ex-Bank of Montreal Vice-President which advocated scrapping the freeze. Despite a sizable student demonstration in Halifax, the province agreed to a 3% increase per year. After the NDP was resoundingly defeated in 2013, the McNeil Liberal government announced in early 2015 that the province would institute a “tuition fee reset”, or a “tuition fee free-for-all” as the Canadian Federation of Students – Nova Scotia has called it. This means a removal of all tuition fee caps, so that institutions can hike their fees to any amount of their choosing. This is justified by University administrations and governments because they say they want to have fee levels similar to “rival” institutions in Ontario. The move is being justified by the idea education that costs more and has bigger barriers to it, produces degrees that are “worth more”, despite the fact that there is no proof of any correlation between quality and tuition fees.


After funding cuts and tuition fee increases during the 1990s, Newfoundland and Labrador began instituting a tuition fee freeze in 1999. From 2002-2005, tuition fees were lowered each year for a total decrease of 22.7%, and then frozen again until today. The result is that Newfoundland now has the lowest tuition fees in the country at less than half the cross-Canada average. This freeze was started by the Liberals and continued by successive Conservative provincial governments. Why does Newfoundland have such a unique post-secondary policy? Newfoundland had a profound economic and labour crisis with a massive job loss in the fishing industry, an aging population and a huge migration of youth to find jobs in other provinces. Following the collapse of the cod fishery during the early 90s, Newfoundland’s population decreased by 60,000. In order to fulfill the needs of Capital in Newfoundland, it was necessary to create a policy that kept and attracted students to the island and expanded training in new fields. Despite this, the current Davis Conservative government has lifted the freeze on graduate, international and medical students and included $40 million dollars in cuts to Memorial University (Newfoundland’s only university) in the 2015 budget.

Image from the 2012 student strike

Quebec’s history of tuition fees and associated student resistance is a clear indicator that mass mobilization can beat back the attack, at least temporarily. Thanks to the “Quiet Revolution” for national sovereignty in the 1970s, there was a massive effort to expand post-secondary education to the Francophone majority, who had previously been shut out of the mostly Anglo university system. One of the solutions was the creation of the CEGEP system, which meant free college education, and a government endorsed plan to eliminate tuition fees for all post-secondary in the long-term. In 1996, after a strike involving 100,000 students, the Parti Québecois’ education minister Pauline Marois backtracked on a plan to increase tuition fees by 30% and promised to keep a freeze in place for the next 10 years. In 2005, before the freeze expired, the Charest Liberal government was forced to revoke their plan to cut $103 million from financial aid, after a strike of a few weeks involving 200,000 students. In 2007, Premier Jean Charest was successful in bringing in a tuition fee hike of 30% over a five-year period. In the post-economic crisis austerity climate, Charest decided it was time that Quebec drastically cut funding to post-secondary education. In 2011, his government proposed a 75% tuition fee hike over the next five years. The 2012 student strike became the longest and largest strike in Quebec’s history and the mobilizations during this period remain the most massive in Canadian history. The end result was a new PQ government under Marois, and a promise to reinstitute a freeze. However, after a short time in office, the PQ agreed to inflationary increases in fees. The students’ main adversary, the PLQ (Liberal Party), was elected again in 2014 behind Premier Philippe Couillard. One of the first shots was fired when Couillard announced a tripling of tuition fees for students from France (who had previously had access to Quebec domestic rates). So far the Liberals have not announced a plan to lift the cap of inflationary increases for Quebec students, but are instituting a harsh austerity program that includes a renewed attack on post-secondary education. The 2015 budget includes a $21 million dollar cut to the CEGEP system and a $10 million loss for universities.

Bob Rae, ex- NDP Premier in Ontario, started massive
increases with a 40% jump during his time in office.

Ontario has the highest tuition fees in the country, and being the most populous province with the most schools, it raises the floor for the rest of Canada and poses a serious challenge to our student movement. How did we get here? In 1990, Ontario’s first and only NDP government was elected on a platform to reduce fees and then proceeded to increase tuition fees every year of their term for a total increase of 40%. They also dismantled Ontario’s grant system. After the Mike Harris Conservative government was elected in 1995, the post-secondary system faced massive cuts. In 1996, this led to a 16% jump in tuition fees in one year and tuition fees continued to increase well beyond inflation. In 2003, the McGuinty Liberals were elected on a promise to reverse the Harris cuts in social assistance, health and education. They campaigned and won on a tuition fee freeze (actually an inflationary increase), which only lasted two years. In 2005, McGuinty brought former NDP Premier Bob Rae out of retirement to write a report on PSE, which advocated a deregulation of tuition fees and the introduction of Income Contingent Loans (a huge scam which leads to skyrocketing tuition fees based on increased access to loans). The final result was a lifting of the inflationary increases and a tuition fee framework of 5% increases until 2013 when the cap was reset at 3%. This has meant that undergraduate tuition fees have risen in Ontario from $2,105 in 1992 (adjusted for inflation), to $7,539 in 2014. That means costs for education have almost quadrupled beyond inflation. This is not taking into account international tuition fees which have been completely deregulated since 1996, although as recently as the 1970s there was no difference in fees paid by international students. The result is that now international students pay more than triple the fees of domestic undergraduates.

In 2011, as part of an election promise, the Liberals campaigned on an income based grant to reduce tuition fees by 30%. Once elected, the Liberals put in place so many criteria to be eligible for this grant that 7/9 students were ineligible. The latest PSE policy unveiled in 2015 by the Liberal Wynne government is more of the same song and dance around the root problems while continuing to deepen the damage to the core of colleges and universities. They’ve decided to increase the debt cap on the provincial loan program “OSAP”, meaning students have access to more loans and associated debt. The latest “solution” the Liberals have come up with is partnering with a third-party company that buys Aeroplan Miles and will then pay a portion of a student’s OSAP loan. Debt problem solved!

BC's ex-premier Gordon Campbell
British Columbia:

After a 6 year freeze in BC, tuition fees were deregulated in 2002 after the election of the Gordon Campbell Liberals. In 4 short years, tuition fees doubled for undergraduate students and tripled for graduate and international students. BC’s $80 million system of up-front grants was also eliminated. In 2005, the provincial government brought in an inflationary cap on increases, while at the same time gutting grants and enhancing loans. Tuition fees continue to increase at 2 percent per year in that province for domestic undergraduates, but other fees are increasing much faster. For example, in 2014 the government introduced fees for adult basic education. Also, fees for international students and auxiliary fees are skyrocketing. At University of British Columbia last year, the administration increased tuition fees for international students by 10% and brought in a 20% fee increase for students in residence

So why is this happening coast-to-coast?

Between 1990 and 2014, tuition fees have gone from a cross-Canada average undergraduate rate of $1,464 to $5,959. The provinces we have left out have similar histories to BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia. But enough numbers! What can we learn from these recent histories and what other questions do they raise?

One obvious lesson is that we as a movement can’t rely on any bourgeois political party to enact even modest pro-student reforms. Clearly, there is no consistent defender of students. In BC, the NDP brought in a freeze, and the Liberals dumped it. In Ontario, the NDP started the long process of ramping up tuition fees, with the Liberals instituting a short-lived freeze. In Nova Scotia, the Conservatives brought in a freeze, and the NDP scrapped it. In Quebec, PQist Pauline Marois tried to start the process of increasing fees, and then she won an election on a promise to freeze fees 16 years later, only to betray that promise. In Newfoundland, it was the Conservatives, who by labour market necessity continued reductions for several years. In Saskatchewan, not detailed above, it was the NDP who presided over a tripling of fees from the early 90s to the mid 2000s.

But this doesn’t mean that cynicism is an answer to our problems, and it’s not true that there have not been victories (even in these dark decades). In Quebec, time and time again, students have beaten back drives towards greater inaccessibility. Also, the fact that temporary freezes have been won during this period in English speaking Canada, means that even bourgeois politicians are forced to pander to students to some degree when they are mobilized. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t won battles, it just means we’re losing the war. So what’s the nature of this war and how do we turn things around?

The current onslaught began in the 1980’s. It’s common to hear of a change in “values” in the capitalist West’s politics of this era. Thatcherism, Reaganism, the Chicago school, neoliberalism, the end of history, the death of Marxism, etc. But this change in ideology was prompted by the capitalist system itself and a changing global balance of forces. The welfare state, built up as a class compromise to ward off socialism and paid for by an expanding economy after WWII, was now “too expensive” for a capitalist economy with a declining rate of profit. Social programs, health, education and chunks of the state itself needed to be privatized. This is the start of the ongoing battle for public education in Canada. The shift can be seen in the policy of the main parties in Canada. In 1976, Canada signed on to the United Nations’ Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights promising to gradually introduce free education at all levels. Then, throughout the 1980s tuition fees more than doubled, and tuition fees in colleges (besides Quebec’s CEGEP system) tripled.

Photos from Jan 25th, 1995 student strike
From 1993-1996, a key battle was fought by the student movement against the newly elected Chrétien Liberals. The Liberal government announced it would be making deep cuts, and that all of Canada’s social programs would be reviewed. Post-secondary education would face massive cuts from the Federal government and the introduction of Income Contingent Loans (paving the way for even more funding cuts and increases in fees). The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) joined with a broad opposition, led by the Canadian Postal Workers, the Canadian Auto Workers, the Action Committee on the Status of Women, and many others who formed the “Action Canada Network”. The CFS fought hard through days of action starting in 1994, including a cross-Canada student strike in 1995 involving 80,000 students in 40 cities. In Quebec, the student movement fought through the newly formed Mouvement pour le droit a l’éducation (MDE), most of whose members would go on to make up the current Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ). But the Liberals went on the offensive in the student movement and managed to force a split, with the forming of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), which was created as a right-wing alternative to the Canadian Federation of Students. This attack was provoked by the fact that the CFS was winning, so much so that Liberal Minister Lloyd Axworthy got his office to start organizing the right-wing of the student movement into CASA.

The CFS campaign managed to turn the debate around and demonstrate that Income Contingent Loans were a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But it wasn’t enough to stop the cuts. In 1996, the Federal government reorganized the transfer payments to provinces by removing post-secondary education funding from Medicare, meaning that provinces didn’t have to spend the funds on education and they could go to…. corporate tax breaks. This has been combined with cuts at the Federal level. Cash transfer payments for PSE are still roughly $1.3 billion short of 1992 levels when accounting for inflation and population growth. Because of Canada’s backward Constitution that puts PSE in the hands of the provinces, the Federal government is often off the hook when we’re looking for which set of corporate hack politicians to blame. There is an immediate need to rebuild a cross-Canada movement that demands an increase in federal funding and a new “Post-Secondary Act”, similar to the Canada Health Act, which sets out cross-Canada standards for free and public post-secondary education.

In the current post-2008 context of capitalist crisis, the current onslaught is framed by the battle against an even more aggressive austerity agenda. Because we’ve been having it handed to us for so long, and we’re under increasing pressure, there is a real tendency to retreat into looking for answers with lobbying and electoral victories. Clearly, we’re not going to win by merely electing a political party on a platform to freeze tuition fees. History shows that wherever we’ve been successful in winning battles, mass mobilization and an ambitious action plan is the way to win. Now that capitalist governments have increasingly broad sections of the people in their austerity cross-hairs, it means our ability to win allies increases. This last year the University of British Columbia saw a mini-explosion in their student movement. There was a strong campaign against fee increases, and one of the highlights was a mobilization for their student union’s Annual General Meeting, which made quorum for the first time in 40 years and voted 91 percent in favor of fighting for reduced tuition fees. They adopted the symbol of the red square made famous by the 2012 Quebec student strike, symbolizing the power of the mass student movement. After a vote at the Board of Governors to increase international tuition by 10% the campaign said:

“Tuition increases did not pass because what we did was insignificant; they passed because what we did was simply not enough…
…These increases are not inevitable. Far from it. We can stop them, but it means showing up. It means being louder. We need to be louder. We need to be more. We need to be more than enough. We need to be everywhere, all the time. We need to be talking to each other, talking to our classmates, our professors, our roommates, friends, lovers, brothers, sisters, chosen kin. We need to resist.”

This is the only way forward!


This article is printed in Issue 19 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on student struggles across Canada. Find out more and subscribe today!

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