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Students working together for change: The Poverty-Free Ontario campaign

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Universal access to education is the foundation on which the new economy will be built.

It has become increasingly the case that a post-secondary education is the entry-level qualification needed to find meaningful employment, much like a high school education was during the last century. As such, the principle of universal access upon which primary and secondary education is premised must be extended to students of all ages.

Ontario is the most expensive province in which to study, with annual tuition fees reaching nearly $6,000 per year. Graduate tuition fees in Ontario are also the highest in the country, at more than $3,000 above the national average. In recent years, tuition fees have dramatically outpaced inflation. Due to record high unemployment and ever-increasing tuition fees, more students than ever have turned to loan programmes to finance their education, pushing student debt to a historic high. On average, a student will graduate in Ontario owing $22,000.

The government has boasted its commitment to providing students with financial assistance for their education. However, the result of their current tuition fee policy has meant that for every $1.00 of new funding invested by the government into student financial assistance, $1.30 was clawed back from students through tuition fee hikes. A system that relies on giving out more loans to students simply ignores the need for greater access to post-secondary education.

Despite modest new investments, the quality of education in Ontario institutions continues to suffer from the deep cuts of the 1990s, compounded by funding that has not kept pace with enrollment. As a result, Ontario has the highest student-to-faculty ratio in the country, while a high percentage of graduate students drop out of their programs. It is no coincidence that Ontario provides the lowest per-student funding in the country and is near the bottom in North America. As result of under-funding, many universities and colleges are focusing their hiring efforts on sessional or part-time instructors in order to contain costs. In addition, many campuses are cutting department budgets and instituting hiring freezes. Students are increasingly in learning environments that are being manipulated by privatisation and treated as revenue generating units by their college and university administrators. Recent strikes at York University and MacMaster University have further brought these issues to light.

Drop Fees for a Poverty-Free Ontario campaign

In this context, it is no surprise that the Drop Fees campaign, launched last year by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, has been met with such enthusiastic support from students and community members. The timing for such a campaign was never more appropriate, as this year is the final year of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's "Reaching Higher" framework for tuition fee increases. The government has promised to review the system, but students are tired of having costs loaded onto their shoulders. This campaign is intended to empower students, families and allies to have their say and demand a new plan for the post-secondary education system - one that is based on access, equity and fairness.

After an extremely successful campaign that saw over 10,000 students participate in protests on November 5, 2008, students from across Ontario decided to broaden the campaign to fight for the elimination of poverty. Doing so would allow students to work with community partners to draw attention to the current economic context and chronic under-funding in multiple public sectors. The campaign for a Poverty-Free Ontario became an umbrella campaign that provided an opportunity to bring together students, labour organisations, and community groups to call for increased investment of public money into social services and infrastructure such as education, healthcare, housing, social assistance and childcare.

Broadening the Issues

Of course, the barriers to social equity are deeper than educational policy. Students have been grappling with meaningful ways to broaden their advocacy for years and recently the Federation struck a Task Force on Campus Racism to investigate how racism is manifested on Ontario campuses. Similar to the Task Force on the Needs of Muslim Students conducted in 2006-2007, the Task Force on Campus Racism has hosted campus hearings and gathered information from the testimony of racialised students, staff and faculty.

To add context to the work of the Task Force, the Federation has conducted research on the racialised impact of tuition fees. It has been found that racialised students are at an economic advantage based on a number of indicators including lower average income, poverty rates, and occupational concentration that make them more likely to require student loans. As a result, racialised students can expect to experience greater financial burdens after graduation through extended loan repayments and more accrued interest. This report is scheduled to be released in January 2010, as a lead-up to the release of the final report on the Task Force on Campus Racism.

With more important work of this kind, students are seeking to expand typical definitions of accessibility in post-secondary education in order to make Ontario colleges and universities truly inclusive places of opportunity and learning.

Taking Action

The November 5, 2009 Day of Action for a Poverty-Free Ontario saw successful actions take place throughout the province, with ten thousand students and community members hitting the streets. Marches and mass rallies were held in Toronto, Ottawa and Sudbury. Actions were also held in Sault Ste. Marie, Guelph, Windsor and London. On December 9, students from Toronto, Thunder Bay, Kingston, Ottawa, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor hand delivered more than 90,000 postcards to Dalton McGuinty, calling for a reduction of student fees, the conversion of student loans into grants, and increased, stable funding for colleges and universities. Postcards were signed in communities across Ontario as part of an intensive lobby week that followed the November 5 Day of Action.

Students have played a major role in social movements in Canada and there is no better time than now for them to organize together. The campaign for a Poverty-Free Ontario has gained momentum and has been a springboard for further action. The challenge ahead centres around the need to continue to build a network of activism that connects students with community activists off campus, so that together, enough pressure can be brought to bear on the McGuinty government, such that substantial policy changes are implemented.

Mike Yam is the Researcher at the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario and a video correspondent for rabbleTV.

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