Thirty years ago, the Ontario government funded close to 80 per cent of the University of Toronto's revenue stream. But for the first time this year, it will fund less than 50 per cent.
"Which fundamentally calls into question whether we (still) have public universities at all," said Faraz Vahid Shahidi, a member of the University of Toronto General Assembly at a panel discussion last Saturday in Toronto.
With chronic under funding in post secondary education, gaps have emerged that have been filled with soaring tuition fee hikes and private donations.
"Largely from corporations, many of whom are implicated in great injustices, unethical practices, and in some cases crimes against humanity."
Shahidi is concerned that private funding will only fill the gaps that are considered lucrative by their donors, such as law schools, business schools, mining schools and schools of international relations. While other programs like liberal arts and sciences will get left behind.
In the last three years, the U of T Rotman School of Business received $40 million, a mining school was established with a $20 million donation and the Munk School of Global Affairs pocketed $85 million.
Without wealthy donors prepared to bail out the arts and sciences programs, the U of T was forced to adopt tuition fee increases to deal with its deficit. But that's only served to increase student debt.
"In this country alone, households have accrued $14 billion worth of debt over student loans," said Shahidi. "The university is a primary site of capitalism and what happens on campuses holds great consequences for many people in significant ways."
He said that "universities are afflicted by the very same conditions that our vision of a better world means to address."
Although universities around the world continue to suffer, students continue to fight for justice and equality. At the U of T, undergraduate students persist in tangling with the administration and the province over the chronic under funding of post secondary education that Shahidi said meant 66 per cent tuition fee increases in a single year.
As a result, he believes that these struggles demonstrate that only universities run by students and workers can fulfill a university's vision.
"Too often we use the university's ideals of learning and seeking truth as a point of departure for organizing on campus," said Shahidi. "But we know from the first instance that the university's ideals are corrupt because of the university's links to the larger political economy.
Movements are flourishing, according to Shahidi, between students, workers, faculty members and the broader community. But he said the struggles have to be recognized within the broader context of conservative economics.
Just as the benefits of the last 30 years of economic growth haven't been shared equally, the proposed austerity measures will be felt more by some than others.
Many lower income students take less than a full course load so they can work part time. But a controversial plan at the U of T to charge a flat fee for five courses even if students take as few as three goes into effect this September.
The U of T admitted in a 2009 Toronto Star story that the plan was designed to generate $10 million yearly to offset a funding shortfall of $5 million to $7 million a year.
"That forces working class families to pay for five courses even though they can't afford it," said Shahidi.
"The only way they can afford it is to take on more debt. It is a class project that targets working class families and drives them into more and more debt. And this is essentially class warfare."
That's created a number of anti-austerity movements within Toronto.
"These movements will only continue to grow in number and size with the Harper/Ford (and possibly Hudak) alignment," he said.
"And hopefully, we'll actually become the crisis that capitalism faces."
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