Ontario post-secondary students leading charge against Ford’s funding cuts

Nasr Ahmed at protest Nasr Ahmed addressed the crowd of students and others at a January protest against post-secondary education funding cuts in Ontario.

NASR AHMED

Thousands of angry college and university students took to the streets of Toronto on Jan. 25, standing shoulder to shoulder in Yonge-Dundas Square in the bitter cold. With them, they carried signs with slogans like Education is a Right and Fund our Future. Images would roll in on social media from the high-rise buildings above, showing a swarm of bodies marching through the streets and ending eventually on the lawn of Queen’s Park.

The march against cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) was one of the largest mobilizations of Ontario students in years, but this was just the beginning of the fightback that these students would mount in the face of a provincial conservative government determined to make sweeping changes to the funding of post-secondary education.

Today, students from 13 colleges and universities will walk out of their classes at noon and continue to escalate their protest of the Ford government’s cuts to post-secondary education.

Among them will be CWA Canada Associate Members, many of whom are students enrolled in journalism or other media programs.

Cuts to OSAP and the so-called “Student Choice Initiative”

The set of reforms to post-secondary education funding announced in January includes ending the previous Liberal government’s “free tuition” program that was aimed at the province’s neediest students. The plan is to revert to a grant-and-loan system that fewer students will be able to take advantage of as most of the grants will go to students whose families have an income of less than $50,000.

Qualifying for OSAP would also look different. While in previous years, families earning up to $175,000 could qualify for some funding, that threshold is now reduced to $140,000. Not stopping there, the Tories have also proposed getting rid of the six-month interest-free grace period for repaying OSAP loans. This means that, as soon as a student graduates, the interest on their student loans begins to collect, whether or not they have a job and a steady income lined up.

Merrilee Fullerton, minister of Colleges and Universities, also announced what she calls the “Student Choice Initiative,” which would see the end of most mandatory “ancillary” fees starting this fall, which she claims can add as much as $2,000 a year to students’ post-secondary costs.

However, these fees provide funding for all kinds of on-campus groups including student unions, campus newspapers and radio stations. Students would be required to continue paying for only those programs that support health and wellness, or mental health — like athletics, walk safe programs or counselling and career services. The rest they can opt-out of.

Nour Alideeb, Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, describes the student choice initiative as “an unprecedented attack on student groups that have historically always stood up for student rights.”

CWA Canada Associate Members get involved

The CWA Canada Associate Members program represents student journalists from across the country. A large number of our student members work at campus newspapers and radio stations that are currently under threat of losing their funding due to the Student Choice Initiative. With our members under direct attack by this conservative government, Associate Members joined the fight against Ford’s proposed cuts to education with full force.

A letter-writing campaign was launched immediately, asking students and the general public to voice their complaints about these changes to both Premier Ford and Minister Fullerton.

The CWA Canada Associate Members are also working closely on the ground with student groups like CFS Ontario, the Canadian University Press (CUP), the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA), Socialist Fightback and others to organize further demonstrations and to bring this fight to individual school administrations around the province. Through this effort, we hope to show these administrations that all of these important student groups are indeed essential.

The walkout and the road ahead

With today’s walkout approaching, escalation seemed to be on everyone’s mind.
Aleksei Shkurin, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, says he “strongly supports the walkout” and believes “that student mobilization in Ontario has just started.”

Marco La Grotta, an editor and organizer with Socialist Fightback, said students need to “escalate their actions” and that “student unions need to initiate a plan for student strikes, beginning with one-day strikes and leading towards an Ontario-wide unlimited strike.”

When discussing the next steps and where the movement in Ontario goes from here, students have been making reference to the 2012 Quebec student strikes and for good reason.

Maral Nour, a biology student and Socialist Fightback organizer at York University, states that “we need to learn from the Quebec students, who successfully waged a fight against their own government’s attempt to cut education funding and increase their tuition in 2012. The student unions organized strikes across the province, demanding that the government eliminate tuition altogether. Students and workers in Quebec showed the way forward for us in Ontario.”

Nasr Ahmed is a union organizer and CWA Canada Associate Members Program Coordinator. He is a former television producer with CBC Sports and technical director with the Brampton Beast Hockey Club. You can find him at @nasrahmed93 or nahmed@cwa-scacanada.ca.

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