The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which represents over 530,000 students from more than 60 university and college students’ unions across the country – is organizing a Canada-wide Day of Action for Free Education on November 8. Part of the “Fight the Fees” campaign, this is the CFS’s first cross-country day of action since 2016, when students were joined by unions and progressive organizations in demanding accessible and affordable post-secondary education.
People’s Voice interviewed CFS-Ontario chairperson Mitra Yakubi about preparations for the November 8 action, what it means to students, and why it is important for all working people to support it.
PV: It’s been a few years since the last CFS day of action to cut fees and call for free education – how has this one come about and what are you fighting for?
Mitra Yakubi: The CFS is membership-driven, so at every general meeting, folks get together to decide the direction of the organization. It’s been mandated by students across the country to have a cross-country day of action, which is why it is happening.
Our three main demands – which are consistent across the country – are free and accessible education for all students, grants not loans, and education justice. This last one recognizes that some communities are marginalized on campuses. So, we’re calling for education justice for Indigenous students, international students, students with disabilities and graduate students, recognizing the different circumstances and situations which they have to navigate.
Is the return to organizing days of action reflective of a renewed sense of urgency in the student movement?
The last day of action was in 2016 and there many, many victories that resulted from the organizing and mass mobilization that was happening. Those conversations continued and we continued lobby and organize and advocate for free and accessible education, but I think it’s necessary now for us to have a cross-Canada day of action where we talk about everything that has led us to this point, and also some of the issues that students are facing across the country.
From increasing tuition fees to the increasing cost of living, there are a myriad of issues that students are being affected by. That is not to mention housing and transit and food insecurity that we are seeing increasing on our campuses, both during the pandemic and also as we move into this new post-pandemic-but-still-in-a-pandemic world. So, that is where the day of action comes from. Our hope is to mobilize our members, talk about issues that are important to students across the country, and make sure that students’ priorities are at the table again.
Since the last day of action in 2016, Ontario has had a change in government to a more right-wing one. As you prepare for November 8, do you have to navigate a little differently because of this change?
The Canadian Federation of Students is non-partisan, so regardless of the government that is in place, we continue to advocate for free and accessible education and for issues that are important for our members. We recognize that some of the changes that have been made do have a direct impact on students, like the cut to OSAP [Ontario’s student financial aid program] which made a lot of students ineligible, or converted a lot of grants to loans, or reduced the amount of money that folks qualify for.
When we think of the public funding structure and the way that has been impacted, what we’ve been seeing consistently over the years – this isn’t just a recent event – is this move toward less and less public funding for post-secondary institutions, so they went from being publicly funded to being publicly assisted. This ultimately takes us to a model that is unsustainable – institutions are relying on tuition fees, and particularly on international students’ tuition fees, and it leaves us in a very precarious situation in which students are finding it harder and harder to be in post-secondary education.
It’s very clear from the increase in strike activity that working people are fed up with wage losses and soaring prices, and are ready to hit the bricks in order to win better contracts – are you seeing the same type of rising militancy among students?
I would say that students across the province have been very excited for the Fight the Fees campaign and there is a renewed sense of needing to do something about the situation in which they’ve been placed.
There’s an urgency, because students are struggling. They were struggling before the pandemic, they struggled through the pandemic, and they have yet again been left behind and left out of conversations – whether it’s through the tuition fee increases, housing issues or transit. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of food banks that are being used on campuses. Food banks do provide an important service, but we really need to ask why there’s been an increase in their use on campuses. This is directly related to a whole bunch of things including the rising cost of living which affects everybody, but students are in a very precarious situation because there is an intersection with the tuition fees they have to pay and everything else they have to do to operate.
There is lots of interest in organizing for a cross-country day of action. We have been very lucky to be across the province, speaking to lots of students. We represent 350,000 members in Ontario, so we’ve seen lots of folks and the conversations have been very, very positive.
Students are ready to take it into the streets, ready to demand free and accessible education, and they recognize that they have been left out of conversations. They no longer will accept just the status quo.
You mentioned the specific challenges faced by international students – could you talk more about that and how the CFS is responding?
“Fight the Fees” is our main campaign, but we also recognize the precarious situation that international students are in. As funding from the government has decreased, we find that institutions are over-relying on international student fees, so those students have been really bearing the burden of the costs of education.
So, we have a campaign called “Fairness for International Students” which focuses on issues like high tuition fees and – in Ontario in particular – the lack of public healthcare coverage. We know that international students have to rely on a variety of measures to access healthcare. But healthcare – just like education – is a right and they should have access to it.
We continue to work with many organizations to support international students through our call for status for all, healthcare for all, and free and accessible education for all.
Are you getting support from the labour movement?
Absolutely. We think that solidarity is very important – between students, workers, faculty and people in general. We think it’s important that we show up when they need us, and vice versa. And we’re really adamant about not letting the government or institutions pit us against one another – we’ve been vigilant about that, because it’s a tactic that is used.
It’s exciting that we’ve been able to coordinate with folks, whether faculty or TA unions or other unions, and folks have been very supportive of the day of action. And our member locals have been organizing, so they have their campus coalitions and they’re finding a lot of support from people including from labour and faculty. On some campuses they’ve been able to come together to jointly organize an event for the day of action, and we’re very excited about that.
We know that when students and workers and faculty are united, we won’t be defeated.
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