Government, corporate policies deepen crisis in post-secondary education

YCL calls for expanded fight for free tuition  

Post-secondary education (PSE) in Canada has reached a crisis point. The latest symptoms include the federal government’s recent announcement of a cap on international student enrolment and the news that many PSE institutions are running substantial budget deficits.

Notably, Queen’s University recently announced that in response to their projected budget deficit, they will introduce major cuts. The cuts include eliminating all undergraduate courses with less than 10 students next year, introducing a hiring freeze, and laying off adjunct professors. The cuts are being introduced despite Queen’s having the fifth largest university endowment in the country, valued at over $1.4 billion. Additionally, the university has $600 million of accumulated surplus compared to a projected deficit of $62 million.

Ten out of Ontario’s 23 public universities are facing fiscal deficits this year.

In October, the Quebec government made the controversial decision to increase tuition from $8,992 to $17,000 (later stepped back to around $12,000) for Canadian students from outside Quebec, and to a minimum of $20,000 for international students. The pretext for the move was to protect the French language. However, the impact will not just be on the out-of-province students at the three English-language universities in Quebec – first and foremost, it will affect francophone Canadian students who rely on the Quebec PSE system due to inadequacies in their home provinces.

Canada’s immigration system is designed to maintain an abundance of temporary status migrants, to ensure a steady supply of precarious, non-union, low-wage workers that capital can use to tamp down wages and working conditions for all. At the same time, universities, colleges and a growing number of private institutions have been using international students as a replacement for dwindling public financial support, since international students pay higher tuition fees.

The current international student cap has been introduced because the ruling class does not have the same need for expanding the reserve army of labour to put a downward pressure on wages – inflation is getting the job done now. Reducing international student enrollment can also help manufacture a crisis in PSE, paving the way for corporatized restructuring which accelerates the commodification and exclusivity of education. We have already seen this happen at Laurentian University.

The ruling class says that the crisis in PSE is the result of tuition fees which are not rising fast enough, or “inefficiencies” such as workers’ salaries. But the truth is we are in this position because of decades of underfunding from provincial and federal governments of all political stripes, as well as the corporate leadership of PSE institutions pushing for a commodification of education.

Provincial governments in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba have already introduced “performance-based” funding which pins public funding to labour market needs. Under this scheme, PSE institutions would no longer receive funding based on enrolment, an arrangement that is already inadequate especially for smaller institutions and those in areas outside major urban centres. Instead, they would be financially supported according to student outcomes such as hiring rates and employment earnings.

This benefits professional programs and those that are linked with specific industrial entities at the direction of the school’s board of governors. Performance-based funding will come at the expense of a huge range of liberal arts, humanities and languages programs, and critical intellectual inquiry.

This crisis does not only affect current and future students. PSE is a major industry in all provinces, and the Canadian economy relies on an educated pool of labour. PSE accounts for more than $40 billion in government revenue annually or approximately 1.2 percent of the GDP of Canada. The sector directly employs more than 440,000 people across the country and contributes another 300,000 indirect jobs.

What is needed now is a serious investment of public funds into PSE. The reliance on tuition fees, particularly from international students, over public funding has created an unsustainable model that is leading to a major contraction of the PSE sector.

Public funding to PSE in Canada has been slashed from 80 percent 30 years ago to under 50 percent today and has been stagnant or decreasing for more than a decade despite soaring inflation. From 2008 to 2020, student enrolment increased by more than 20 percent while income from tuition rose by nearly 70 percent across Canada. Big business, which dictates most of government policy, has made it clear that it is not concerned with expanding access to quality education in Canada – capitalists are lobbying hard to limit access and take direct control over universities and colleges.

Ivan Byard, head of the Young Communist League of Canada (YCL) says it is urgent that students and working people fight for an expansion of quality and accessible education for all. “The layoffs and tuition hikes being proposed by administrations across the country will exacerbate the crisis, not resolve it. We cannot fall for the cynical traps offered by the bourgeoisie — the argument that liberal arts education is a luxury, that only ‘employable’ studies should be offered, or that free education will subsidize the wealthy by taxing workers.”

Byard says that student unions have been moving away from their necessary role as fighting bodies to become service providers for student dental plans and international student ID cards. “The YCL calls for a public monopoly on PSE that provides free education for all. We work within the broad student movement is to build unity in action, inject ideas of class struggle and try to navigate away from adventurous or reformist dead ends.”

The YCL, with its focus on working-class youth, is well positioned to help build the fight for free post-secondary education. “We are working to build up a student movement that stands with workers and their unions against cuts in classes and services,” says Byard. “One that fights against tuition hikes and that can mobilize students in the hundreds of thousands, like we have seen before in this country.”

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