Speech by Daniel Tarade, Member of Socialist Action, PhD Student in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.
Students are a canary in the coal mine. We are among those vulnerable groups that suffer stresses without buffer. We are already in the midst of a mental health crisis on Ontario college and university campuses. A 2016 National College Health Assessment survey found that 65% of students reported feeling overwhelming levels of anxiety. They found that 46 of students reported difficulty functioning due to depression. Most troubling, one in forty-five students reported a suicide attempt in the previous year. If students are canaries in a coal mine, it is not an exaggeration to say that these canaries are dying. In response to a spate of tragic deaths on the University of Toronto Campus in the 2018-2019 school year, the administration responded by blaming students. That we needed to foster greater resilience. Try yoga. Meditate more. Spend less time on smart phones In their communications with the student body, the University of Toronto never addressed the systemic issues that have brought about an epidemic of mental health issues. A student-lead, survivor-lead University of Toronto group, Silence is Violence, released a report in early 2019 outlining that at least 10% of students reported being sexually assaulted during their time at the University of Toronto. This rate was higher in marginalized communities, such as the LGBTQ+ community, the indigenous community, and people with disabilities. But that’s not all. Our financial prospects are bleak. Almost 40% of people aged 15 to 24 are unemployed or underemployed and signs are now pointing towards another major recession. History has taught us again and again that recessions hurt youth the most. We are also the first generation to grow up our entire lives under the shadow of catastrophic climate change and knowledge that human extinction is not only possible but probable unless we drastically re-structure our society. This is the context for the Ford government education cuts. Rather than help the struggling student population, we were instead attacked in our vulnerable state.
Coverage of the education cuts focused on the 10% cut in tuition fees. Although lower tuition is necessary and important, the reality is that the Ford government used the tuition fee cut as a Trojan horse. The 10% cut to tuition fees amounts to $440 million a year deficit, which will not be matched by the provincial government. This ultimately manifests as a cut to postsecondary education and ushers in an era of reduced access to campus services, larger class sizes, and more precarious employment for postsecondary lecturers and professors. As the tuition fee cuts dominated headlines, it has remained the final word for many college and university students. Many are unaware of other changes in postsecondary funding. The exception is those students who are in vulnerable positions and have already ached. Unfortunately, the long-term impact of these cuts will impact everyone in the years to come
One of the big changes made under the Ford government regards the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Previously, students had a six-month grace period following graduation before their loans begin accumulating interest. This has been scrapped. This past June, OSAP began trending on Twitter as returning student became aware of how much less OSAP funding they would receive for upcoming year. Many students experienced cuts of $3000 to $4000, mostly from their grants. As the provincial government begins acting more and more like a loan shark, students are forced to decide between going into debt or forgoing as postsecondary education.
There is one final attack on students that I would like to discuss. In an innocuous-sounding move, the provincial government has made certain compulsory fees optional. As described by Merrilee Fullerton, the minister of training, colleges and universities, “these fees often get allocated to services students do not use or to support organizations they do not support. This must change.” To reiterate, the government has, without consultation with student groups, unilaterally decided which campus services are important enough to require compulsory fees. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I can go to my student page and decide for myself which programs I want to support financially. Out of my $792.95 in student fees only $46.15 have now become optional. This $50 also happens to go to the very same student services that provide critical services for marginalized and victimized communities on campus. The same student groups that foster resilience and promote activism. I would like to provide a list of some of these services and how much a student saves by opting-out of their fees.
- $1.50 to Downtown Legal Services, which provides free legal consultation and support to students in rent disputes, who have not been paid, who have been wrongfully dismissal, and to refugees.
- $0.03 to the Women & Trans People Caucus
- $0.08 to the Queer Caucus
- $0.82 to The Varsity, the Student-run newspaper that is critical of both the university administration and the provincial government
- $0.54 to the Sexual Education Center
- $2.00 to Students Barrier-Free Access – Runs a 100% accessible computer lab. Advocacy and support
In making these fees optional, Doug Ford is attempting to undermine student democracy, student unions, and student resilience. This past February, Doug Ford sent an email to supporters complaining about the “crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to,” which he would fix by making fees optional. Although it remains unclear how many students will opt-out of these student fees, groups are already suffering. Due to budget uncertainty, the Graduate Student Union at the University of Toronto will not be able to release funds to affiliated caucuses until November. Jonathan Palozzi, Co-Chair of the Queer Caucus within the Graduate Student Union, regrets the funding limbo their group now faces, impacting their ability to provide programming for much of the semester. Rather than this marginalized group forming a community, they will instead remain splintered and alone, a state where anxiety and depression reigns supreme. Yet, I cannot bring myself to blame the impoverished student who decides that $50 for groceries is more important than these campus services. It should be the responsibility of the government to provide for all people in society. Yet, the Ford government strategy of selectively defunding groups that fight for the marginalized people on our campuses represents a clear attack on people with disabilities, on Trans and Queer people, on women, on immigrants and refugees, on people of colour, on the indigenous, on youth
Socialists insist that it is suicidal to wait nearly three more years to vote in the next provincial election. Without a militant, mass struggle against this bestial regime it is quite possible that the working class and students will be demoralized, passive, and watch from the sidelines as Ford is re-elected — just as Mike Harris was re-elected after labour bureaucrats pulled the plug on the Ontario Days of Action sequential, one city at a time, general strikes.
Socialists see the need to prepare a general strike with mass political education, preparatory and escalating rallies, sick-ins, work to rule, sectoral strikes, mass lunch time walkouts, and broad workers’ assemblies that can vote to take general strike action.
And that’s only the beginning! What do we want to replace the Tory government? A Liberal re-run? A tepid social democratic, balance the budget but don’t tax the rich NDP government? In these times of austerity and eco-catastrophe we need a Workers’ Government. We need a government that puts working people before profits. Workers make society run. Workers should run society. For that vision to advance, we need to build a revolutionary workers’ party. That is the goal and purpose of Socialist Action. If you agree, please join us today.