A small but loud group of students and supporters rallied at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton on November 2 as part of a cross-country mobilization demanding universal access to post-secondary education. The students marched to the Legislature where their chants could be heard during the Premier’s Speech from the Throne.
The Fredericton rally was spearheaded by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the UNB Graduate Students’ Association and supported by Fredericton chapter of the Young New Democrats and the NB Federation of Labour.
This action was the latest in a long history of student action for universal access to post-secondary education. Just this last spring, Université de Moncton students descended on the Legislature wearing t-shirts with the figure 35,200 – the average debt of New Brunswick students upon completion of their first degrees. Last year, the Fredericton Young Greens organized a rally to abolish tuition at St. Thomas University while Justin Trudeau visited the campus days before the Federal Election. Unite!, a group of students at St. Thomas University, distributed red squares, a symbol of the student movement, on campus and organized a rally in 2010. STU students later formed groups called the Red T Movement and Students Against STUition. The students recognized how tuition and fees were reproducing social inequalities.
Students like Jory Ulhman struggle with the stresses and challenges of student debt. Ulhman explains, “There are a number of ways that student debt is affecting my life. The first is the anxiety that has come with watching my older brothers and sisters deal with the student debt they have accumulated during their post-secondary degrees. Not a week goes by when I don’t think of the massive monthly payments I will have to make over the next decade or two and this stress accumulates with the everyday stresses of being a full-time student I already am facing. It also has forced me to work over 40 hrs/week working 12-hour shifts in a factory for four months every summer to keep my student debt down as well as has forced me to work during my undergraduate degree.”
“The 2013 Statistics Canada numbers tell us average student debt in New Brunswick was $39,500,” said David Etherington of the CFS. “This is one of the highest rates in Canada,” he added, noting the Canadian average is closer to $28,000. But it should also be noted that some graduate students are carrying a debt load of $60,000 to $80,000 worth of debt.
“Part of the reason for that is we have some of the highest fees in the country in NB,” he said. “For students who go in to post-secondary system and come out with debt, it means they are putting off life decisions. Some reports have shown that students are putting off life decisions for up to ten years such as starting a family, buying a house, buying a car, starting a business.”
The economic impacts of high tuition fees also include reproducing or exacerbating existing levels of social inequality.
“Students from more marginalized backgrounds such as low-income, newcomers and Aboriginals tend to be debt-adverse. So the student debt system deters them from even starting sometimes,” said Etherington.
The protest also pointed out the hardships faced by international students, who pay much higher tuition fees, despite offering new perspectives and added diversity to classrooms. “Students come here and they contribute and pay taxes,” said Aditya Roshan of the UNB Graduate Students Association. They also face high fees for health insurance, he said, which is mandatory for foreign students at UNB, as it is at other Canadian universities. Despite their public contributions, international students are treated differently and unfavourably by differential fees.
St. Thomas Sociology professor Matthew Hayes, who attended the rally, says tuition fees are an arbitrary barrier to entry, and pose particular hardship for students who must work while studying in order to pay them. “I have had many students whose education is jeopardized because they don’t have enough time to put into their studies. Anyway we can help lower income students focus on their studies and be the best students they can be is in the public interest,” he said.
Etherington underscored why abolishing tuition is so essential: “70% of jobs in 2020 will require a post-secondary education. College diplomas and university degrees will be the new high school diploma.” Yet, while high school is now free to all, university is open only to those who can pay, irrespective of ability to study.
“From a societal benefit perspective, citizens with citizen degrees are more civically engaged. They are less dependent on the health care system. They’re more environmentally conscious. They’re more efficient at developing new skills and they’re more effective the job market,” he said.
“The reason that society should pay for education is that society is the party who benefits. It makes more sense for Canadians with higher income to be progressively taxed to fund universally accessible post-secondary education,” Etherington told the crowd. “As matters stand, 60% of university students come from the 40% of top income earners. So one is more likely to attend if they are from a high income family. Post-secondary education should be an equalizer rather than a reproducer of inequality.”
Patrick Colford, President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, and St. Thomas history professor Robin Vose also addressed the rally in support of workers’ interests in providing free and accessible post-secondary education.
Colford spoke about the hardship working families face trying to help children and relatives get the education they need and develop their interests to the fullest. Vose spoke of how university professors in particular understood the importance of student debts, since many have graduated after years of post-secondary studies carrying particularly crushing debt loads.
The student movement in Canada used to focus on affordable and accessible education but in the last two years students have been calling for an abolition of tuition. Vose encouraged those gathered to not forget the next generation who will need their support in the struggle for post-secondary education.
With files from From the Margins.