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Ten years on from the ‘Maple Spring,’ New Brunswick government cancels student benefit program

Canadians must unite and remain defiant in their demand for free access to higher education

EducationSocial Movements

University of New Brunswick campus in Fredericton. Photo by Brian Atkinson/Fredericton Tourism/Flickr.

A decade has passed since post-secondary students in Québec protested their government’s March 2011 decision to raise tuition prices. In what has been dubbed the “Maple Spring,” hundreds of thousands of Québecois students boycotted the province’s higher education system, demanding a tuition freeze and a reversal of the decision to raise tuition costs gradually over five years.

On some accounts they were successful. In September 2012, after the newly-elected Parti Québecois government decreed a tuition freeze, the striking student associations voted to return to class. Organizers have called the student protests in Québec the “single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history,” viewing it as an unbridled success.

Others are less inclined to view the Maple Spring in a wholly positive light, feeling as though the unspoken goals of the civil unrest were left unrealized. While tuition prices may have temporarily stagnated, the real aim, for many, was to induce a trajectory toward what might sounds utopian and far-fetched: tuition-free higher education in Canada.

Tuition-free education is today popularly perceived as not more than a pipe dream; though for most, the idea that post-secondary education demands significant student debt fails to escape their “common sense” view of young adulthood. Of course, one should pay to be university-educated—how could it be otherwise? Perhaps this way of thinking is no surprise. The logic of neoliberal capitalism is metastasizing into every institution of Canadian society, shaping minds to think of (almost) everything as a commodity. It had not always been the case.

The great philosophers of Ancient Greece, whose thinking is often cited as an antecedent to the modern West, refused to charge for education, recognizing the perverting influence of money in the pursuit of fundamental ideals like truth, justice, and liberty. Once upon a time, the Canadian people also recognized the value of free higher education, and their government codified this belief by signing, in 1976, the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, decreeing a commitment to realize this aim progressively.

Since that time, the opposite has occurred, and tuition costs have progressed toward a state of unaffordability. In 1976, the average tuition cost for an arts degree in Canada was $561 per year, according to Statistics Canada. Today, that cost has increased by more than an order of magnitude, to an average of $6,693 per year.

While tuition prices continue to climb to rates unprecedented in Canada, a student support program in New Brunswick was in place. At least until recently. In June, the government of Premier Blaine Higgs voted to scrap NB-EI Connect, a program that allowed students to receive unemployment benefits while attending a post-secondary institution in the province full-time. By cutting the program just weeks before the fall semester begins, the Higgs government has left the nearly 7,000 students who accessed the program in disarray, scratching their heads and scrambling to find the money to attend school this fall.

The Maple Spring aside, tuition price increases (which far outpace inflation) have been met with a minimum of fuss. But as young New Brunswickers are loaded with another financial burden, the time is now ripe for a return of student activism over higher education affordability.

Crises, it has often been said, also represent opportunities. As the regressive Higgs government cancels NB-EI Connect, students must begin to demand more. Due to government officials’ lack of communication, student budget cuts appear arbitrary, cloaked in a guise of unavoidable economic necessity. As students, our task contains multitudes. We must cast a spotlight on the incoherence of this decision, underlining how blatantly it tends to the class interests of the rich at the expense of the rest. We must shift public opinion toward one that values education as a social good, beneficial for all, regardless of whether one chooses to attend. Moreover, we must organize those who already hold this ideal of, as the former Students for a Democratic Society slogan goes, “free university in a free society,” to pressure politicians to take the position of providing access to free post-secondary education to all academically-qualifying individuals.

Canadians, students and alumni alike, must unite and remain defiant in their demand for free access to post-secondary education. Even those who choose not to attend will benefit, thanks to a better-educated populous creating a more free, just, and prosperous society. According to Statistics Canada, those who attend are more likely to report better health, volunteer, and have high trust in others. Economically, the government expenditure necessary to realize free access to post-secondary education is not as significant as one may intuitively think. Rather, it has the potential to boost the Canadian economy. For instance, the federal government spends roughly 0.021 percent of the national GDP relieving “bad debt,” which results from defaulted student loans and bankrupt private career colleges, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. In the same report, CFS claims that students would have 15 percent of their federal student loans reduced if the Trudeau government were to shift away from the current system in which bad debt incurs, and toward a fully funded system of grants.

By comparison, university tuition fees in western Europe are state-subsidized. This ensures that cost is not a factor determining whether or not an individual might pursue higher education. Of course, western Europe is not without its problems. But countries in the region allow students to study freely and not feel pressured (owing to the enormity of their accumulated debt) to enter employment in fields that are high-paying, but about which they feel no passion. Studying what one chooses, and following one’s interests and desires, is the mark of a free society.

Thus far, Canadian student movements have failed to stimulate the government pressure required to reduce the cost of higher education. Resultantly, tuition fees in Canada rose by three times the inflation rate between 1990 and 2012. Disheartening as this fact is, there are reasons for optimism. Jagmeet Singh, already wildly popular among young people in Canada, spoke last year on behalf of the New Democratic Party, proposing a plan to cancel student debt and move toward free higher education. Likewise, Canada’s Green Party is a strong proponent of tuition-free education.

Canada may be far-distanced from a New Democratic or Green federal government, but a drive for social good characterized by demand and solidarity is always hovering just below our collective class consciousness. Crises like that which New Brunswick students now face can act as stimulants—calls to action for activists to organize and re-ignite the demand for more affordable access to higher education. From crisis emerges opportunity. The question is whether it will be taken.

Duncan Murray is an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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