This morning, a funeral was held at the University of British Columbia. Dressed all in black, a silent procession of students mourned the death of accessible education at their institution.
The funeral is the latest student demonstration against a series of proposals from the university administration. In early October, UBC unveiled plans to increase the price of eight-month residence contracts by 20 per cent and international tuition for the incoming cohort by 10 per cent.
The housing increases were justified on the grounds that UBC needed to catch up to Vancouver’s market rates, while the tuition increases were said to be necessary so that UBC can finally catch up to fee levels at McGill University and the University of Toronto. The proposals were first announced to members of the Alma Mater Society, UBC’s student association, which then leaked the information to campus media. It took nearly a month for the university to officially inform the student body about the proposed increases through a broadcast email — which was sent after one of the town halls had already taken place.
As soon as news of the proposals was leaked, student groups from across campus banded together and formed a leaderless student movement called #IAmAStudent. IAAS not only opposes the proposed hikes, but also argues that education is a right and that all existing structural barriers to education should be eliminated. The students of IAAS are also calling for UBC’s governing structure to be democratized, as they see the lack of open process as a root cause of the hikes. So far IAAS has held and facilitated several events, including teach-ins, protests and an awareness concert.
Though UBC is a campus known widely for its conservatism and student apathy, #IAmAStudent has sparked a firestorm among students. In October, their organizing efforts led to the student union’s annual general meeting reaching quorum for the first time in nearly 40 years. They have also been canvassing across campus with a petition against the hikes.
Members of the movement have also been vocal on campus with critiques of the university’s town hall consultation process. The consultations were scheduled at times when students were unlikely to be able to attend, with dates and locations changed on short notice. At the meetings the university made little effort to provide information on the substance of the proposals themselves, in particular where the increased funding would go. University representatives have also avoided consultation with students through other venues. Two administrators pulled out of a panel discussion after learning that an activist from IAAS would be speaking.
As the largest mobilization at UBC in many years, IAAS’ activism has been history-making. Attendance at IAAS events has been high for UBC. The teach-in, the student protest and the AMS annual general meeting were some of the largest political student gatherings seen at UBC in the past decade.
However, there is a fundamental flaw in student activism at UBC and in Canada more broadly: our student associations have turned their backs on unionism.
At UBC in particular, the AMS has presided over many years of increasing tuition and inflated student fees. In recent history, the AMS has not engaged in any effective lobbying efforts at governments for more post-secondary funding, nor has it tried to mobilize students around these issues. Only after being mandated with a wide majority at the AGM to organize protests did the AMS host a march, which was then poorly advertised and poorly attended, including by members of the AMS council and executive.
This propensity towards inaction seems to be the case within most major student organizations across Canada. Though student unions have considerable potential bargaining power with university administration in the form of mass student mobilization, they have turned their back on strategies that would galvanize the student body. Elite lobbying has replaced democratic mobilization. Student mobilization is not something that can be achieved overnight; it needs to be built over years. We see in Quebec a model of sustained mass student mobilization.
Quebec offers an interesting model of how student activism can play out. The 2012 student strike wasn't the end of organizing; student mobilization is ongoing in the province. Student unions and the student federation, ASSÉ, regularly hold protests and strikes. For example, at the end of October, 82,000 students went on strike to protest austerity measures in the province. By mid-November, another 33,000 students went on strike to protest austerity again. Student unions and federations are constantly producing educational content on free education, the corporatization of the university, the devastating effects of austerity, and the intersectionality of student rights and women rights. Student unions are active facilitators of this ongoing process of student mobilization in Quebec.
Our AMS and student societies across Canada fail to do this. The AMS in particular never calls on the student body to mobilize, never produces educational content on tuition policy in the province, never publicizes the severe government cuts in post-secondary education funding, never investigates the seedy financial allocation processes of the university, never shouts from the rooftops about the lack of student aid in the province. There are no resources or institutions made available to us to protest this. There are no sources to which students may turn to learn why tuition is a very real barrier to education. There are no alternatives offered or spaces available for students to even begin to imagine them.
So with the knowledge that we can’t count on our student union to represent students, this morning we were forced to hold a funeral for accessible education. We mourned the death of public education, we mourned the defeat of democracy at our university, and we mourned a time where student voices were respected and solicited. May our dreams for a better UBC rest in peace.