• Denise Paglinawan

National student group to protest for free education

The Canadian Federation of Students has shifted its campaign from calling to stop tuition hikes to completely eliminating tuition fees of post-secondary schools across the country.

“I believe that our generation will be the one that wins free education,” Bilan Arte, national chairperson of the federation, told a panel discussion at Ryerson University on Tuesday.

Countrywide demonstrations demanding free post-secondary education are to take place on Nov. 2 in more than 20 cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver.

The three main demands of the federation are the elimination of all tuition fees, conversion of loans into non-repayable grants and removal of interest from existing student loans.

Arte said students have the opportunity to challenge the federal government directly now after more than a year of mandate.

“If they are not going to listen to us on Nov. 2, then we are going to keep going out and keep hitting the streets until they can’t ignore us any longer,” she said. “Even if that means shutting down and bringing down our entire government.”

Arte said the government’s provision of student grants is a “patchwork and Band-Aid solution” to the inaccessibility of post-secondary education.

“We have a prime minister who was elected on a platform about making access to education a priority and the only thing that he has done is simply provide a few more dollars in student grants,” she said. “That’s not addressing the issue.”

In Ontario’s budget last March, Premier Kathleen Wynne presented details about the new Ontario Student Grant, which will begin in the 2017-18 academic year.

Several existing provincial assistance programs will be replaced with a single non-repayable Ontario Student Grant under the new program.

Average tuition will be made free for more than 150,000 eligible low-income and middle-income students under these changes, according to a news release by the Office of the Premier.

Arte said Quebec’s college system, CEGEP, is an example of free education in Canada.

“I think free education is absolutely possible,” Arte said, also mentioning that other countries have public universal systems of post-secondary education. “These countries are not even as wealthy as Canada,” she added.

In western Europe, post-secondary students pay no tuitions fees in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In the Americas, free post-secondary education is found at public institutions in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Rabbia Ashraf, the president of the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR), said she knows free education is going to happen in Canada. “It is only a matter of when. That is why it is so urgent for us to go into the streets right now,” she told the panel.

“It is not just about our generation who actually need to get into school, it is about our communities and our families. If we stay silent for any longer, things are not going to change,” Ashraf said.

The student federation’s Ontario chairperson, Rajean Hoilett, said thousands of Ryerson students have signed the petition despite the Ryerson Students’ Union distancing itself from the campaigns of his organization.

“I think that we’re going to see a strong presence of Ryerson students participating in this rally,” Hoilett said in an interview. “I hope this means we will see a lot of student groups also coming to reflect their membership.”

The Canadian Federation of Students is the largest student organization in Canada, made up of more than 80 student unions from colleges and universities. It represents more than 650,000 post-secondary students across the country.

Students from many Ontario colleges and universities, including Ryerson University, are being permitted to participate in the protest and will not be penalized for missing classes.

“Free education is not only possible but we will win as long as we are standing together,” CESAR vice-president equity Phyllis McKenna said.

© Denise Paglinawan 2020

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