By Jesse Whattam

On Jan. 17, the Ford government announced a slew of changes that will drastically change access to post-secondary education and campus life for students across Ontario.

As we learn more these changes, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this agenda is part and parcel of the broader regime of austerity being implemented. We as students and all those affected by the Ford’s changes must see our struggles as connected to the wider economic and political strategy.

Austerity claims that we’re in a fiscal crisis that requires extreme changes — and thus the government is ‘altruistically’ shrinking itself for the good of the people.

What is Austerity?

Austerity claims that we’re in a fiscal crisis that requires extreme changes — and thus the government is ‘altruistically’ shrinking itself for the good of the people. This involves reducing government spending and the deficit by consolidating and restructuring the public sector.

Austerity is one of the main tools of neoliberalism, an economic and political project that has dominated government policies and financial institutions (i.e., central banks, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, etc.) since the 1980s. Neoliberalism is characterized by deregulation, free trade, and above all “cutting public expenditures, privatizing public assets, and gearing economies toward export production,” according to  Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives.

Done in the name of economic growth, austerity actually only serves the interest of large corporations and the economic elite. It cuts social spending in ways that disproportionately impact already marginalized communities.

It transforms public debt, downloading it to individualized debt. (This is done mostly through the management of interest and inflation rates, as well as governmental budgets.)

For example, Canadian household debt was at around 170% of disposable income as of 2018  — up 100% from two decades ago. In the same period, Canadian public debt has fallen by half, from 64% of GDP in 1997 to 31% in 2017.

Worldwide, austerity has “triggered social protest, electoral defeats, major international tensions, significant academic controversy, and is blamed for various social ills,” according to McMaster University’s research project Austerity and It’s Alternatives. Yet it “has endured despite robust criticism and a lack of evidence that cuts lead to economic growth.”

Rationalizing Austerity

This is where rationales of financial scarcity and crisis come in — they enable politicians to sustain and justify austerity. And this is exactly the spin the Ford government deploys.

For example, Ford declared a fiscal crisis early on in his campaign, hounding the Liberals for the “damage” they had done to the Ontario budget. Then the 2019 fall economic update declared, “everyone in Ontario will be required to make sacrifices, without exception.”

With every cut made, there is the relentless and empty “for the people” explanation, a rhetoric that this is a “common sense” solution to Ontario’s deficit problem.

This rhetoric presents cuts and austerity as the only option, ignoring all sorts of truly common sense alternatives. If corporations and economic elites were paying their fair share of taxes, for example, current levels of social spending would be more than sustainable.

An anti-austerity demonstration in the UK in 2015.
    Credit: Peter Damian

Public Education Under Ford’s Austerity Measures

Though the Progressive Conservatives perform smoke and mirrors tricks with a 10% cut in tuition, we are not fooled. Sure, on some level such a cut is a win.

Yet we know that when this reduction is paired with the rest of the changes, the tuition savings will be overshadowed by the increasingly large debt loads for everyone except the very wealthiest.

The Ford government will lower of the income eligibility for OSAP. This means access to funding will dwindle. The grant-to-loan ratio has also been lowered to a minimum of 50% loan, along with a per-term cap on loans. This will ensure that no student receives more grants than loans.

Further, the age at which students are considered independent of their parents will increase from four to six years, making it harder for mature students to access grants and loans.

The Conservatives also scrapped the six-month, interest-free grace period in order to “reduce complexity.” Of course, these first six months has the highest return on interest charges — and is when students are trying to get on their feet after graduating. The government is really just seeking to profit off students at their most vulnerable moment.

This austerity is particularly ruthless in that many students’ grants are being retroactively turned into loans. More and more students are taking to social media to describe how what was promised to them as a grant— and in some cases already deposited as such for 2018-19 — is now being turned into a loan.

Changing grants to loans essentially amounts to a penalty for being poor. Those with less financial means will take longer to pay back loans. So they will accrue more interest and pay more in the long run for their education than those with the means to pay quickly.

The 10% cut to tuition will also hurt the quality of the education students receive. The cut will create an estimated loss of $360 million for universities and $80 million for colleges, which will not be replaced by additional government funding.

Hypothetically, there could be a rearrangement cutting bloated salaries at the top of the university administration. But cuts to educational quality are more likely, in the form of fewer hires, increased class sizes, and more expensive textbooks. It is also likely campuses will turn even more to private sector influence to recapture public funding revenues.

Austerity as a Threat to Social Organizing

During Ontario’s last era of austerity under Mike Harris, we saw that austerity forces different communities — minorities, students, labour and women’s organizations — into their silos as they fight to survive funding cuts and policy attacks.

It is imperative we see austerity for what it is — an attack these communities — and that we fight to build alliances, even as we are attacked on different fronts.

This makes solidarity and an intersectional approach crucial, where we see the way our particular struggle intersects with various oppressions and other seemingly-unrelated struggles.

We can learn from examples of student leadership around the world. We can see students bringing leadership, radical action, and an intersectional approach to movements fighting climate change or fighting for racial equality, like Black Lives Matter or the Indigenous youth challenging colonial forces on and off campus.

In 2010, students in the United Kingdom rallied against the Conservative-Liberal coalition government’s spending cuts and higher tuition fees. Students were also leaders in the 2010 Irish and 2011-2013 Chilean student protests and the anti-austerity movements starting in 2011 in Greece, Italy, and Spain.

The Québec student strike in 2012 was the largest student strike in Canadian history, with thousands taking to the streets to protest the provincial government’s decision to raise university tuition.

A popular chant of the Québec student movement was “la grève est étudiante, la lutte est populaire” — the strike is by students, but the struggle is for us all.” This speaks to the connection between the attack on students and the wider neoliberal austerity regime.

On Jan. 25, hundreds of students marched on Queen’s Park and another rally is planned for Feb. 19. Ottawa, Peterborough, Hamilton, Kingston, Windsor, Guelph, and others have held rallies also. Politicized energy is bubbling as campuses are recognizing from austerity’s attack.

We need deep organizing with others under attack at the hands of the Ford government.

We need to continue to demand free and accessible public education — that post-secondary education not be a debt sentence. We need to demand that we, as students, have democratic control over our campuses.

We can learn from those who have fought this fight before us. We can take to the streets.

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