There is power in a (student) union

And perhaps the provincial government is afraid of that

Illustrations by Talia Steele

The Canadian Federation of Students Manitoba (CFSMB) recently launched an online campaign aiming to spread awareness on the potential ramifications of the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act (Bill 33). 

If legislated, amendments to Bill 33 will give the minister of advanced education, skills and immigration the ability to create guidelines for tuition and/or student fees set by a university board. It would also give the minister more control over whether or not certain student fees are mandatory and potentially subject them to a maximum limit. 

If the minister determines that an institution has overcharged a student, an equivalent amount to the overcharging may be deducted from the institution’s grants. 

Brenden Gali, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Manitoba

 

Conservative governments meddling with student governments

“Bill 33 challenges the autonomy of postsecondary institutions by giving the provincial government control over student fees, fees that were democratically determined through referendums and voting,” Jonathan Henderson, the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) vice-president external affairs, says.

CFSMB is developing a campaign to oppose the bill in collaboration with student unions across the province.

Brenden Gali, chairperson of CFSMB, says the organization first realized the government was preparing for a major shift in postsecondary education when the corresponding ministerial duties were transferred from the minister of education to the minister of economic development and training in 2019. 

“It seemed that they were no longer in the business of education, but more managing the education system in a way that would fix budgets,” Gali says. 

At the time of this publication, the ministerial duties for postsecondary education are now in the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration, which was created following the cabinet shuffle on Jan 5. and is currently led by Wayne Ewasko, the MLA for Lac du Bonnet. 

In an emailed statement, a representative from the provincial government said transparency and consistency were key factors in the development of Bill 33. 

“The department was tasked with developing strategic mandates for institutions that focus on positive outcomes for students. A flexible, consistent and transparent approach to setting tuition and student fees will ensure that post-secondary institutions are able to continue to offer high-quality, leading-edge programming that meets the needs of students and employers now and into the future,” the representative wrote. 

They did not specify whether these changes were made in response to complaints about current student fees or tuition fees. 

The statement also suggested the bill would help to further ensure that Manitoba will continue to have the lowest tuition rate in Western Canada, and that there will be consultations with a variety of stakeholders, including students, to determine new policies. 

“This province is becoming more and more of an unlivable environment for international students. So much is asked of them financially, as well as culturally.” - Brenden Gali

Inflicting austerity on anti-austerity programs

Gali says the bill “is just a step forward in the corporatization of our public institutions.”

“What they’re trying to do is exploit a pretty vulnerable sector of our province, post-secondary students specifically, and leaving these institutions out to dry and opening them up to the private sector that would create biases in what students wish to study,” he says. 

Section 2.2(7) of the bill, which would allow the minister to set different tuition rates for specific classes, could allow lobbying and private-interest groups to dramatically transform postsecondary institutions in the province. 

“We have a strong opposition, not only to the amendments that the Province is proposing, but also what those amendments can lead to in terms of the academic freedoms of students to study what they wish to study,” Gali says.  

Dougald Lamont, the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party and MLA for St. Boniface, says student unions are an essential part of the fabric of universities in Manitoba. 

“Student unions actually help provide services for students. They actually make the difference between whether people can afford their medication and healthcare or whether they can afford to eat,” Lamont says. 

Food banks, the U-Pass transit subsidy and university daycare centres are just a sliver of the services student unions facilitate through student fees, according to Gali. Student fees also sustain other campus organizations, such as student newspapers, campus radio stations and mental-health supports. 

Henderson notes that many of the UWSA’s services, such as student advocacy, the U-Pass, the health plan and the food bank have been in high demand since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Why target students during this pandemic? This bill will affect many that are vulnerable,” he says.

“Speaking as an Indigenous student, getting an education is already hard enough as it is, and (if I had) not had the supports that were in place for myself, I might not have had the success I had in my education,” he says. “My feeling is that this will definitely have a negative effect and could even be detrimental to Indigenous students in pursuit of their educational goals.” 

Gali emphasizes that Bill 33 will mostly impact the most vulnerable students, with international students particularly at risk. He explains that when operating grants and funding are cut, administrators often raise tuition. 

While the bill restricts how much administrators can raise tuition, it’s currently unknown whether there will be a discrepancy made for international students, as there is currently no limit on tuition increases for international students. 

After primary healthcare coverage was cut for international students in 2018, Gali says this bill “will be another attack on international students who study in Manitoba.” 

“This province is becoming more and more of an unlivable environment for international students,” he says. “So much is asked of them financially, as well as culturally. When this province chooses to boast about its multicultural, diverse society, it’s really becoming unlivable and a bit of a detriment to completing education.”

Sébastien Lalonde is the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario. CFSON fought against similar threats to university funding from the conservative Doug Ford provincial government.

In the footsteps of Ford

On Jan. 17, 2019, the Ontario government introduced a similar policy called the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) that gave students the choice to opt out of “non-essential” student fees. On Nov. 21, 2019, the initiative was struck down by the Ontario courts, which contended in writing that the imposed directives “are not authorized by law and are inconsistent with the autonomy granted universities.” 

The difference between the Student Choice Initiative in Ontario and the Bill 33 amendments in Manitoba is that the former was a policy directive, while the latter is a legislative act. Gali says this makes Bill 33 a bit more worrying. 

“The Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario (CFSON) and the York Federation of Students were successful in overturning the SCI, as it was deemed by the courts to be unconstitutional,” Gali says. “By proposing this bill, if we were to resort to a similar path by holding our Province accountable through the court system, we wouldn’t necessarily get the same outcome, because they would have changed the law so that they wouldn’t be breaking the law.”

Sébastien Lalonde, chairperson of CFSON, emphasizes that a fundamental part of any discussion about student-union fees must be the essential roles student unions fill – roles that campus administrations refuse to take responsibility for. 

“The consistent failings of our institutions cannot also be the failings of our student unions, and that is not for the government to decide. It’s up to students and their democratic processes,” he says.  

As students in Manitoba prepare to grapple with the bill, Lalonde says a big lesson Manitobans can learn from the We The Students campaign undertaken by CFSON is the importance of understanding what different fees go to and why. 

“The first thing is to educate folks, to make them understand that their tuition fees are vastly different from the levy fees that are collected, because they were voted for democratically by the student body,” he says. “Second is why those fees are so essential to the functioning and well-being of students on their campuses.”

He says it has been important for students to understand “not only why opting out (of paying student-union fees) is not only not an ideal option, but, on top of that, why the whole idea of the Student Choice Initiative is unethical and doesn’t follow the democratic process that students put in place to be represented by their students unions.” 

The UWSA food bank (top) and the festivities at Roll Call (bottom) are just two of the many services made available through the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.

Solidarity forever, at least on this subject

Ultimately, Gali, Henderson, Lalonde and Lamont argue that the changes are in opposition to democratically elected student governments. 

“Really, what they’re doing is taking away decision-making control from students who should be able to make decisions about how they want to live at university,” Lamont says. He argues that many current politicians in the Manitoba legislature “benefitted from formerly being in student unions” and should, therefore, “understand what the importance of student unions are.” 

The changes to Bill 33 through the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act were originally introduced on Oct. 4, 2020 but will move to committee hearings in spring 2021.

Gali says planning this sort of campaign during a pandemic is a little difficult, as this is the kind of issue that would usually be met with tabling on campus and in-class presentations, but CFSMB is trying to use social media to rally students and encourage them to speak when the bill goes to committee. Henderson also encourages students to register with the legislative assembly clerk’s office to speak against the bill. 

While organizing during the pandemic may be difficult, Lalonde points out that there are still many points of community within postsecondary institutions, and that this kind of legislation threatens a lot of them. 

“This isn’t about one simple cause. This is all students, all of their interests and all of their capacity to organize,” he says. “On this very specific measure, ‘students are united’ is the key message to send to your institutions and government.” 

To contact the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba Office of the Clerk and book a time to share thoughts on Bill 33 with the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, call 204-945-3636 or email clerkla@leg.gov.mb.ca.

Published in Volume 75, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 10, 2021)

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