Within the past few weeks, Canada has seen a monumental resurgence in student activism, as hundreds of thousands of students in Quebec have mobilized to the streets to protest Premier Jean Charest’s plan to increase tuition fees within the province.
Regardless of one’s position on the issue, the dedication and organization shown by these Quebecois students must be recognized.
However, student activism in Manitoba is a different story.
Having benefited from years of a tuition freeze, followed by marginal increases, the student movement in the Keystone province is somewhat apathetic; having no dire issue does make it difficult to rally students together.
Instead of waiting for a problem, like the Quebec tuition hike, students need to reframe what exactly we advocate for and how we do it.
As well, many students who are often cast off as “apathetic” are actually quite politically aware. What student associations need to do is present realistic solutions to problems that students actually face.
For as long as the modern student movement has existed, a focal point of political positions has been the reduction and eventual elimination of tuition fees for universities.
While this is certainly an admirable goal, the actual implementation of such a policy has stalled at several points over the past few years with no provincial government working towards this ideal.
What this means is that the student union should re-focus and re-examine the ideas it puts forward.
Clearly, the goal of having reduced fees for all speaks to granting access to a strong post-secondary system for everyone. This aspect of policy should not be questioned, as access to our system of higher education is extremely crucial.
No one who wants to put the effort into the process should be denied the opportunity to learn.
What the student movement should instead push for then is a sliding, progressive scale.
In the same way that we all pay different levels of taxes based on our income, we should all pay different amounts for our education at the post-secondary level based on our income, or the income and holdings of those paying tuition.
Combined with an increase in public money for universities, this would be the kind of direction that society should progress forward to.
The advantage of such a shift in policy would be evident in two major ways.
First of all, it shows the public that student unions and associations are not dogmatic in their thinking. It shows that we are able to rise and change with the times and can adjust and shift our message as time goes on.
The second is the reality that such a proposal doesn’t propose a radical shift in government policy, while pushing for free tuition constitutes an enormous change in direction.
Instead, we should work for incremental change.
To examine this model in the scope of another field, one only has to examine the recent proposed increase in transit fares in Winnipeg.
Faced with adversity, it wouldn’t have made sense to demand free transit; rather, advocating for a decrease actually worked. From that point in time, after winning the small battles, we are able to gain political capital and further advance the interests.
In that way, having an incremental change in the form of progressive education system with a sliding scale would be a monumental step forward.
After establishing that precedent and capital, we can move forward on issues and make a real difference for students.
Zach Fleisher is a second-year politics student and is the vice-president advocate (elect) at the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.
Published in Volume 66, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 28, 2012)