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Wherefore art thou student movement?
A few weeks ago, I was in Halifax to do some talking. During the Q&A period, there were two questions related to student organizing. Or maybe there was only one – it’s hard to tell because after the talk, I ended up talking for another 40 minutes with students who were struggling to organize and who were trying to work out strategic problems.
Many of the issues were standard fare – disengagement, strategy and retaining volunteers for example – but many were not. COVID-19 has transformed student organizing for the worst and students everywhere are struggling to get their movement back on the rails.
Case in point: meetings at the Board of Governors at Dalhousie University have been moved online. No longer do governors have to look students in the face and tell them they’ll be sticking it to them next year through higher fees. No longer do they have the uncomfortable experience of being surrounded by students in a meeting room while they make decisions against students’ interests. No – now, it’s all online. Students can be muted. Governors can be anywhere – be it their offices, their cottages or their yachts – and leadership operates in even less transparency than before (which, let’s be clear, was already not very transparent).
Listening to this story, I wanted to barf. I was standing there with my former partner-in-arms Rebecca Rose and together, we were part of doing a lot of shit to disrupt our former Board of Governors, both as members of the board itself and as student activists. I should be clear: these bodies are not central locations of student struggle. They rubber stamp things. But they are important symbols both of the decisions made at the top within Canada’s institutions and of where students can actually stare down the faces of the people who seek to defund their education.
(Like, how could Dal students ever shut down one of these meetings by shaking boxes of Kraft Dinner for 45 minutes straight, as my former student union once did?!)
The student movement is in rough shape and everywhere you look, you see evidence of this. Take for example, the narrative that international students are the reason for why Canada has a housing crisis. Western University professor Mike Moffat started the narrative a few months ago and it’s caught on like wildfire. He said this to CBC: "It's created conditions where you have thousands and thousands of extra young people in the community, but oftentimes those institutions are building very little or no housing whatsoever," he said. "So it's been a challenge for those students to find somewhere to live but it's also created a lot of demand in those communities."
Moffat is sympathetic to these students – or he seems to be in his comments – but the problem is that there is no countervailing voice coming from students themselves pointing out the very obvious: international students are used and abused by the system and they’re far more the victims of the housing crisis rather than the ones driving it. Institutions have virtually given up on building campus-operated housing. Private, for-profit operators cram as many students as possible into dwellings to squeeze money from them. Institutions accept students to boost their budgets. And yet, aside from a comment here and there from a random student telling their story, there’s no organized, independent student voice pushing back against what this narrative has become: a racist distraction from the real problems and the real culprits.
Or, take this issue – my alma mater, Toronto Metropolitan University, operating in Egypt (?!?!?!) having to agree to give their students free tuition fees if they study in Toronto because they’ve “had to” close their Cairo (?!?!?!?!?!) campus. If the university had even mused aloud that it wanted to start a branch plant in any country that wasn’t downtown Toronto, we would have organized to stop them. I know this because we did this every time there was a wacky, for-profit plan to do something wackily and for profity, we organized to stop it.
There are lots of other examples of this too, like this from Northern College which can only be defined as fuckery.
When students come together to fight, they win. The best example of this was detailed by Spring Magazine, when students rallied together to stop mass deportations of Indian students earlier this year.
Radical student organizing has been, for generations, the engine of other social movements in Canada. From the origins of radical feminism at Simon Fraser University to the buses paid for and sent to the Summit of the Americas by universities and college student unions all over Canada, autonomous student organizing has been the lifeblood of Canada’s left. When people lament the state of the left in Canada, they’re lamenting a loss of radical student organizing whether they realize it or not.
And the autonomous part is key here. Autonomous means that students organize by themselves. They are not student puppets of administrators; not student services centres or mentorship groups or on-campus jobs where you serve your department. Autonomous – as in independent and untouchable by administration. Nothing happens when students don’t have the resources and autonomy to organize themselves and university and college administrations have known this for a long time. Just look at the 1990s where they kneecapped the most radical student unions in Ontario – the ones operating at the province’s public colleges. College student associations became lapdogs of their administrations, with very few exceptions (hey George Brown’s SA).
But here we are, a generation of shit postsecondary policy has played itself out and students are more indebted and more desperate than they ever have been. And surprise! Radical student organizing is in crisis. Sure, there have been direct attacks on student fees, like the shitheaded Student Choice Initiative and COVID-19 made things far worse, but nothing has been as insidious as the combination of high tuition fees and high student debt.
During the 1970s, radical activism was funded by a combination of federal government youth project grants and EI. Activists would apply for the grants for their projects, work long enough to get EI and then dedicate their time to building progressive movements. Just typing those words feels like fantasyland right now – young people today are squarely separated into the haves and have nots: either they have a full ride from their parents or they are working their brains out to pay for higher education. And neither creates the condition for autonomous student organizing to flourish. Or even operate.
It’s hard to write this without sounding as if there’s no solution here but I have to admit that I’m not optimistic that student organizing will be able to get past these trends. But I also know that there are hundreds of great student activists who are wrestling with these issues and the desire for action and change is palpable. So maybe that’s where the hope lies – but first, let’s not kid ourselves. The Liberals and Conservatives have colluded for three decades to crush radical student organizing and it’s worked. Time will tell when the pendulum will finally swing back.