May 052021

Reverse privatization for free, quality, democratic public post-secondary education across Canada

Protect French and Indigenous language and education rights

The Communist Party of Canada stands in solidarity with the over 150 laid-off faculty and staff and the 800 students who have had their academic program cut at Laurentian University. We demand immediate action by the Ontario and federal governments to stop the insolvency proceedings and provide the stable funding needed for the university’s future operations with a full staff and continuing programs.

The current crisis at Laurentian has its roots in the creeping privatization of post-secondary education that has been carried out by Tory, Liberal and NDP governments alike across Canada for the last forty years. Now, the administration at Laurentian, in coordination with the Ford government in Ontario, are using the federal Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) to impose unprecedented “shock therapy” on this Northern Ontarian university. They are pretending to fix a problem caused by neoliberal policies of their own making by doubling down and enacting even more brutal neoliberal restructuring.

This is an attack on the rights of workers which will set a dangerous precedent for all public sector workers. The CCAA has been used against labour in the private sector to steal the unpaid wages and pensions of workers and ensure banks and corporate creditors are paid back first. But this is the first time that a public institution has used the CCAA. As many have noted, this should be impossible since universities are not private businesses but public institutions that ought to be supported by public funding and oversight. The process has trampled on collective bargaining rights as agreements were opened up, salaries were substantially reduced and workloads increased. The labour movement and allies must defeat this dangerous weapon being used against public sector workers.

The unprecedented CCAA process is an anti-democratic attack on the Franco-Ontarian community which already has very limited access to French language education at the post-secondary level. At the moment, Ontario has no fully French speaking university, while the English-speaking population in Quebec (which is comparable in number to the number of French speakers in Ontario) has three primarily English universities and seven English CEGEPs. In 2018, the Ford government tried to stop the creation of Ontario’s first French language university. The government’s attempt was thwarted by the mobilization of the Franco-Ontarian community in favour of the creation of this university that is now set to open soon. However, Laurentian remains an important bilingual university located in the north of the province where there are large Francophone communities. Despite this, an astounding 45% of the French-language programs are being cut at Laurentian. This is a disproportionate attack on French programs. No programs should be cut, and some should be expanded, such as the bilingual midwifery program and other unique programs.

This is an anti-democratic attack on Indigenous education rights. Laurentian’s “tri-cultural” mandate included an important Indigenous Studies program which is now facing defunding. Indigenous language use was encouraged on campus with Anishinaabemowin signage in addition to English and French. There is only one Indigenous university in Canada, First Nations University in Regina, and two decades of frozen funding through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) for Indigenous students has led to the widespread denial of education as a human and treaty right for Indigenous peoples.

This is also an anti-democratic attack on the quality of post-secondary education. If they get away with it here many more programs are at risk across the country. The scale of the destruction at Laurentian is breath-taking. 69 programs are set to be cut, with many of those being programs that are widely considered foundational to any university: Philosophy, Mathematics, Anthropology, Political Science and Physics, to name a few. 800 students have been told that their chosen programs no longer exist, meaning hundreds may have to find another school, change their program or drop out. These cuts reflect an extreme of the same neoliberal restructuring we have seen take place on campuses across the country. Many universities have cut the diversity of programs, often starting with progressive curriculums such as Women’s, Indigenous or Labour Studies. In particular the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities have been starved to death, because it is claimed they are not “career focused” or do not attract major corporate partnerships and research funding.

This reflects a fundamental difference in terms of how capitalists and working people view the importance of education. Education should not be a “personal investment” or a commodity. Education is a democratic right and a social good. It is part of the common creative drive to seek out and expand knowledge which is valuable for individuals and society as a whole. While the capitalist attempts to limit education to equipping future employees with exploitable skills, we see education as a prerequisite to having a democratic society which needs a highly educated population where working people attend an accessible education system built for the public interest, not private interests. These cuts must be stopped and we must continue to fight for a diverse, quality, democratic, public education system. Schools across the country will face the same dismantling if this isn’t stopped.

The Laurentian administration, the media and politicians are pretending that this crisis is due to COVID-19, a small tuition fee reduction two years ago, financial mismanagement by a few or declining enrolment due to demographic challenges in northern Ontario. These are not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the privatization of post-secondary education, with Laurentian being the “canary in the nickel mine” due to its overall inability to compete with emerging “elite” universities that can attract more private money.

The big picture here is that government funding to Ontario universities dropped from about 80 percent of operating revenues in 1980 to about 50 percent in 2004 and to just over one-third in 2017. The picture is similar across the country. Tuition fees paid by students are now the largest source for university operating revenue. This marks an enormous shift from public to private funding, with students graduating with tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

There are ways to expand enrolment in Northern Ontario: eliminate tuition fees and balance enrolment between institutions. Tuition fees are the biggest barrier to accessing education for working people. As fees increase, more and more working-class people decide not to enrol and those that do end up with ever increasing debt loads which mean the poorer you are the more it costs to go to school since you will pay tuition along with interest payments. We need free education from early childhood to post-doctoral studies in Canada which is accessible to the working class.

It is quite possible to ensure that enrolment is balanced between schools in Ontario and across Canada if there is the political will. Instead of institutions competing with each other for students, who they regard as customers, governments can enact programs designed to balance enrolment in a planned way between schools to account for differences in regional growth.

The destruction at Laurentian is another massive economic blow to Sudbury and the North. While Bay Street may see Northern Ontario as a hinterland whose natural resources belong to mining companies to be exploited, this view tramples on the inherent and treaty rights of many First Nations and it condemns all residents of the North to permanent impoverishment. It is absolutely necessary to expand post-secondary education in Northern Ontario as part of a regional economic strategy to increase employment and raise living standards.

While many are pointing fingers at Ontario Minister Ross Romano and the Ford government with good reason, the Federal Government has also helped to create this crisis and must also take action to stop the cuts. One of the most important causes of the current crisis came as a result of the 1996 Liberal federal government’s Canada Health and Social Transfer reorganization of transfer payments to provinces by combining health, welfare and PSE funding, eliminating federal standards and cutting $10.9 billion. This restructuring of funding, combined with real dollar cuts has led to much of the privatization we have seen since the 1990s. We demand an immediate increase in federal funding and a new “Post-Secondary Act”, similar to the Canada Health Act, which sets out cross-Canada standards for free and public post-secondary education.

The Communist Party of Canada calls on the Ford and Trudeau governments to come to the table at Laurentian to immediately stop the cuts and provide long-term stable and adequate funding for public post-secondary education in Sudbury and across Canada. Pretending that post-secondary education is not government’s responsibility is what led to this crisis and it must stop. The labour, student and democratic movements must mobilize to defeat this unprecedented attack and work to move on to the offensive to win free, accessible, quality, democratic public post-secondary education.

Central Executive Committee, Communist Party of Canada