People’s History Project Feature Blog

As part of our 2014 People’s History Calender, we will be featuring short articles by student Ariel Aguilar on local struggles and histories. This week, we kick off with the recent history of students and the struggle to maintain regulated tuition and public universities.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail in December of 2009, newly appointed Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf was quoted at length concerning Queen’s dire financial situation. The article identified various financial constraints Queen’s was facing, including rising pension costs, falling endowment income and large capital expenditures on projects such as the Queen’s Centre, which was approved before Woolf’s tenure. Facing large budget shortfalls, Woolf proposed an extensive cost-cutting plan which called on faculty for wage concessions, asked departments to find savings and new ways of making money, and explored the sale of various University properties. Unlike previous bouts of financial pressures, Woolf argued that this point in time was an exception. This was not a time to continue, as Queen’s had for a long time, to do ‘more with less’, but rather we must face the new reality of “(doing) less with less.”

Although many of the financial pressures that the article identified were very real and still exist today, the significant factor of falling government support to universities was largely ignored. In fact, it can be argued that increasingly less government funding has been the most constant financial pressure on universities, dating all the way back to 1993. In this year, provincial government grants accounted for 75% of Queen’s operating budget, however Bob Rae’s Social Contract austerity measures were poised to eliminate 8.5% of provincial government transfers to all universities. Unfortunately this was just the tip of the iceberg. In its first budget alone, the Harris Progressive Conservative government cut operating grants to Ontario universities by over 15% or $280 million dollars. The level of funding continued to decrease for the entirety of the Harris and later Eves government, on a per student basis the level of government funding was $14 844 (2008 dollars) in 1993 and by the end of the PC’s time in office fell to $12 784, when adjusted for inflation in the higher education sector. In other words, if you want to get a good idea of how much the Rae, Harris and Eves governments cut in higher education funding, take the number of students who attended Ontario universities between 1993 and 2003 and multiply that number by 2, 060 and you’d get a rough estimate in 2008 dollars. Luckily I’ve already done that, and it equals approximately $5.5 billion dollars in lost funding!

So who covered the billions of dollars in lost funding to universities? You guessed it, students. Tuition increases became a significant source of university revenue, the Harris government in its first budget allowed a maximum tuition increase of 20%. Tuition fees for graduate and professional programs such as commerce, engineering, medicine and law became de-regulated, meaning institutions were now free to set their own fees. By the end of 2003, Medicine tuition at Queen’s had increased by over 300%, Law fees had gone up by 240% and Applied Sciences by 180%. Between the period of 1990-2003, overall tuition levels in Ontario had risen by 180%.

However even these large increases in tuition could not compensate entirely for the tremendous loss in government funding. Private sources of revenue from corporations were sought by universities like Queen’s to cover research costs. Additionally university administrators looked to restructuring to cut out ‘waste and inefficiency,’ meaning cutting faculty numbers and wages. At Queen’s for example the number of faculty had decreased by 4.5% between 1993 and 2002, with the student faculty ratio rate jumping from 19.0 to 22.3 in that same period. Things came to a head in September 2000, when then Queen’s Principal Leggett, announced that he along with other university presidents, would formally request the Progressive Conservative government to de-regulate all tuition at Queen’s.

The reaction to Leggett’s proposal from the Queen’s community was immediate and vocal. Undergraduates, graduates and faculty all voiced their concerns through their respective unions, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), the Society for Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) and the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA). These responses were drafted in the form of policy papers, form letters and petitions. Ideals such as accessibility, academic freedom and education as a public good were at the fore of these arguments against deregulation and eventual privatization of Queen’s University. Students and faculty were adamant that the privatization of Queen’s would create a two-tiered educational system in Ontario, and although Leggett promised visions of Queen’s as ‘the Princeton of the North,’ the Queen’s community rejected this model of an elitist, U.S model of education. This writing proved critical in spreading awareness about Leggett’s proposal and managed to create a province-wide discussion on deregulation and private universities. Provincial groups like the Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance (OUSA), the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and eventually the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP), weighed in with their own research and echoed the call for public higher education.

Campaigns and protests also took place at Queen’s, mostly under the initiative of the CFS who organized a pan-Canadian day of action in February 2000 for higher funding and accessibility in post-secondary education. By November 2000, students at Queen’s held their own referendum on the issue of deregulation, with 91% of the votes opposed to the idea. OPIRG for its part, helped to continue the momentum of the campaign by financing working groups on the issue and distributing pamphlets to promote continued awareness.

Even after the overwhelming results of the referendum in late 2000, the issues of deregulation continued to be omnipresent while tuition levels for all programs continued to rise unabated. Change came to Queen’s, with the prospect of a Fall election in 2003. The official Liberal opposition under Dalton Mcguinty had backed off from a tuition decrease but nevertheless unveiled a platform calling for the freezing of tuition levels. Following this sentiment, Dean Ulrich Scheck of the School of Graduate Studies and Research (SGSR) recommended a 0% tuition increase for all research graduate programs in the 2003/04 school year, and also announced plans to increase the minimum level of funding for Ph.D students. By 2004 Leggett ended his term as Queen’s principal with the issue of tuition deregulation firmly decided.

The cooperation and unity of the student voice helped to soundly defeat Leggett’s proposal. Today however, tuition continues to increase while provincial funding has not kept pace with the increasing enrolment. Unfortunately the beast of public education underfunding has many heads, with its consequences like the sharp decline of education quality felt sharply. As Vice-Principal Rod Fraser put it in response to Rae’s austerity measures, Queen’s has to do “less with less.” Moreover at that time, Fraser noted that the hardest challenge was knowing “whether this is a 1993-1994 challenge or whether this is a challenge that we’re going to keep on meeting.” It appears Queen’s has been doing “less with less” for some time now.

-with files from OPIRG Kingston’s Alternative Resources Library                

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