There are two main purposes of student unions and organizations when it comes to politics and political engagement: first, encouraging students to vote for left-wing parties (e.g. Canadian Federation of Students or “CFS” and its unrelenting support of the NDP) and second, to lobby the government for lower tuition or “drop fees”. At both of these tasks they have fundamentally failed. Tuition and student debt is on the rise and categorically students have the lowest voter turnout.
It is time to rethink the old way and try a new approach.
The best thing the provincial government can do for university students is to not run a deficit. In layman terms, a deficit is when the government spends more money than they take in. When someone spends more money than they can afford they have to pay an interest on the amount owed (debt), the same financial logic works with a government-incurred deficit.
Why is reducing or removing the deficit the single best thing the provincial government can do for students? First, when the government is not choking in debt it can take the money it would otherwise be spending on interest payments (for 2012-2013 the provincial government will spend $10.6 billion paying interest on debt, which is 8.4% of the total budget) and apply it towards programs that need more funding (e.g. tuition subsidies for students). Which would you prefer: $10.6 billion paid to often-foreign creditors or $10.6 billion invested in Ontario? If the provincial government applied only a quarter of what it is projected to spend on interest, $2.65 billion, to tuition subsidies, 330,000 undergraduate university students would receive a free education with ancillary fees and textbooks included. Of course this is a utopian example but it is to show how much money is being paid by the government in interest because of its inability to reign in spending; money that could be used for “drop fees”.
Second, a significant majority of students enter university in order to obtain an education and enter the workforce upon graduation. However, in order to pursue a career there must be careers available (the unemployment rate for youth aged 15-24 was 16.8%, up from 15.4% in July 2011). This is another area where maintaining a low or no deficit would benefit students greatly. The more the government spends beyond what it can afford the less comfortable investors feel and the less companies want to diversify because it makes investing unpredictable. The less investment there is coming in the slower the economy grows.
When the economy does not grow, job opportunities do not grow. When the economy is booming, job opportunities are booming. In a situation where the government is heavy indebted, like the current government, students should not lobby for drop fees rather we should lobby the government to reduce the deficit. The logic may seem strange here but if the government reduces its deficit significantly the economy will improve and job opportunities will become more abundant. Yes, students will be graduating on average with a substantial debt but at least they will have an opportunity to get a good paying job upon graduation and slowly pay down that debt. We must weigh the pros and cons of the situation.
Currently, Ontario is staying afloat financially by receiving money from other provinces, termed “transfer payments”. We are spending so much more than we can afford that we have to ask the federal government ($21.6 billion or 19.4% of projected revenue for 2012-2013) and neighboring provincial governments for more money. Historically, Ontario was an economic engine, leading in Canada. Today, Ontario is what is considered a “have-not” province. Like I mentioned a number of times: when the economy is not doing well and when the province is sinking in debt, job opportunities for students are reduced. Instead of lobbying the government to drop fees, students should primarily lobby the government to reduce and remove the deficit and only secondarily ask the government to offer a more affordable education, when the government can actually afford it. Students should relentlessly lobby the government for this because it is our futures that are undercut when the government overspends.
Finally, it is essential for students to vote however, not for the party the CFS tells them to but the party and values that they have researched on their own and truly believe in. This is the first and easiest step students can take if they want to have their voices heard; politicians and political parties cater to the people that vote for them. If students increase their voter turnout it will make lobbying the government significantly easier and as a result more fruitful. What we too often forget is that students as a group are a large part of the electorate and we have the power to enact change. But change won’t come in the tired old ways that have failed before time and time again. We need to start on a new path as outlined before and start getting real results.
Fourth Year, Political Sciences