Universities Under Siege Globally: Thoughts on Student Struggle From Canada

A Canadian Student's Experience

This is a similar story that many of us have heard and have told in our own lives. The writer is a Canadian student in British Columbia:

While I still regard universities are a critical area of struggle, I do think we have to be realistic about the possibilities of struggle. So, as Peter asks, "Is it just too much to ask of people who are already besieged?" In actively attempting to organize students, I ask myself this question everyday.

Up here in British Columbia, universities are being attacked on every level. Tuition fees have more than doubled over the past two years. Student needs-based grants have been eliminated. The Federal Government is seeking to triple the level of commercialization of campuses over the next few years and publicly funded research insititutions are following like lapdogs. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council just shotgunned through a proposal to move away from funding individual researchers in order to seek greater collaboration with community (ie. business, government) groups.

The critical response to all these initiatives have been mediated through institutionalized avenues such as student unions, university committees, etc. And the critical response has either been reactionary (ie. reduce tuition fees, reinstate grants) or falling back on the liberal argument for the free exchange of ideas, which I find to be enormously limiting. Those who argue for the free exchange of ideas fail to see how any concessions that have been made to enable any sort of "free exchange" were the product of struggles in the university in the 1960s-70s. Rather than seeking to reestablish these movements, these folks generally prefer to adopt motions in their various committees and send them off expecting that they can invoke some sort of change.

Yesterday, I helped present over 38,000 petitions demanding a "reduction of tuition fees" to the provincial legislature. As we sat through question period and the petitions were simply accepted and thrown on the table, people were disappointed. They asked me, "Is that it?" and I responded, "Well what do you expect?". The irony is that student unions and the national student federation in the country expect that petitions, letter writing and even a mass demonstration will put pressure on the government. Meanwhile, most students aren't even aware that a student union, let alone a national federation exists. There is a deep disconnect between the institutions advocating on behalf of students and students themselves, just like the labour movement. Although resistance is arising in unexpected areas, which remain disconnected from more coordinated overt struggles.

I remain conflicted in terms of how to proceed. On the one hand, I think it is necessary to mobilize students towards mid-term strategies that call for something like the "massification" of education, rather than simply saying that tuition fees should be reduced. But even mass mobilization on such bread and butter issues remains tedious. I am certain that pushing such an agenda with my local student union would be highly contentious. In fact, as the university is imploding on its own ivory tower, students are increasingly coming from upper class families and have no interest in pursuing these issues. In fact, they actively fight against them. The progressive liberals entrenched in the student union leadership and bureaucracy would argue that this isn't "realistic" and actively sabotage any attempt to move in this direction with all their resources. For those who are increasingly being pushed out, they are simply trying to stay afloat and do not have the time or energy to pursue a sustained mass mobilization.

I have always thought that student struggles are inherently limited and need to expand to other areas. I just helped organize a conference where I sought to bring students together with other people that are being hit hard by the government, ie. indigenous, rural, anti-poverty, labour struggles, etc. And yet I remain skeptical. To what extent can students actually become involved in these struggles? When I try organizing around these issues on campus only five or ten people show up. If I try organizing through the student union, it becomes watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

Talking to activists in other areas, it seems very similar problems are being experienced. There seems to be no privileged entry point into struggle. It all seems the same. A rank-and-file coalition bringing together "radical" activists from different areas (ie. students, workers, etc) has been quite active in my city. And yet they are marginalized along these different institutional avenues. At a recent student union meeting, I was told that they "betrayed our trust".

So, I guess what I am saying is that the university as an "autonomous" insititution, a "monastery" (as one prof told me) has never really existed. The institutions that are advocating on behalf of students/faculty are pretending that it already exists and needs to be preserved. For any real struggle to arise in my university, the liberal myth of "university autonomy" must be disavowed, but so do the institutions that perpetuate this myth. However, in disavowing these presumptions, our arguments are actively marginalized on many levels. I always thought that the way to go was to seek out how students in their everyday lives actively negate this myth and build from there. This is a perspective that I think autonomous marxism provides. But I still find it difficult to elaborate a concrete response. I ramble.

--Chris Hurl
October 2004