It’s about tuition fees, silly!
The RSU brought Drake to their campus, but how does that address high tuition?
Division is not a novelty in student politics—anyone who has attended any University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) general meetings will tell you that. In some ways, the stories of tensions in the UTSU are the same as those in the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). Last winter, “pro-Canadian Federation of Students slates” with long incumbency streaks were defeated on both campuses.
But while this adversity is not new, this year the RSU faces a style of opposition that Toronto student politics has not seen for some time. This November, an organization emerged called Reignite Ryerson.
Reignite describes itself as “a group formed to give students a platform to collectively organize around tuition fees.” As such, the group does not claim to be an opposition movement per se, having expressed a willingness to work with the RSU on the issue. However, Reignite has still called out the RSU, noting that “it’s been five months since the new Executives took over” and they haven’t run “a single campaign … to discuss rising tuition fees and how that affects marginalized communities.”
Reignite has also criticized RSU VP Education Cormac McGee, publishing photos and statements he made in the months before his election in which he counter-protested a “Freeze the Fees” demonstration.
A number of Reignite supporters began their anti-tuition work with last year’s “Freeze the Fees” tent city occupation, during which they had the chance to negotiate with Ryerson’s administration. A Reignite representative told me the experience was “frustrating,” arguing that “with an incredible direct mandate of 15% of the campus to freeze tuition fees [via petition], Ryerson did not see making education accessible as a priority.”
This time around, Reignite activists are once against presenting Ryerson’s administration with several demands that include: 1) frozen or reduced tuition fees, 2) the development of a tuition model that considers marginalized student experiences, 3) hosting a town hall on “the crisis regarding tuition fees,” and 4) releasing an official statement on the rationale behind recent tuition fee increases.
Like many on the student left, Reignite’s leaders believe that free education is a “human right,” but they believe that “starting with simple and reasonable demands … can expose the structures and relationships that exist to make tuition the issue that it is.” They argue that Ryerson’s administration defers blame for rising fees to the province, but the administration’s refusal to engage the previous year with an alternative budget proposal that included a fee freeze shows that this claim is false.
Reignite has also made demands of the RSU, calling for the Executive to outline what they’ve done on tuition fees at their AGM, formally announce their position on whether tuition fees have been decreased, and provide a report on what work has specifically been done to help “marginalized students who have been disproportionately affected by high tuition on this campus.”
A Reignite representative told me their first victory was getting Cormac McGee “to act quickly to show some kind of work under his portfolio to save face, calling the first Student Action Committee meeting (the body that is open to all students to address education issues) six months into his mandate.” They added that Reignite feels the RSU Executive is too closely aligned with the administration in general, and McGee in particular, as he also serves on Ryerson’s Board of Governors.
Last year, Unite, the electoral slate that supported the Freeze the Fees movement, lost the RSU elections by a landslide. What makes Reignite distinct as a campus opposition movement is that rather than subtly maneuvering to give their Unite-aligned comrades better political chances for 2016, they are instead rallying around a cause regardless of how well that cause has done in the past.
While their commitment to this cause has primarily led them to criticize the current RSU, they have also been willing to criticize its predecessor, which they argue “[failed to] to communicate and engage with the [RSU] membership.”
Despite last year’s election results, Reignite feels “it is an undeniable fact that [a] huge majority of the student population are unhappy, to put it mildly, with tuition fees and are wondering if working two [to] three part-time jobs while attending school is really ‘normal.’ The appetite,” they claim, “is definitely there for solutions to what we can describe, without exaggeration, [as] a tuition fees crisis.”
As of now, it remains unclear whether Reignite’s tactics will succeed. That said, hopefully U of T students will follow their lead and help bring student politics beyond samosas and procedural showboating.