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Tuition Protest Over the Years

By Sheldon Goldfarb


Crisis: The big story of the second term was the crisis initiated when the Board of Governors, citing overcrowding and a lack of facilities, introduced a $25 tuition increase and announced a limit on registration of 2,000. (After dropping in the early years of the Depression, UBC enrolment had rebounded to nearly 2,500 in 1937-38).

The students mounted a protest campaign, calling for the provincial government to provide more funding and for the Board of Governors to postpone the tuition increase. The first head of the campaign committee was Morris Belkin, who went on to become a noted businessman (the Belkin Art Gallery is named after him and his wife).

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Another notable on campus at that time, Norman DePoe, who went on to become a respected CBC reporter, suggested that the AMS and the University should both look into other sources of revenue, such as business revenue, a suggestion not acted on at the time, but which became the modus operandi in later years.

Student Council asked to see the University’s financial statements. The Ubyssey said it was time there was a student on the Board of Governors, a suggestion that would not be acted on until 1974.


Where the Ubyssey also led the way was in the response to the unexpected tuition increase announced by President Macdonald in January. We backed you, they said (alluding to the previous year’s Back Mac campaign), and now you do this. But mostly they criticized the government for not providing enough funding and seemed in the end to accept that the tuition increase could not be avoided.

This was not the position taken by AMS President Malcolm Scott, who used such intemperate language that President-elect Roger McAfee said one of his goals would have to be to repair relations with the University. And the tuition increase went through, of course.

What do we want?
Free tuition, it seems. After years of asking for lower increases, the student leadership suddenly was saying, Forget that, there shouldn’t be tuition fees at all. Fees prevent universal access. Everyone should go to university; there should be no barriers, nobody kept out for want of money, or for want of anything else, it seemed. No more social injustice.

When do we want it? Now! UBC President Macdonald said he could see the argument for free tuition, but the time was not appropriate. No, said the Ubyssey and student leaders like AMS Vice-President Bob Cruise, the time is now!  We will march to the courthouse and nail our demands to the door (who are these heretics?). We will refuse to pay our fees. Oh, my God, what is going on?

Well, it’s the Sixties …

So what should we all be doing?
As the Eighties began, everyone seemed to be at loose ends. The Ubyssey ran a cartoon saying there were no issues anymore. But in fact in second term things began happening again. Tuition fees and student aid problems began to galvanize the population. There was even a rally and a march. Was activism coming back?

But let's stick to the local scene:
There was RecFac, the ambitious plan for a new recreational facility on the edge of MacInnes Field. Students voted to pay $30 each to build it, despite the opposition of those who said there were other priorities, and why should the students have to pay?  And also: it was unfair because AMS Council was so strongly in favour of it.

But it would have gone ahead if only the University hadn't decided to raise tuition by 10%. Wait a minute, said the students: we're going to help you build a University building and you're still going to raise our tuition?  No way!  And so there was a second referendum, or at least it was agreed to hold one in September 1989. [The second referendum cancelled the RecFac fee.] …

And speaking of tuition increases, some students became very angry about them. Students Opposed to Tuition Fee Hikes, led by Vanessa Geary (later to become Coordinator of External Affairs), organized a protest, and then another. The AMS even lent its support, though at first it suggested a letter-writing campaign. There was even talk of occupying the Faculty Club. Just like 1968. But it all rather fizzled out, and the fee increase went through, and the Ubyssey grumbled that students weren't what they used to be.

Tuition Hikes:
The hike this year was actually quite modest: 4.75%, the inflation rate at the time, but perhaps that was because of the campaign the AMS had launched against it before the exact amount was announced. There was a task force and a banner or carpet-style petition that got displayed in the SUB and then unrolled in front of the Old Administration Building. Just like old times, almost. (But no Treks.)

A testy, testy year
: The AMS was still fighting the University over businesses and, of course, money. The students were protesting tuition hikes. The Ubyssey reached new heights in provoking outrage. Vandals were smashing things. There were sexual assaults and fears of sexual assaults, and the Minister of Advanced Education even insulted the UBC President. Can't we all just get along? …

Meanwhile the University's VP Students was saying the University would never enter into another contract with the AMS. The Administration said the AMS just wasn't being fair: selling pizza in the SUB. That's what the University was meant to do. And truly Stan Persky would have shaken his head at how the AMS had moved into business. Selling pizza, cookies, beers, and burgers. Why isn't the student society leading protests?

But they were: When the University announced an 18% tuition hike, the AMS organized  a petition and a postcard campaign and even a march on a meeting of the Board of Governors, which actually backed down and lowered the hike to 11.9%, only to see the government lower it even further, to 10. But that meant …

Cutbacks: President Strangway announced a hiring freeze. Library cutbacks had already been announced. Would courses have to go?  Was this 1983 all over again?

And Still More:
There were still fears that federal funding cuts would lead to increases in tuition, prompting protests in the fall and the spring. “It’s just like the Sixties,” said one demonstrator. In the end the NDP provincial government saved the day, at least for students, by introducing a tuition freeze which lasted for half a dozen years.

[With the tuition freeze in place, tuition increases stopped, and so did protests. Summing up the 1995-2005 period, I wrote:

In 1999, on the eve of the new century, a Ubyssey cartoon lamented a drop in what it called caring, by which it meant activism. Certainly, the decade seemed to demonstrate a move away from Sixties-style protests (and their early Nineties echo) towards a different sort of student leadership. There were still protests, to be sure, but the emphasis shifted to lobbying and services. In response to tuition increases, student leaders didn’t take to the streets, but instead visited the University’s board room. And in general the AMS focused less on demonstrating against corporatization in favour of developing services for its constituents: from the U-Pass and a Health and Dental Plan to extra-curricular courses and advice on personal budgeting.

But with the lifting of the freeze, there were some protests:]

Bye-bye Freeze:
The big news post-9/11 was the end of the tuition freeze, lifted by the new Liberal government of Gordon Campbell. UBC responded by saying it would raise tuition to match the national average. Why, said the AMS, wondering about the relevance of tuition levels in Ontario. Show us what you’re going to spend the money on, and make sure some of it is on financial aid and other student services. The University did back down from its objective of matching the national average and began producing booklets showing where the money would go, but fees did rise significantly.

Protests! While the AMS leadership made presentations to the Board of Governors, some students decided more radical action was needed, marching on campus, occupying the Administration Building, and even invading the Executive corridor at the SUB to criticize newly elected AMS President Kristen Harvey. Harvey said the protesters, who were calling not just for a continuation of the freeze but for a reduction in tuition, did not represent majority opinion on campus. They certainly did not represent the majority view on AMS Council, which defeated a motion to support the reduce tuition campaign; some Councillors said that the tuition freeze, coupled with government cutbacks, had jeopardized the quality of education at UBC and increases were needed.

The Times They Are A-Changin’:
Or not. The new AMS Executive certainly tried to make some changes, seeking to shift from negotiating to protesting (staging a Let Them Eat Cake demonstration against rising tuition fees) and also seeking to withdraw the AMS from a number of its associations. It cancelled SUDS, the annual gathering of student societies hosted by the AMS, sought to withdraw the AMS from CASA (the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations) and from an international body, Universitas-21, and discouraged the General Manager from attending meetings with fellow general managers from elsewhere in the country.

This looks like a job for the United Nations:
AMS President Blake Frederick and VP External Tim Chu decided that the best way to draw attention to tuition issues at UBC was to lodge a complaint at the United Nations under the relevant International Covenant. That will get people's attention.

Well, it certainly did: It's just a stunt, Blake said later, when some complained about the triviality of such a complaint compared to other things the UN had to deal with. Others were appalled that the two Executives had done this all in secret, without even informing Council and that it implicitly went against Council's tuition policies.

Council is out of touch with what students want: So said the two Executives, and a referendum on tuition almost, sort of agreed with them. On the other hand, another pair of referendum questions almost removed Blake and Tim from office, so who is to say?

About that referendum: Well, about the elections in general. This year the AMS went totally electronic again, and somebody hacked the election, casting 731 fraudulent votes. The hackers didn't alter the Executive results, but did change who one of the elected Senators was and affected the results of the vote on whether the AMS should lobby to reduce tuition fees in such a way that it was impossible to determine whether it had passed or not. So it became the only referendum in AMS history whose result was never known.

Reduce tuition?
Another referendum passed, this one initiated by members of the Social Justice Centre (the last bastion of activism within the AMS, apparently): to have the AMS lobby to reduce tuition. In response, Council amended its tuition policy to call for a tuition reduction when possible, but AMS lobbying in this period was focused more on …

Land use: Gage South was the battleground, the area south of the Gage residences, next to the SUB and MacInnes Field. We can use that for market housing, said the University. No, you shouldn't, said the AMS, so the University agreed to think again.

[There was another successful referendum calling for the AMS to lobby to reduce tuition in 2013-14.]

Maybe activism wasn't dead after all. First, some UBC students demonstrated in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. But that was nothing compared to the furor that erupted when the University announced increases in tuition and residence fees. A new group was formed: I Am a Student. They sported red squares, emulating protesters in Quebec, and organized opposition. There was a teach-in. There was quorum at an AMS Annual General Meeting for the first time in nearly 40 years, and motions were passed opposing the increases and calling on the AMS to continue protesting until the increases were reversed. (But the increases went through and the protests faded away.)

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