Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: cfs

February 06


Here’s a new one: the Canadian Federation of Students has decided, apparently, that charging international students higher tuition fees is “xenophobic”.  No, really, they have.  This is possibly the dumbest idea in Canadian higher education since the one about OSAP “profiting” from students.   But as we’ve seen all too often in the past year or two, stupidity is no barrier to popularity where political ideas are concerned.  So: let’s get down to debunking this.

The point that CFS – and maybe others, you never know who’s prepared to follow them down these policy ratholes – is presumably trying to highlight is that Canadian universities charge differential fees – one set for domestic students and another, higher, one for students from abroad.  Their argument is that this differential is unfair to international students and that fees should be lowered so as to equal those of domestic students.

It’s not indefensible to suggest that domestic and international tuition fees should be identical.  Lots of countries do it:  Norway, Germany and Portugal to name but three and if I’m not mistaken, both Newfoundland and Manitoba have had such policies within living memory as well.  But the idea that citizens and non-citizens pay different amounts for a publicly-funded service is not a radical, let alone a racist, one.  A non-citizen of Toronto wishing to borrow from the Toronto Libraries is required to pay a fee for a library card, while a citizen does not.  This is not xenophobic: it is a way of ensuring that services go in priority to people who pay taxes in that jurisdiction.  If an American comes to Canada and gets sick, they are expected to pay for their treatment if they visit a doctor or admitted to hospital.  This is not xenophobic either: the price is the same to all, it’s just that we have all pre-paid into a domestic health insurance fund but foreigners have not.

It’s the same in higher education.  American public universities all charge one rate to students from in-state and another to those out-of-state.  Not xenophobic: just prioritizing local taxpayers.  In Ontario, universities are not allowed to use their tuition set-aside dollars – collected from all domestic tuition fees – to provide funding to out-of-province students.  Irritating?  Yes.  Xenophobic?  No.

International students are in the same position.  Their parents have not paid into the system.  Only a minority of them will stay here in Canada to pay into it themselves.  So why on earth should they pay a similar amount to domestic students?  And it’s not as if there’s massive profiteering going on: as I showed back here, in most of the country international fees are set below the average cost of attendance.  So international students are in fact being subsidized; just not very much.

In any event, even if we were charging international students over the going rate, that wouldn’t be evidence of xenophobia.  Perhaps it has escaped CFS’ notice, but there is not a single university in the country which is turning away undergraduate students.  According to every dictionary I’ve been able to lay my hands on, xenophobia means irrational fear and hatred of foreigners; yet now CFS has discovered some odd variant in which the xenophobes are falling over each other to attract as many foreigners as possible.

My guess is that most people at CFS can distinguish between “xenophobia” and “differential fees”.  What’s happened, though, is that part of the brain trust at head office simply decided to use an emotive word to try to stigmatize a policy with which their organization disagrees.  That kind of approach sometimes works in politics: just think of the success Sarah Palin had when she invented the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counselling under American federal health care legislation.

But effectiveness is not the be-all and end-all of politics.  Sarah Palin is a cancerous wart on democracy.  You’d kind of hope our own student groups would try to avoid imitating her.

June 10

A National Day of Action

Earlier this week  Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided to hold a “National Day of Action”, its first since 2012.  Many may find this a bit puzzling: after all, this is a year in which the federal government increased student grants and doubled the number of summer student jobs (also, increased granting council funding and put aside gazillions for infrastructure, though that may matter less to students than to other post-secondary stakeholders).  So what, exactly, is CFS thinking?

Well, I don’t have an inside line to CFS or anything, but what’s important to remember is that the organization really, really does not think of itself as an interest group, and that therefore one shouldn’t try to analyze its decisions using the standard framework that lobbyists use to evaluate decisions.  Interest groups like to have access to decision-makers (ministers, MPs/MLAs, senior public servants).  Indeed, they gauge their success in terms of their ability to get decision-makers to think of their specific issues in their terms – to “capture” the decision-makers, so to speak.  There are a lot of student organizations in the country that think this way: in Ottawa, you have the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations or CASA (disclosure: I was National Director of CASA 20 years ago), but there’s also the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance here in Toronto, Students Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Council of Alberta University Students out in Edmonton.

But CFS does not think of itself this way.  Instead, it thinks of itself as a “movement”.  And movements behave very differently from interest groups. 

For interest groups, getting close to decision-makers is THE way to promote change.  For movements, getting close to decisions-makers is cause for suspicion (i.e. “Talking to The Man?  What if we get corrupted by the Man?”).  Movements care less for concrete results in terms of obtaining things for “members” (itself a term which is understood fundamentally differently by movements and interest groups); rather, what matters for movements is changing people’s “consciousness”. 

Pretty clearly, that’s what at work here with CFS.  A National Day of Action is certainly a good way of getting individual student unions to engage with their members about the real and imagined plights of students, and getting them out on the street.  And after the day of action, if you ask them “was this a success”, they will answer not in terms of policies changed but simply in terms of the number of students who out in the street because for a movement, that is an end in and of itself.

That there are opportunity costs in taking this approach is literally incomprehensible to CFS (which, judging by its policy manual, isn’t especially conversant with the subject in any other context, either).  The idea that raising consciousness with students might actively piss off a government which spent a fair bit of political capital in providing new money for students, and hence make further co-operation and progress less likely, simply doesn’t compute.  This is not surprising, since they spend a lot more time thinking about how to persuade their own members to engage than they do thinking about how to engage policymakers.

Historically, Canada’s students have probably been reasonably well served by having one national student organization work as an interest group and the other as a movement.  They have to some extent acted as a good cop/bad cop duo, even if they actively despise one another.  But even so, it’s incredibly hard to see what good can come of this Day of Action.  Politicians respond favourably to people who say thank you when they’ve gone to bat for you.  They respond less well when you put thousands of people on the street to yell about how much they suck. 

I hope CFS gets all the consciousness-raising it needs out of this.  It’d be a shame to sacrifice actual progress on issues if they didn’t.