The Story Behind the National Day of Action for Free Education

Hundreds of students at UWindsor and thousands across the province rallied at their campuses on Nov. 2 to fight against tuition fees.

by Shelbey Hernandez
The Lance – News Editor

She and her mom have checked off the low-income single parent household box for all government forms for quite some time now. But there is so much that lies within the two lines that make that checkmark. There is so much more to her situation than a simple box.

She has always dreamt of making it to university and she finally makes it. She is the first of her family to be accepted into the University of Windsor and although that should make her happy, it simply doesn’t. She knows the reality behind that piece of congratulatory paper – she knows the cost that comes with being accepted.

“I remember getting my acceptance letter to university and instead of feeling excitement, I felt just so scared because I didn’t think I would be able to do it,” said Larissa Howlett, a fourth-year, full-time criminology student at UWindsor. “I saw this letter in front of me and I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t have this money and there is just no way.’”

But she didn’t want to give up. She didn’t want to let terrifying realizations hold her back. So she continues her studies and juggles two part-time jobs. To top it all off, even with OSAP, there was hardly any money left. She discovers her textbooks are $600 which means no food for the next month. Then tuition fees come up and she is kicked out of student housing. She will spend the next four months couch hopping while trying her very best to maintain a smile when in the presence of others.

“I’ve had quite a crappy experience when it comes to finances,” said Howlett. “I work at the UWSA and I also work at Mare Nostrum, the restaurant on campus, and it’s so hard because you work and you work and you work and you study but you just feel like it’s never enough because you always owe that money to your loan or a bill or to rent and it’s just so tough.”

Every time she looks at her student loan debt, it seems to get higher and every time she thinks of her own situation, she becomes more and more embarrassed. This year in particular she almost has to quit. Her mom gets sick, can’t hold her job and when Howlett needs more money, she is denied. After begging OSAP, she receives more only to realize how much that extra money will hurt her later in life.

But then one day she realizes she is not alone. Her story is the story of thousands of students who enroll in post-secondary and find they not only suffer during, but suffer even more after, once the temporary safeguards known as OSAP are expecting repayment.

Her story, like many others, was why 650,000 other students across the province held rallies through what was known as the National Day of Action for Free Tuition. The fight the fees chants invaded Facebook feeds, with students just like Howlett, declaring they cannot take it anymore.

UWindsor in particular didn’t just have students present, they had staff and faculty as well. At least 400 students, staff and faculty took part just at the UWindsor campus alone. Although an exact estimate of students is unknown, all 400 of the Fight the Fees signs were in use.

These students not only were fighting for themselves, they were fighting for their siblings and cousins.

“I have a younger brother who is in school and wants to pursue a postsecondary education. I don’t want him to have to go through what I went through,” said Howlett. “I want him to go to school and focus on his studies, never having to worry about how he is going to eat, how he is going to pay rent or which bills should take priority over another. I’m also fighting for my friends. A lot of this resonates with them, domestic and international.”

As Howlett said, tuition fees apply not just to domestic students, but international students as well. Using an example of her a friend of hers who is in the same program and takes the same courses, Howlett said while she pays $4,000 per semester, her international friend pays $12,000.

According to a Statistics Canada chart, Ontarians pay on average $8,114 per year for tuition. None of the other provinces or territories pay in the $8,000 range and only two others pay in the $7,000 range. So that is why Ontarian students are fighting the fees. Even if the Ontario government hears the call to action and does not do something to make the change, Howlett said this National Day is only the beginning.

“Honestly, fight the fees, the National Day of Action, doesn’t end here. Every day, I think we won’t let anything stand in the way. We will continue to fight for free access to education,” said Howlett. “It wouldn’t discourage us, it would make us want to fight harder and speak out louder. There has to be some sort of negotiation at least.”

The last call to action was four years ago. The tuition fees still went up last year, despite a call to action three years prior. Universities have yet to hear from the Ontario government at this time. So all that can be done, for now, is to wait.

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