Avi Lewis talks tuition

Avi Lewis is a recognized and celebrated media personality who started out as a political correspondent in the 1990s with Much Music. Lewis went on to host and produce counterSpin on CBC Newsworld and, most recently, worked on the documentary, The Take, with wife Naomi Klein, author of the anti-corporate manifesto No Logo. The Take describes a factory in Argentina, where, after its closure, the workers took over and ran it for themselves. Lewis was at the University of Calgary on Wednesday, February 15 speaking on the subject of student debt and rising tuition. In case you missed it, the Gauntlet sat down with Lewis to speak with him about the issues facing students today.

Gauntlet: Why are you interested in the issue of tuition and student debt?

Avi Lewis: I was kind of shocked. I disappeared for a few years after I left my show counterSpin and dove into the world of making [The Take] in Argentina. I disappeared from the Canadian scene and I was focused on learning about Latin America and the tremendous changes that took place [there] in the 1990s. When I came back and I started checking in with the Canadian political scene, I was staggered to see that tuition had tripled, student debt was skyrocketing. [It] had grown 300 per cent. People were graduating with shackles on.

That whole shift in financing education away from public funding towards more and more private funding in the form of tuition and debt increases was clearly having a huge effect on what people think education is for in this country. I am deeply disturbed by the lies of this idea, this language that your education is an investment that you are going to benefit from and therefore you should pay for. That speaks to a whole different kind of society than the one I think most Canadians want. The very same politicians who are using that kind of language are telling us about how important it is to have a highly skilled and highly educated workforce to compete in the global economy and how critical that is for our overall economic development, which pays for all our social programs.

On the one hand they understand that an educated population is an enormous asset for our country. [Education] is a public good, it touches everyone, whether or not you are in university or if you haven’t been in university at any point throughout your life. At the same time, they’re trying to shift the burden of payment onto us, making us into consumers of the education product. The same thing [is happening] with health care. [The politicians are] commodifying it, making it into a service that we increasingly get used to paying for. I just fundamentally reject the notion of consuming public services. That’s not what it is. It’s an expression of a desire as a society to see our fates as intertwined, where we actually believe what happens to other people has an effect on what happens to us.

The other thing that governments are trying to do is put this away in a little box with “Student Issue” written on it, so other people in society won’t pay attention and students think it’s just about them [without seeing] their connection to other struggles. What I’ve just been telling you is why I think this issue of skyrocketing tuition and student debt speaks to the very heart of the society that we want to have, what education is for.

G: What role do you think apathy has played in the issue of tuition? Do you think positive change can occur if the majority of students don’t care?

AL: I’m getting a little bored of the language of apathy. Again, I think that sort of conveniently blames us, rather than working with this as a strategy on behalf of those in power to give us a sense that nothing is possible. I think that apathy is a kind of simple-minded portrait of it. Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s famously said, “There’s no alternative,” when describing her vicious austerity programs; [the] privatization and deregulation of the welfare state in England. I don’t think that was an observation, I think that was a strategy. I think there has been a 20-year strategy; the discussion of globalization is the apex of it, to make people feel paralyzed. The Cold War thinking was ‘there is communism and there is capitalism, and those are the only two possible ways to run an economy.’ Of course, both of those were very bad descriptions of what was happening in the United States versus the Soviet Union. Crony capitalism was exactly what was happening in both. The idea was that there are only two ways of running an economy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story that was told over and over again in mainstream media and by governments was now there’s only one way left. Now there’s only one set of economic policies that can run the global economy and that can run national economies. Well that’s just complete and utter crap. There are lots of different ways. It’s just this narrowing the debate of alternatives that has given us the feeling of paralysis, that there are no other options.

Ralph Klein sent a $400 cheque to every Albertan. It cost a billion and a half dollars. For that money, you could’ve had free tuition for three years in Alberta. If government resources, and the public debate had focused on the benefit to society of a generation of people who had graduated without student debt, rather than the notion of $400 to put new snow tires on your car, or whatever people did with that money. That was absolutely a political choice. It was a massive amount of money to spend for a minor stimulus to the economy, to something that wouldn’t have changed anybody’s life. In no imaginary scenario would $400 have changed anybody’s life. But a university degree without tuition could’ve changed the lives of a generation. This is just one example of what you’re calling apathy and I’m calling a carefully created sense that there are no options. These are all the factors that these are all political choices. We have to shake our paralysis, and remember that there are all kinds of things that we could be doing as a society.

Canada is awash with an unprecedented tsunami of wealth. We’ve never had wealth generation like we’re having in this country. Since Canada has led all the countries in the world in economic growth in the most part of the past decade. We had $3 trillion in the 1990s alone. Corporate profits tripled from 1993-2002. Tripled! Wages didn’t triple. Our health care system didn’t triple in its scope and capacity. We’ve got a deepening inequality with tremendous wealth being generated [and] stuck at the top. Meanwhile, the chasm between the rich and the poor is growing in Canada. Those are choices. That’s not inevitable, [it’s] the result of political choices and policies. One of the things that you have to remember is that rather than just beating up on ourselves for being apathetic, it’s time to recognize that our opinion that nothing can be changed is serving some very powerful people. If we actually remember that, we could change our country and our world. We’ve never had the kind of capacity to do it that we have today.

G: What effect do you think the recently elected Conservative government will have on the commodification of things like health care and education?

AL: From an ideological point of view, the market view of our public services is something the federal Tories are on record for decades as supporting. That said, I think the federal Liberals have managed to cast themselves as the defenders of the public against the privatization of our education and health systems while at the same time doing more than Mulroney ever did to bring about creeping privatization. There were $205 billion [in cuts] just in the late ’90s and the early part of the 2000s alone, which fundamentally altered the balance of payment between private and public in our country. [Former prime minister Paul] Martin’s 1995 budget, which had massive cuts of transfers to the provinces [while] at the same time cut the strings on federal moneys, [making] the federal government no longer the guardian of public services. That was a fundamental structural change in our system, far more profound than anything the Mulroney administration ever did. That laid the grounds to downsizing, downloading, for privatization of health, for tuition increases, [and for] the regressive social policy that we’ve seen in a time of huge wealth. The Liberals got off too easy for too long.

Obviously the election of a Tory government, even a minority, will mean that the federal role will be to push more of a market view of everything and less of a collective view. There is a tremendous amount the Tory government can do without a majority. I’m definitely scared for our foreign policy. Deep integration with the United States, which was already proceeding very fast under the Liberals, will go into hyper-speed. What the Tories will probably do under a minority scenario is push these policies under the guise of decentralization and provincial rights. Unfortunately the provincial governments, no matter what political party they come from, are always happy to take more money from Ottawa with fewer strings, that’s been precisely why we’ve seen the crumbling of our public centre, amidst all this wealth.

G: Do you think that problems with health care and education stem from a problem with our first past the poll electoral process?

AL: Some form of proportional representation is urgently, urgently needed for all kinds of reasons in Canada. I think that people are losing faith in democracy because they’re tired of a hollowed out and disappointing ritualized experience of democracy. We don’t have any democracy in our daily lives. We don’t have any democracy at work. We don’t have freedom of assembly or freedom of expression in our work place.

Our participation in the electoral system is a kind of ritualized voting performance every four or five years–or every couple of years if we’re in a minority government. I think proportional representation is needed to remedy people’s fading faith in the meaning of their own democratic participation. [Also] as a basic element of fairness, I think the figures and percentages of popular votes and seats of the house speak for themselves. I don’t think that proportional representation is any sort of panacea for saving social programs or for countering the effects of right wing economic policy. I think it will help. I think there are other reasons for doing it. I don’t put all my hope in it.

G: In the U of C federal riding, Rob Anders–the Conservative MP who didn’t even attend the debates on campus because he didn’t believe they were important–was elected easily. How much importance is placed on tuition at the various levels of government?

AL: The importance that’s placed on tuition is a direct reflection of how much students agitate. That’s all there is to it. Look at what happened in Quebec after [premier Jean] Charest’s government cut $103 million of post secondary funding. The students went nuts. They went on a really militant, creative, joyful, fantastically exciting six month campaign [with] massive marches. They released 103 white mice in Charest’s office, one for every million dollars in cuts. They built links with other groups in society and they just defeated the government. Not only did [the government] reinvest, they had to make a commitment for new funding for five years. I do believe that tuition is not an issue as long as students are not mobilized.

G: Do you think that agitation is the best thing that students can do to improve this situation?

AL: I’m in Lethbridge today. What’s happening in Lethbridge is really interesting, and I think, of national importance. For years there has been a campaign for a daycare centre on campus. It’s the only university in Alberta that doesn’t have a daycare centre on campus. It’s urgently needed and everybody knows it. They’ve been campaigning for years. When the group went to the administration last summer, they were literally laughed at by the university president when they raised the prospect of a university daycare centre. So they built links. They went and connected to other issues. They branched beyond just people with families. There were young guys, student union [representatives], and those who don’t have children, [who didn’t] see it as just as woman’s issue. They said this is a basic issue of fairness, of access for people in our campus community. They had this fabulous daycare action committee. They had an incredible rally where everyone wore red. They had almost 200 people. They got stories in the campus press. They got stories in the Lethbridge Herald. They followed up with letters to the editor. They just did some classic organizing and they built a consensus on campus. They built recognition over the issue and the university administration is responding. They did a feasibility study, starting practically the day after that rally that they had where they surprised everybody on how many people came out. It’s clear now that the momentum is there.

I spoke with a student union representative today, who met with the top three administrators of the university yesterday. They’re talking now about how to get it built, and how to get it done, rather than why it can’t be done. That is a turn around in an incredibly short time that just came through mobilization. That just came through classic organizing tactics. The students of the University of Lethbridge are going to prove that change is possible. There is an alternative and that the students are not apathetic. The students have power, when they remember they have power.

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