Reignited spat with CFS a pretext for defederation

Photo by Carolyne Kroeker

If nothing else, the University of Manitoba’s Students’ Union’s (UMSU) latest foray with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has shown the UMSU executives are in over their heads.

At the CFS’s November national general meeting (NGM), UMSU proposed a motion for CFS to adopt a new policy on international student tuition increases. The motion was out of touch with other province’s policies on tuition fees and completely contrary to some of CFS’s core principles. The UMSU executives’ response to the motion not being adopted, but tabled, was nothing short of childish.

Here’s the motion:

“Be it resolved that notwithstanding current policy on tuition fees, the federation amend the existing policy stance on international students to include advocacy for a mandate to lock international student fee increases to the same percentage as domestic students.”

As it stands, the motion does not apply to every province in a meaningful way. Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan have deregulated tuition. Ontario tuition increases are capped at three per cent. Manitoba, for the time being, has regulated domestic tuition increases capped at the rate of inflation. Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta have tuition freezes.

Lobbying for a policy that has vastly different implications in different provinces does not make sense for the CFS or international students.

UMSU’s motion called for CFS to change their policy manual – which currently calls for the national union to advocate for the complete elimination of tuition fees – to not only support tuition increases, but differential fees between domestic and international students. Differential fees result in international students paying more than triple what the same classes cost domestic students on average. Courses at the U of M in university 1, arts, fine arts, and the Asper school of business are 3.8 times more expensive for international students.

Since forming in 1981, the CFS has opposed tuition fees, seeing them as a financial barrier to universal access to post-secondary education. Free education for all students, regardless of where they were born or hold citizenship, is central to the federation’s mandate. On Nov. 2, not a full month prior to the NGM, CFS coordinated a day of action against tuition fees.

The federation has also won reforms for international students who face barriers beyond tuition fees and unpredictable hikes. Indeed, the CFS has won key victories for international students by lobbying for legislative reforms both provincial and federally. Across Canada, international students have gained access to working visas to help mitigate tuition and living expenses, and starting in 2012, international students in our province have been eligible for coverage by Manitoba Health.

On the tuition front, CFS-Manitoba has also been leading a campaign against the financial exploitation of international students. Ignited at the U of M following the administration’s 2015 tuition hike for international students, the “International Students are not Cash Cows” campaign continues the resist the mistreatment of international students.

It is incomprehensible to think that the CFS should compromise its stance on tuition fees.

UMSU’s motion was never about international students. UMSU has had a tense relationship with the CFS since Al Turnbull was elected president in 2013. Since that time, UMSU has only recently remitted almost $1 million in outstanding fees to the federation, has opted out of the CFS’s not-for-profit Greenshield health coverage (a move leading to a more expensive plan that covers less), and has failed to stand with CFS consistently in opposition to tuition fees and student debt.

Quite frankly, it seems UMSU’s motion was an attempt to allow CFS critics to denounce the federation for not caring about international students. After the motion was tabled, Tanjit Nagra and Adam Pawlak blasted the CFS on Twitter.

By playing politics around UMSU’s actions and the federation, the executive may be trying to position the federation as an ineffective waste of money.

This kind of pointed rhetoric has its use. While UMSU has barred CFS services on campus in the past and has not participated in campaigns, executives are now manufacturing a new reality where the CFS is portrayed as not benefitting UMSU members. Thus, a de-federation referendum can be justified.

This latest skirmish shows UMSU representatives have no interest in cooperating with the larger student movement, especially when the executives deem demanding an apology from CFS executives a worthwhile exercise for the council. This only continues a pattern that has shown to be costly to UMSU members.

Students at the U of M should take time to do their own research into the CFS. Based on what they’ve heard, they may be surprised to know how much great work they’ve done with international students.