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Mapping a Freedom to Learn: Why Students Must Maintain Their Right to Organize on Canadian Campuses

Our contemporary university and college campuses are sites of great transformation these days. Corporate donors are driving academic programs and research projects, governments are clawing back funding, and students are increasingly treated as consumers of education. These shifts have led to concerns about how academic freedom can be honoured when universities subscribe to a business model rather than the democratic governing structures fought for by faculty and students in the 1960s.1 The consumer model of education is damaging students’ ability to collectively engage in their spaces of learning on Canadian campuses. This is why it is so important to revisit the purpose of higher education, and to assert the conditions under which we can realize its goals.

The purpose of higher education is to foster independence of mind and critical thinking for the greater common good.2 “Freedom of inquiry” rests at the core of academic freedom. Historically, academic freedom contained two components: Lehrfreiheit (the freedom to teach); and Lernfreiheit (the freedom to learn). But the freedom to learn, or student academic freedom, made few strides in North America.3 Nonetheless, students organized effectively to establish student unions and to gain representation on university governance structures where they have established an effective collective voice in collegial models across the country. It is this collective representation that has most effectively enabled faculty to implement safeguards for academic staff in Canada. Through the power of collective bargaining and other associational activities, academics in Canada now have the principles of academic freedom secured in their working conditions. However, students likewise require associational protections to effectively participate in the discourse shaping their learning conditions.

Unfortunately, only two provinces4 in Canada have legislated associational protections for student unions, including their right to fee collection, access to membership lists, and other protections ensuring their right to organize5 autonomously from the scrutiny of their respective university administrations. Ontario, which contains a large proportion of Canadian universities and colleges, has no legislation protecting students’ right to associate — a fundamental freedom in the Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This has led to disturbing incidents on Ontario campuses in which student unions and administrations have disputed students’ rights to association. In 2010, Carleton University, for example, withheld student union fees as they attempted to negotiate away expressive and associational freedoms in a memorandum of agreement.6 These are now subject to university guidelines which entitle the university to withhold fees from student unions they deem to have “significant constitutional or procedural irregularities”.7 In 2003, the University of Toronto intervened to halt the collection of student fees from three campus student unions because they disagreed with the results and processes of a referendum on membership in the Canadian Federation of Students. They then withheld over two million dollars in student association fees.8 In recent years, the University of Toronto provost has indicated an interest in modifying guidelines on student fee collection by alluding to possible changes allowing students to withdraw from their associations9 despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed, in the labour context, compulsory association as a necessary component of associational freedom.10

In Australia, the disastrous effects of student union voluntarism legislation implemented in 2006 have resonated quite significantly on the student experience. The legislation has become widely unpopular and has become subject to review. A study released in 2008 reported that the legislation had led to a loss of funding for campus groups and core services offered to students on campuses, including a reduction in athletics, recreation, and social and cultural activities.11

Students unions applauded when legislation was tabled in Ontario to recognize the independence of student unions from university administrators. On Tuesday, April 19, 2011, Bill 184, the College and University Student Associations Act, was introduced to the Ontario legislature, proposing to enact legislation:

[To] recognize the autonomy of student associations at post-secondary educational institutions, to provide for the good governance of student associations, to require accountability of student associations to their members, to promote collaboration and agreement between student associations and post-secondary educational institutions and to ensure the collection and remittance by post-secondary educational institutions of fees levied by student associations. (Bill 184, College and University Student Associations Act)12

The bill seeks to clarify student union autonomy and accountability to its membership in Ontario. It further stipulates fee collection remittance by universities for student unions. The act, if adopted as legislation, would greatly assist in leveling the power relations that currently exist between university administrations and student unions. Unfortunately, the bill will not be considered for enactment since the writ for the provincial election has been dropped.

The protection of student learning conditions is significantly linked to the right of students to associate independently of administrative or government interference. In order for students to work closely with faculty and staff associations to uphold democratic principles in higher education, free of corporate interference, with the ultimate goal of academic freedom, student union-busting must be deterred. It is by vigilant protection of these rights, as eloquently stated in the University of Toronto’s Statement of Institutional Purpose13 that students will continue to support higher education in order to achieve goals working towards a common good.


1 Horn, Michiel. 1998. Academic Freedom in Canada: A History. University of Toronto Press: Toronto. ^

2 Finkin, Matthew H. and Robert C. Post. 2009. For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. Yale University Press: New Haven. ^

3 Horn, 1998. ^

4 In British Columbia College and Institute Act. [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 52 and University Act. [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 468; and in Quebec An Act respecting the accreditation and financing of students’ associations. R.S.Q., chapter A-3.01 ^

5 Canadian Federation of Students Right to Organize Policy: ^

“All students have the right to organize and participate in democratic, autonomous student organizations which responsibly represent all students on their respective campuses.

“All student organizations have the right to:

  1. access their membership lists, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers;

  2. incorporate, independent of the institution’s administration;

  3. access all technical services, such as printing services, audio-visual services, and computer services, which are available at the institution;

  4. sufficient, on-campus office space without charge;

  5. participate in political actions such as boycotts, walkouts, demonstrations or strikes without fear of recrimination;

  6. have their fees collected by the administration when properly authorized by the student organization;

  7. publicize their activities in reasonable places; and

  8. independent media services.”

6 For more information on this matter, see ^

7 Governing Council of the University of Toronto, Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, ^

8 “University slams CFS Referendum: Admin Cites Problems in Vote”, The Varsity, Feb 27, 2003, ^

9 “Provost’s Advisory Committee Suspended: Students Given Ultimatum to Declare Participation” The Varsity, December 4, 2008. ^

10 Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, [1991 2 S.C.R. 211, 81 D.L.R. (4th). In this ruling, it states: “An opting-out formula could seriously undermine the unions’ financial base and the spirit of solidarity so important to the emotional and symbolic underpinnings of unionism”. ^

11 Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) Impact Study, Jointly commissioned by ACUMA Incorporated and Australian University Sport, 2008, ^

12 Bill 184, College and University Student Associations Act, Government of Ontario ^

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