As campus protests escalate surrounding the Israel-Gaza war, Ontario’s Bill 166 is not the answer

As university campuses in both Canada and the United States are witness to ongoing student protests against the Israel-Hamas war amid campus challenges negotiating free expression and protection from harm, some academics are expressing concern about an Ontario government bill the government says aims to ensure safety and support for post-secondary students.

Bill 166, the Strengthening Accountability and Student Supports Act, was first tabled at the end of February. It introduces requirements surrounding mental health and anti-racism policies at colleges and universities — and would give the provincial government powers over these. It would also grant the minister authority to issue directives about costs of attending college and university.

The Council of Ontario Universities says the bill would undermine university autonomy without pledging funding for the areas in concern, while duplicating existing efforts.

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As researchers concerned with equity in education, we believe this bill might increase censorship and impede academics’ ability to promote social justice and critical thinking on campus.

Students and other protesters are in a tent camp on the campus of Columbia University in New York on April 24, 2024.
(AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Government interference concerns

Concerns about government interference within post-secondary institutions is not a new conversation. In 2018, Ontario’s Conservative government introduced a campus free speech policy.

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The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities already holds significant power over the content of some post-secondary programs, for example, studies in early childhood education. Programs accredited by the Ministry of Training are provided with a program standard document and must adhere to this.

A person in a suit.
Jill Dunlop, Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities, speaks during a press conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto, Feb. 26, 2024.

While the proposed bill points to the importance of resources and support for students to address mental health concerns and racism on campuses, the policy is underpinned by ideas of accountability. These ideas are used to warrant sweeping government oversight of institutional policies.

The bill should be understood in a context where governments are using assessment and accountability metrics to exert influence over academic institutions.

‘Job readiness’

While universities are thought to value critical inquiry and progressive values, higher education is increasingly subsumed by corporate values. As government funding in higher education has decreased, market values of productivity and profitability have increasingly shaped expectations for universities.

Related to this is an increased focus on how higher education institutions can prepare students for the “real world” and workplace skills. This is a move away from the initial intention of universities as a place of academic inquiry and intellectual development.

The preamble to Bill 166 says “the Government of Ontario is committed to supporting a post-secondary education system that is healthy and sustainable” so students are “ready for the jobs and careers of today and tomorrow.”

These ideas of job readiness shift the purpose of higher education towards technical and trade-oriented ideas of job performance. This can have ramifications for marginalized communities who engage with academic inquiry as a form of social and political activism.

Students with tents.
A University of Southern California protester at the campus’ Alumni Park during a protest on April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

What is included in ‘mental health’?

While Bill 166 might present itself as protecting students’ mental health, it is important to note that mental health is a really broad construct. It can be used to protect the worldviews of privileged majorities and prevent critical or even potentially uncomfortable conversations from entering classrooms.

However, uncomfortable conversations and dialogue are an important part of growth, uncovering biases and learning about structures of oppression. Sometimes these conversations can require deep listening. This is an important component of maintaining universities’ autonomy as places of free speech and academic inquiry.

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When we discuss mental health, it is important to consider systems of oppression, housing and job security and think about the specific experiences of marginalized people on university campuses.

Faculty and instructors who teach social justice related content in their courses are far-too-often publicly critiqued and placed at risk for emotional or even physical harm due to how the content of their courses challenges many societal assumptions.

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Bill 166 says universities and colleges “shall have a student mental health policy that describes the programs, policies, services and supports available at the college or university in respect of student mental health” yet bypasses faculty and/or instructor mental health and well-being.

Universalized approaches can interfere

Bill 166 states that “every college and university is required to have policies and rules to address and combat racism and hate, including but not limited to anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Addressing racism and hate on campuses, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, is important.

However, universalized approaches could interfere with post-secondary institutions’ autonomy to address these issues in a fair and equitable manner. The Ontario Human Rights code already offers protection around race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship and creed for staff, faculty and students on university campuses.

The Conservative Ontario government has defunded the Anti-Racism Directorate, scrapped curricular initiatives on Indigenous education, undermined the Ontario Human Rights Commission and claimed that school boards are indoctrinating children around gender identity and gender expression. The prospect of this government’s increased interference on campuses raises concern particularly for racialized and marginalized faculty, staff and students.

Effects on dissent?

Advocates like Hamilton Centre MPP Sarah Jama say government encroachment over anti-racism policies on campus would be detrimental to Black, Indigenous and other racialized students.

Such encroachment could potentially silence faculty and students who support Palestinian independence or who critique Israel’s military assault on Gaza which many experts have said is genocidal.

Democracy Now video: Jewish students suspended from Columbia University after participating in Palestinian solidarity protests participate in a ‘Seder in the Streets to Stop Arming Israel’ during the second night of Passover with journalist Naomi Klein in New York.

Increased government interference in the research and operations of publicly supported universities jeopardizes the missions of universities as places of academic freedom and inquiry. In particular, theories and knowledge from marginalized communities, such as critical race theory, are often deemed “ideological” and biased by Conservative critics.

A person seen with banner 'stop funding genocide now.'
Protestors calling for a ceasefire in Gaza demonstrate during a visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the University of Victoria, in Saanich, B.C., on April 19, 2024.

Pushback to Bill 166

The question that must be asked is: What is the purpose of university? Who is it for and who does “free speech” benefit?

If, as a society, we are maintaining the original purpose of the university as a place of free thought, inquiry and critique, then universities need to be autonomous from political interference.

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