Take to the streets: Student activism rises again

This year, budget makers in America and Canada seemed to have forgotten their humble beginnings. Post-secondary education saw massive cuts, both to operating grants for institutions and in research dollars, maintenance funds, and student funding. Scholarships, grants, bursaries were all depreciated, leaving low income students little choice but student loans, third party loans, or dropping down to part time status to be able to work while obtaining an education.

Students across North America are not taking these cuts lying down. In effect, they are causing a perfect storm. In America, students across the states are protesting to their elected assemblies. Monday March 15th, students in Georgia came together to tell lawmakers that they vote, they are educated, and they are articulate. Georgia has 35 public institutions, and some students awoke at 5 a.m. to drive to attend the rally at the capitol city.

Idaho students are being hit hard. Tuition increases of 50% in just one-year means greater stress on economic resources and of course all the ill effects that come with. By the current 2010 budget, state funding remained $78.8 million, while student fees climbed to $84.5 million. This is a sharp contrast with Alberta PSE practice, which is that student tuition cannot make up any more than 30% of the total institutions operating budget. The keyword there is tuition, other fees can increase by as much as the institution or the students will allow. Idaho students came out to protest on March 11th, a small but vocal contingent.

Florida and California are the states setting the bar for university activism, with Florida universities pushing students hard to make their voices known on March 24th, a day of action to be held on the steps of the Capitol. California, though, is where the jam is really happening. Students are working with faculty and staff members, shutting down their campuses and basically throwing a highly sophisticated and intellectual tantrum.

Every lawmaker, be they Canadian or American has issued very similar public reactions. Yes, cuts are being made but that does not mean that students will have to bear the brunt of the cost saving measures. It does not necessarily mean increased tuition; it means that institutions will have to re-evaluate their spending habits. Alberta’s own Minister of Advanced Education and Technology, Doug Horner, has said something very much to that effect both to the public media and to students in private meetings. This is an incredibly short sighted and irresponsible response, in this writer’s opinion.

By cutting research funding, universities are forced to find ways to fund expensive but well publicized research projects, such as our own $20 million man. If that funding dried up, I would be hardly surprised to see the U of L make cuts somewhere to ensure Dr. McNaughton could carry on with his work at the CCBN. U of L’s name is riding on the success of high profile academics such as Dr. McNaughton and the many others who are well published and academically visible. Sometimes, this comes at the cost of providing support to professors who are less funded, and have more trouble receiving the increasingly elusive grant funding.

I’ve been in university for six years this April. In six years I have seen tuition increase, fee referendums pass and fail. I have seen buildings built, a much-needed daycare open, and countless student organized and directed events.

I have also had the amazing opportunity to work as a student advocate, representative, and activist. Campus – community radio was and has been my dig for the past six years, and I have seen the power the medium of radio can employ. I have hosted a sex talk show, a news program, and a music program featuring independent artists locally and across Canada. Most visibly, I have been elected to serve as a public official to represent students within the university community and to the provincial government. I have also had the great pleasure of writing for the on-campus publication, The Meliorist, since 2006. All of these experinces have thrust me, sometimes unknowingly, into student activism.

Students are notorious for their activist ways. Despite the increasingly used label of “apathetic,” students are proving this month both in Canada and the U.S. that this is far from the truth. Here in Alberta, students province wide will be attending a rally planned by the University of Alberta on the steps of the Legislature building March 18th to physically show the government that these cuts are hurting students, and students are no longer going to be able to handle the burdens they are forced to bear. This comes after months of individual protests at institutions across the province, and several Alberta wide campaigns planed by organized advocacy groups.

Students are whipping up a perfect storm, the question is though, what will they do with the commotion they created after the winds die down? How effective will this protesting, rallying, and general rabble rousing be? Will lawmakers in the U.S. and Canada hear the cries and reverse their cuts? Will institutions recognize that without students, they are reduced to commercial research entities pumping out name brand pharmaceuticals?

Student activism has led to revolutions in the past, but this is not the generation of the 1960s. We are students, in the here and now, facing issues in the here and now: climate change, student poverty, lack of housing, and de-prioritization of post-secondary education.

War protests still occur, and some get a great deal of media attention. However, protesting is only one part of student activism now. After the protest, students must keep going, keep trying to meet with their MLA’s and their MP’s, their congressman, and their political leaders. They must keep sending letters, and they must keep talking to institution’s administration. Students must keep working, because it is not a solitary action that will change anyone’s mind.

If all else fails, students and activists need to run for office and turn it inside out. Forget trying to work within the system, change it.

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