Tag Archives: money

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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The more things change, the more they stay the same

Canada’s pre-eminent public intellectual John Ralston Saul famously wrote, “The rising power of specialist groups increasingly ties this train to what is called utility. In order to attract money from and for these groups, universities are now reorganizing themselves to serve directly a variety of very specific interests. The thousand year struggle to create independent centers of learning and free thought is rarely mentioned.”

Much like the society Saul talks about, Alberta has began to reorganize its post-secondary education to serve specific interests.

Furthermore, Alberta has consistently proven in its budgets and in its actions that education is not much of a priority at all. One out of every three students in Alberta go on to attend post-secondary education out of high school, and overwhelmingly, the cited reason for not attending is affordability. This should come as no surprise as Albertans have consistently paid tuition that is among the highest in Canada. Last year, Alberta was rated third, behind New Brunswick and Ontario and in 2008 we were fifth.

While the Alberta government has complained about transfer payments and taxation, post-secondary education has consistently been de-prioritized and commercialized. Long gone are the days of glorified liberal education institutions. Learning for its own sake has been sacrificed to Rexall, Shell, and prominent banks. Instead of students lust after Stein, Meade, and Keohane, we see students entering university to get degrees to obtain jobs. Our government has consistently told students that debt is a four-letter word. That is unless it is in the form of student loans.

The mid nineties brought drastic cuts to all aspects of post-secondary education, as it did elsewhere. Universities were cut at the knees, and institutions responded in this new consumer-driven market by raising tuition, and hoping students could beg, borrow or steal enough to attend their institutions.

Students responded by increasing their student loans, by getting part time jobs while they committed less time to their full time studies, and by simply dropping out when times got too hard. The University of Lethbridge, like much of Alberta has a 30% first-year dropout rate, and once again the primary reason cited is affordability. When the average student is graduating with $25,000 in student loans, loans held by our federal and provincial governments, they are easily deterred.

Much like in the early nineties, students who cannot afford to continue their education due to impending tuition increases are looking at minimum wage jobs, if they can get a job at all. Alberta’s unemployment rates are increasing steadily, and now is the time to pursue education if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford it. On top of this, unemployment affects young people disproportionately.

Sadly, this last round of clear deprioritization and detrimental budget cuts is only shocking because of its herd-like behaviour; following the leader off a cliff. Duncan Wojtaszek, Executive Director of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) and a former student executive at the University of Calgary Students Union from earlier this decade commented “The province is passing its financial hardship to students in the form of new debt. The government was saying no area was sacred, but a $54 million dollar cut to scholarships and bursaries, not including the loan forgiveness plan was not communicated to students in any way.”

Wojtaszek’s experience with Alberta politics and post-secondary education funding is diverse and lengthy. Yet, this budget was an unexpected hardship, with Wojtaszek saying that this budget “disproportionately affects students.”

“Last time around the cuts were to the entire system, this time it appears that the government is passing off all their cuts to students in the form of student debt,” Wojtaszek continues. “Institutions are making it up through increased tuition and increased fees. All sacrifices are being aimed at students, whereas last time they were at the community as a whole.”

The precedent-setting cuts made in the early nineties when then-premier Ralph Klein was crowned king of this oil bearing land rippled out, and it put post secondary education institutions behind in ways they are still struggling to make up for. Crumbling classrooms, unmaintained buildings, and poorly conceived residence buildings are a result of slashed stable and renewable maintenance funding. Low-grade technology is the result of having to prioritize one thing over another, and, as the operating grants shrink our class sizes will balloon. Wojtazsek notes that “It is certainly evident that it will put us further behind, but what remains to be seen is if it is a one time blip or if they will be systemic and permanent.”

Anand Sharma, former Chair of the CAUS in 2002/2003 spent much of his time fighting the same issues that current PSE advocacy organizations are still fighting today in Alberta. He remembers “Institutions facing tough decisions, raising tuition consistently.”

“Already we have an issue with whose getting a PSE in this province. Those who want to go can’t go, and have to join the workforce to be able to afford it,” Sharma says. “People are entering PSE later and later. Government continually underfunds PSE, and our institutions are not working with students to really tell the government that what is happening.”

The priorities from the late nineties and early 00’s are the same ones student advocates hold today: maintain the tuition cap. This is so universities cannot raise tuition to pay their Presidents multi-million dollar retirement packages, and fight differential tuition so that universities cannot raise tuition in fields like law, medicine, and pharmaceutical science by over 40%, as proposed by the U of C and U of A. Sharma comments that, “ten years from now, the people who are going to attend are going to be the wealthiest whose parents can pay their tuition. Programs like medicine and dentistry will be even more expensive.”

The truth is that Alberta does a disgraceful job of ensuring their citizens are the best educated and that our economy is diverse and sustainable. This budget round, $54 million was cut from scholarships, bursaries, and grants. The Alberta Loan Relief program was scrapped altogether, a program that used to give students who couldn’t find high-income careers immediately the ability to defer their loan payments or have them forgiven if their financial situation was dire enough. Yet, as low-income students suffer, the government of Alberta can afford to fund another $100 million to Carbon Capture and Storage. Sharma’s statement that, “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the left or right, prioritizing education is a no brainer. It is a win-win for the economy or the province. It was very short sighted” rings true when we see this hegemonic and out of touch government remain in place.

The history of continual de-funding is embarrassing, and yet we seem to have learned little from it. Alberta has experienced a brain drain during even tougher economic times than this. Incredibly promising future researchers and intellectuals have gone to provinces that regulate tuition and ensure that accessibility and affordability are more than pretty words next to a slogan that rings hollow.

Last year, the Alberta government touted the phrase “knowledge economy”, this year the new phrase is “commercialization.” Primary research, intellectual freedom, and learning for the sake of knowledge seem closer and closer to being bygones. Library lights fall, residence buildings are vacated routinely for bed bug fumigation, and our class sizes have become bigger. Students, Albertans, and university administration need to tell our elected government that we want a province that is knowledgeable, and sustainable; not a province that sends our greatest minds elsewhere, as it has the last 15 years.

“The university needs to be champions for PSE and funding for PSE, and often they are appointed by the government and they don’t feel they can be as vocal. A lot of people don’t know until there kids have to go into PSE.”

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My one night for Homeless

Tonight I will be snuggling in tight with the five students who are sleeping outside for a week to raise awareness about homelessness and money for Wood’s Homes here in Lethbridge.

As much as I would love to have a hot meal and cups of tea all evening brought to me, I am fortunate enough to have access to those things every night. Tonight, please come by the shelter set up outside the ULSU building and bring me nothing but your change. Every little helps, truly it does and the goal this year is $10 000 for Lethbridge and I am really hoping that we as a community can come together to surpass that.

All donations over $20.00 are tax deductable and you can make donations online as well at the 5days.ca website. Myself and my three co-workers will post a blog on the ULSU blog site tomorrow morning about our experince (check it out at ulsu.wordpress.com) and I will hopefully be live tweeting our evening and my morning tomorrow. You can follow the twitter feed at twitter.com/JProssa.

By no means are we in a position to genuinely be able to understand what someone who is truly homeless has to go through as it is not just the physical discomfort but also the emotional and physiological discomfort and torment that goes along with having no place to live and no security. The societal problems overshadow the physical ones and this week is also about combating the stigma that homelessness carries as well as raising funds.

Please give, even if its just a little. The five students will be collecting donations and living outside until 5pm Friday so come by thier shelter with some change and some encouraging words and fight homelessnes.

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