Tag Archives: PSE

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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Celebrating this decade: ten momentous occasions in University of Lethbridge history

This decade has seen some incredible and historic moments. The Y2K bug/anti climax of 2000, the threat to North American security on September 11th, 2001, the rise of the China’s international political and economic power, the fall of the American economic system, climate change as a ever growing concern, Canada’s lowest voter turnout in 2008, and the political polarization that has occurred in European and South American states.

Living through the events in this past decade, and reflecting on the effect these events have had causes me to pause and marvel at our ability to adapt to new and different surroundings. The world looks very different today than it did in 2000. Old threats have diminished and new ones have emerged. Technology has boldly re-invented itself, and the age of social communication through sites such as Twitter, and Facebook have allowed our personal and professional relationships to draw new boundaries and consider greater fluidity.

The fall of capitalism, the major natural disasters we have witnessed, and the changes in our political and societal landscape are no small thing. This decade has changed the way everyone views the world. When everything can be taken from you in an instance, through no control of your own, suddenly baubles mean less. It is the intangible values, and the moments of happiness that we remember when looking retrospectively, not shiny presents of things.

The University of Lethbridge has undergone some major changes, both physical and psychological. We have grown in prestige and strength as a suburb undergraduate institution, and have expanded our physical presence in the Southern Alberta community tremendously. UofL have expanded their graduate studies programs, more students are enrolling and graduating than ever before from both graduate and undergraduate programs, and UofL is attracting world renowned talent to bestow their knowledge to UofL students, who will one day go on to surpass even the greatest.

In honour of the passing of this glorious decade, a harking back to the years before when “Jenn’s Top Tens” graced these pages; I present a top ten of the most momentous occasions in University of Lethbridge history:

On-Campus Daycare Center (2005 – 2010)

After a long and arduous process of constantly lobbying the administration, the University of Lethbridge reinstated the on-campus day care, promising to have it built as soon as possible. Luckily, this coincided nicely with a boom in our provinces’ resources, and soon the day care plans were under way and a committee was struck to deal with the detailed execution of the building.

This would not have been possible without the persistence of many people, some who are still here to see the fruits of their labours, and some who have since moved on but are no doubt celebrating in spirit. 2005, a rally was held to show support for on-campus day care and those who spoke and attended remember it well. Dr. Harold Jansen of the Political Science department extols as a “Great example of solidarity between undergrad, grad students and faculty.” Together, the entire university came together to show the need for this service on-campus, and the will of the community to make it so.

Fortunate to be able to attend the ground breaking last March, a feeling of overwhelming pride in the community I belong to rose up in me. I am proud of the incredible individuals who attended countless board of governors meetings, who presented solid arguments and who proved to the whole community that there was a need and support for an on-campus childcare center. I am proud to attend a school with lead by members of administration who continue to work to see this plan executed and deliver the tangible outcome of so many people’s hard work.

The day care is set to open officially in January 2010.

Womens Rugby CIS Wins (2007, 2008, 2009)

Our womens rugby team took the CIS National Championships three consecutive years this decade with a lot of hard work and effort. They expended their top notch training with ease and grace and secured this national honour three consecutive years running, the 2nd team in history to earn that title; proving that the pronghorns are indeed the fastest and toughest animal in North America and the University of Lethbridge truly has an athletics programs to shout about. Two time CIS Champion Allie Laurent remembers it is a shining moment in her UofL career, “Winning the universities second CIS national championship since men’s hockey won in 1993 and after only having a women’s rugby team for 7 years…then winning the next two years in a row to start a pronghorn’s rugby dynasty”. This is a feeling every UofL member can hold dear, off and on the field.

Polaris Prize (2009)

They call Dr. Bruce McNaughton the “20 million dollar man” and his decisions to join the University of Lethbridge Neuroscience program, bringing his excellent expertise and experience was very much a win for this university. Of course, the experience and first class facility he gets here was a rather large incentive for him. The Canadian Center for Behavioral Neuroscience welcomed Dr. McNaughton officially in 2008, and celebrated the achievement of securing the AHFMR Polaris Award, a research grant worth $10 million over 10 years, matched by Alberta’s iCORE research grant, giving an addition $10 million over ten years. Dr. McNaughton will be working with University of Lethbridge students on brain behavior, incorporating UofL knowledge into this innovative and groundbreaking research.

WTF?!/First Choice Savings Center – 2006

Yes, not the most glorifying moment in history for either the University of Lethbridge or the University of Lethbridge Students’ Union. After the students passed a referendum to partially, but substantially, fund the new sports and recreation center, the university thought it was fit to allow them to name the building.

Then came the infamous title “Witness the Fitness” or, WTF. Thankfully, the university axed that in favour of naming it after the second largest donor, a bank. Yes, this was the best anyone could come up with, naming the new world-class fitness center either after a bank, or a colloquial term primarily used by 12-17 year olds.

Notwithstanding the naming fiasco, the fitness center has had a major flooding incident, and was partially shut down for a period.

However, overall, with the steam rooms, the rock climbing center and that very sexy track, our First Choice Savings Center – or as it is more commonly know, the PE building, is something to be inspired by. It has aided in attracting many community members from around Southern Alberta to use the facility and interact with the university.

Uleth goes to space (2004 – 2009)

Dr. David Naylor, an astronomy professor has lead a team of both graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Lethbridge to provide a major contribution in the form of the SPIRE instrument, which was used in the Herschel mission, launched May 14th 2009. The Herschel mission is a mission designed to gather information about the universe, the deepest and darkest parts of the universe.

The SPIRE instrument is an infrared camera and spectrometer that can simultaneously look at an entire region in the sky. The UofL delivered the test model and technology to the missions’ headquarters in the UK, and was used for the first time in 2004 to qualify the early version of SPIRE.

Take that NASA, we do not just blow up parts of satellites to see what is going on.

The (new) Library Building (2003)

The building of the new library building was a huge achievement for the University of Lethbridge and allowed not only our holdings to increase, but also future technological changes to be implemented and installed with greater ease. Our library building is fantastic for a school of our size and the decisions to place it in the center of campus completes the student hub between the Students’ Union building, the PE building, and the library.

A 6% increase for Alberta’s post-secondary institutions base operating grants (2004)

The Advanced Education and Technology ministry of the Alberta Government made an incredibly forward and progressive decision in the mid 2000’s. They boosted the yearly increase to post-secondary institutions to 6%, from the traditional increase of 4%. With Alberta rapidly growing economy, and increase in expenses 4% a year was below the Alberta price index inflation adjustments.

Without this extra grant, it is unlikely that the University of Lethbridge would have been able to provide the $600,000.00 in Quality Initiative Program funding, invest financially in the plethora of new buildings, or attract the talent and knowledgeable faculty  members was have taken in over the past 5 years. While the Alberta government has told Albertans that PSE is not a budgeting priority in the fiscal crisis, it is important o remind them of all the good that was done and the benefit it has to Alberta’s students and Alberta’s knowledge economy.

Former ULSU President, Kelly Kennedy comment on this, “When the province started to give post-secondary institutions a 6% increase to base operating grant funding. They normally were given 4% increases yearly, which was generally below API. I doubt QIP and other construction would have happened if it wasn’t for this increase.”

Markin Hall, Stadium, Canadian Center for Behavioral Neuroscience center (CCBN), Water Building, and Turcotte Hall (2000 – 2010)

This decade the UofL built, with assistance from the student population, the provincial, and the federal government, six new buildings and substantially upgraded Turcotte Hall to enlarge and increase the modernity of our campus. This is an incredible feat in ten years, and has no doubt added to the quality of education for every student at the UofL.

Notably, the student body has shouldered a significant amount of the cost of these new buildings.

Poo Day (2008)

Who could forget this incredible day? November 4th, 2008, I know where I was. Sitting in my VP Academics office, hearing commotion outside and then learning that sewage line broke and level one of the Students’ Union building, a building that deals with high foot traffic everyday, is flooded with…well, poo. As this was clearly a health hazard, and the sewage and water system for the entire university had to be turned off to fix the broken line, every single person got the day off from all classes and mid-terms. Hence the affectionate given to this day by at Uleth’er: “Poo Day”.

Dr. Bill Cade, our illustrious leader for this decade.

The University of Lethbridge has been lead admirably by this President for the past decade; and under his leadership the University has lead the field in water and neuroscience research, expanded Liberal Education programming, increased the visibility of the Edmonton and Calgary campus’, and continued to display itself as a strong undergraduate university focused on graduating insightful and critical thinkers. As Dr. Cade is stepping down from the Presidency after this academic year, our institution owes a great deal of gratitude to the passion he has exhibited for the UofL. His Texas drawl, his office Chameleon, his obsession with crickets all give him the personality I think we will miss.

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Student engangement loses its sex appeal

Student engagement is the no longer the two sexiest words in post-secondary vernacular. All too often bandied about as a reason to do this or that, to spend this money or not spend any at all, the idea behind ‘student engagement’ has become almost meaningless. With students expected to pull A’s, work part time to support their academic career, maintain a semblance of a social life, and get involved in school activities it is no wonder that dark shadows grace many an eye and stress is palpable in the hallways.

At an institution, Students’ Unions are based around the very idea of an active and engaged student body and without such, these bottom up organizations would be fairly inconsequential. It is no wonder then that our very own Students’ Union, the ULSU, constantly fights the good fight, proving that our UofL students are active and responsive. At the very least, page twelve of The Meliorist proves that there is somewhat of a Chuck Norris loving – classmate call out – disgruntled roommate student community here.

Recently, there have been grumblings about newly placed barriers the University administration and the various departments within have put up to discourage club activity on campus and over all students ‘good times’. There have been significant changes in the attitudes the ULSU has taken regarding clubs and their vigilance to ensure that rules and regulations are being followed. Observing the number of events and the outstanding attendance for club activities, this is not acting as a deterrent to event organizers.

Speaking to Alex Masse, Vice President Academic for the ULSU, he commented on club restrictions, “Everyone at the SU thinks that clubs should be able to go out and have dinner at a restaurant, or help promote a concert, for example like the Headbangers want to do. Everyone wants to make it happen, but it’s on our books that it can’t happen.”

Student events have been increasing by both the ULSU and clubs at large. As well, events and speakers being brought in by the University of Lethbridge to engage students and community members at a more visceral level, an education outside of the classroom, continue to be of excellent quality and well attended.

Student engagement is not a one sided issue. It is not just a matter of students not caring, or not being interested in exploring new idea’s and paradigms. In fact, to believe in true student apathy is a disregard for the sacrifice students make to continue their education at a post-secondary institution.

The reality is, students are no longer just students. Students hold part-time jobs alongside attending full time classes. Financial restrictions place a greater emphasis on success in academics as well as time spent working to ensure rent is paid, food can be eaten, and tuition is forked over.

Tuition in Alberta continues to rise, worrying many that it will soon reach unaffordable rates. Albertan students now pay the third highest tuition in the country. A province that can afford to promise two billion to a green washing initiative sadly does not prioritize education to the same extent.

Those who are involved, especially those who work to advocate changes to post-secondary education, understand the pressures many students are under. Masse, “I do see where students are coming from when they do come across as being disengaged. Quite frankly, we are dealing with a campus where so many people are spending so many of their waking hours just trying to do well in school and then dedicating the rest to work. I don’t think that it is so much that students don’t want to be engaged, I think that haven’t bothered to care because they are already hurting from all the other burdens placed on them, because of the amount of actual paid employment students need in order to get through a degree without having a crippling amount of debt. It’s really hard to find the time to come out to hear such and such person speak about whatever topic, regardless oh how important it is.”

Students are engaged, and they do care. The continuous efforts being put into their academics and into ensuring they are financially stable enough to remain in post-secondary education demonstrates that. It is our institutions and our governments that need to prove to students that they also care, that the work and effort is noticed. Lowering tuition rates, ensuring there is adequate on campus housing, and fiscally prioritizing funding to post-secondary education will have a lasting impact on students and on their communities. Students will give back in volunteer time, in student engagement, and in making this campus a better and more vibrant community for all.

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