The Left comes out in force

By ├ćndrew Rininsland

Students and the public left out of the government’s advanced education review had a chance to speak up this week.

In response to the invitation-only nature of the provincial government’s A Learning Alberta post-secondary education consultations, Public Interest Alberta and the University of Calgary Students’ Union held an open forum Wed., Oct. 5 in MacEwan Student Centre. A panel consisting of PIA’s Executive Director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, U of C SU Vice-President External Jen Smith, U of C Faculty Association President Anton Colijn, Liberal Advanced Education Critic Dave Taylor and New Democratic Party MLA Raj Pannu listened as several members of the 40-person crowd shared their ideas, concerns and stories.

The biggest issues were the unholy trinity of tuition, student debt and student loans, about which not only several students spoke, but also several parents and educators. Many examples were cited of students carrying between $40,000 and $50,000 in debt after graduation, with many of the speakers in attendance acknowledging the high cost of education is not only a financial issue, but also an accessibility issue.

“A high-school teacher said less than 50 per cent of high-school students [at that school] go on to post-secondary education,” said PIA’s Executive Director Bill Moore-Kilgannon.”They feel their marks aren’t good enough or they can’t afford it. Look at the loss to society of not having these students be able to go on and pursue the dreams they have.”

Liberal Advanced Education critic Dave Taylor suggested post-secondary education should be free- as an extension of the public education system- due to the growing requirement of having not only a high-school certificate, but also a bachelor’s degree in order to get rudimentary jobs. Taylor also presented the idea of converting student loans to non-repayable grants.

“If your income level or the income level of those supporting you is below a certain threshold, say $30,000 or $35,000 per year, then what you get through the Alberta Student Loan program comes to you 100 per cent as a non-repayable grant,” said Taylor. “But if you’re making $40,000 a year and it’s deemed that you have the ability to pay some of this back, then we say ‘Okay, we understand that it will take $10,000 to get through this year of university, here’s $7,500 as a grant and $2,500 that you’re going to have to pay back.’”

SU Humanities Faculty Representative Julie Labonte left many in attendance shaking their heads as she detailed her personal experience of applying for student loans and how she has had to apply a minimum of five times before being approved.

Labonte also described how even with child support she needed to work three jobs in her first undergraduate year and is now working two in order to continue her education and support her step-son. This sentiment was echoed by other students in attendance, and also by Mount Royal College Anthropology instructor Dr. Julie Cormack, who said most of her students are working 20 hours a week and still taking four to five courses.

Also covered was the current degradation of the university environment due to lack of funding. Calgary Varsity MLA Harry Chase noted the university currently employs eight electricians when an institution of its size should have over 40. Labonte noted the front of the Earth Sciences building is “falling off.” Another student complained of mediocre computers and said some graduate students couldn’t even use their offices because of poor air quality.

Many participants complained of increased corporate funding within the post-secondary education system. Opponents said reliance on fundraising can cause bias and prevent research in areas not profitable to corporations. Furthermore, they argued researchers often cannot get public grants until at least one private grant has been secured.

“The problem is not that institutions are getting corporate funds,” said Cormack. “The problem is corporate funding is getting involved in the decision making process of publicly funded institutions.”

Furthermore, a faculty member from Bow Valley College noted how programs there are beginning to reflect the desires of the corporate benefactors.

“We’re having to offer programming of a sort that doesn’t really fulfill our mandate,” he said.

Other issues covered were union rights on campus and the perceived movement of the cost burden from the public to individuals.

PIA will present their findings at the Advanced Education Minister’s Forum Nov. 1-2.

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