The changing face of student activism

By Katy Anderson

Tuition will cost you an extra 230 dollars next year for ten courses. In the recent past, tuition increases have stopped traffic and taken the shirts off students’ backs-literally.

The Alberta Post-Secondary Learning act requires universities to meet with their student associations before the final decision to raise-or not raise-tuition. In the past, students have often taken the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to a tuition raise through both active protests and bargaining with decision makers. However, the trend in Calgary is moving towards the compromise approach.

“The government has indicated what the universities can set as a maximum tuition increase and that’s based on our consumer price index,” said University of Calgary vice-provost students Ann Tierney. “This year, it’s at 4.6 per cent. Then, we meet with the heads of the Students’ Union, as well as the Graduate Students’ Association and talk to them about the university’s position with respect to the increases in tuition so that we can continue to offer quality education.”

SU president Julie Bogle strongly stated the SU did not want to see a raise in tuition and would vote against it at the Board of Governors meeting-the BoG has the final say in tuition. This year, the SU will focus on recommendations to make the student experience better.

“For the last 30 years, [both] people at the Students’ Union [and] students have been protesting against

the rise of tuition and for the last 30 years, the Board of Governors has felt the need to increase tuition,” said Bogle.

That’s where this new ap- proach really came out of, it was in response to the lack of effect that protesting in a traditional way has had in the last 30 years.”

However, University of Alberta Students’ Union president Micheal Janz is taking a different approach up in Edmonton.

“I’m well aware that they’ve done it for the last 25 years and they may do it again, but I have a half an hour there in front of the camera, and in front of these board members to tell the story of what the state of affairs is at this school,” said Janz. “I have to take that opportunity to ask them to be more critical of the government and the institution and to look between the lines and see what’s getting cut and see where our focuses are going. Are we becoming a research-intensive institution at the expense of our teaching? I believe we have.”

Janz explained that what may work in Calgary may not necessarily work in Edmonton, pointing to the difference in the relationship between the two SU’s and their respective administrations.

U of C SU vice-president external Mike Selnes noted that the SU over the last couple years has been lobbying the provincial government in a two-pronged approach–asking them to tie tuition increases to CPI, which has been accomplished, and a roll-back of tuition. Selnes noted that although this year’s SU mentioned the roll-back in pre-budget consultations with the ministry of education, it wasn’t a top priority for this year.

“The way we are activists has changed,” said Selnes. “I guess it’s more of a passive activism than in the past. There has been a change in the way that students are being activists but it’s unfair to say that students aren’t involved, that are involved in all sorts of issues, not just tuition.”

U of C professor Dr. Anthony Sayers explained there are two broad models of how you influence people, opposition or consultation.

“One view is that you give no ground and you hope that your threat is great enough to convince the other player to do what you want,” said Sayers. “The other one is you say ‘look, we’re giving up that threat approach, let’s work together to achieve a common goal.’”

Sayers noted that although there is not a lot of evidence suggesting that simple opposition is in effective, he said it can be, using the example of a university that, for some reason, particularly didn’t want students to protest. If the university was trying to sell itself as student-friendly, then the university may be willing to listen because they don’t want students to appear unhappy.

The U of C’s commuter campus is an obstacle in bringing people together around an issue, noted U of C professor Dr. Darren Lund.

“There is also the circumstance of the political climate in Alberta–it really doesn’t lend itself to celebrating protest,” said Lund. “There is kind of an apolitical viewpoint that we have where [we should] just be quiet and accept the way things are and we’re not really encouraged to question the government. We’re not really encouraged to raise tough issues in public. It’s almost considered bad manners in Calgary.”

Lund noted the atmosphere may permeate the student culture and pointed to the absence of a formal protest against this year’s tuition hike.

“Those kinds of creative protests are really effective at raising awareness,” said Lund. “We also need to do some good bargaining at the table and we need to have people in positions of power doing political work but those kinds of activisms that are designed to draw people’s attention to issues are so important.”

Not all Canadian provinces are moving towards the consultative approach. In early Nov., students in Quebec launched a protest in which over 100 students ended up being arrested. The protest was held in opposition to the province’s announcement that tuition would go up $50 per year for five years.

“On the face of it, $50 doesn’t seem like a make-or-break prospect but, on the other hand, there are other concerns that things are getting more expensive,” said McGill university professor Dr. Paul Carr. “It’s not just necessarily the $50 dollars, but there’s also books, there’s also other costs, there’s cost of living and if you are having trouble getting funding grants and loans and so on.”

This true cost of an education is something being stressed by the U of C SU president.

“We feel that there’s a lot that goes into the cost of being a student–it’s more than just the cost of tuition: things like parking costs, textbook costs, the cost of living in Calgary and accommodation,” said Bogle. “These are all things that have to be worked towards–making it better for students, a decrease in the cost for students–but tuition is just one component of the much bigger issue of affordability.”

Carr went on to note that the issue of protests over an increase in tuition raised the question of who should be paying for education. Quebec’s Association for Solidarity among Student Unions thinks it should be the province.

ASSU information secretary Marc-Andre Faucher explained last week’s protest was part of an ongoing movement on behalf of many Quebec universities and CEGEPs in order to advocate for free post-secondary education.

“The project of free education is to defend the right of free education universally,” said Faucher. “Twenty countries have free education and we want to put that forward, just because it’s not present it in North America we don’t think it’s impossible.”

Faucher explained there have been millions of dollars cut in Quebec in education and noted unfreezing tuition was a step in the wrong direction.

The discourse in the political sphere in Quebec is that students should pay for their education since it’s a service and they prosper from it, explained Faucher. The ASSU’s view is that society profits as a whole for education and education is a tool that society gives itself. In that way education should be paid for by society.

“To raise tuition fees hurts just the part of society which makes the lowest income,” said Faucher. “Free education really needs to be demystified. I think that by carrying out actions and by talking to the public it could [happen].”

Former U of C SU president Matt Stambaugh explained Quebec has the lowest tuition because students there have been very vocal about the role universities play in society, and there is a strong belief that money should never be a barrier for qualified students. However, Stambaugh stated it is not necessarily the role of students to advocate for lower tuition.

“It’s the role of student government to represent students and so it is very important for students’ unions to get a beat on the needs of the student population,” he said. “Sometimes that can involve leadership. A lot of time students are coming to university, maybe they’ve already been there for a couple years, and they’re not 100 per cent sure of what tuition levels are in other jurisdictions and what tuition levels should be. The Students’ Union should be full of leaders who can go out and clearly express their vision of what tuition should be and what roles universities should play in the greater society and then try to basically sell that image.”

Former SU president and an initiator of Quality Money–negotiated out of tuition consultation–Bryan West noted shortly after he came to the U of C he participated in many of the “giant protests” of Stambaugh’s year.

“There was a lot of student engagement that year and a lot of students felt that the Students’ Union was doing a lot, but unfortunately nothing really came out of it, the Board of Governors still raised tuition by its maximum amount that year,” said West.

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