Prioritizing post-secondary education

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Though not quite as effective as a carefully lobbed Molotov, students will have the chance to exercise their political dissidence and affect the quality of their education.

Perhaps the most important issue facing students when Alberta hits the polls Mon., Mar. 3 is financial accessibility of education. The cost of living and tuition are only getting higher. Not only does this make getting an education extremely difficult for some individuals, but it means a lot of students are spending valuable study time working.

Calgary-Varsity Progressive Conservative candidate Jennifer Diakiw pointed to the government’s rolled back tuition to 2004-05 levels and then tied it to inflation, capping the maximum amount universities can raise tuition each year. While this helped reign in the problem a bit, there is concern that it did not go far enough. Indeed, the provincial New Democratic Party proposes to lower tuition.

“We’d start by reducing tuition fees to their 1999-2000 level and fund a tuition freeze thereafter,” said Calgary-Varsity NDP candidate Tim Stock-Bateman.

The Alberta Liberal party, too, has a plan. They are committed to restoring the legislature’s control of tuition, thereby making the issue more accountable to the people of Alberta.

Calgary-Varsity incumbent Harry Chase explained the Liberal plan for advanced education involves the establishment of a post-secondary endowment fund from oil and gas revenues. It is estimated that this fund of up to $15 billion could generate $770 million extra per year to fund post-secondary education. An additional endowment of $500 million is proposed for the arts, humanities and social sciences.

“What these funds do is provide predictability and sustainability for the institutions,” said Chase.

Calgary-Varsity Alberta Greens candidate Dr. Sean Maw noted universities face a tremendous budgeting challenge, with a restricted income and unrestricted expenses. In order to create the best educational institution possible they need to spend a lot of money. Tuition is a necessary aspect of their financing. If they are not able to get money from government, it either has to come from students or other program funds. In order to allow Albertan universities and colleges to operate at a high level, the Alberta Greens would like implement a sustainable fiscal policy.

“Universities need better and more predictable core funding,” said Maw. “If their utilities go up, they know the provincial government can cover that.”

In addition to providing more funding for universities, it’s also important that the province contributes to student finances, explained Students’ Union vice-president external Mike Selnes.

“This would include lower interest rates on loans, increasing the number of scholarships and bursaries, and making more funds available to students,” said Selnes.

Stock-Bateman, Maw and Chase all noted it was important to aid student finances to make students less reliable on loans. They also supported the lowering of interest rates on loans, should they be required.

The other obvious issue is the cost of housing, an astronomical burden for many students. The Liberals propose to reduce or eliminate the property taxes for on-campus residence with the hope that it would encourage further development. The NDP also look to reduce the costs associated with housing by instituting rent controls and limiting the number of apartments being turned into condos. Alberta Greens, too, would place a focus on affordable housing. The Conservative party, during its recent tenure in power, had begun looking at an affordable housing option that was developed by the SU this past fall.

“They have a proposal for a residence that would not be on campus, that would be on a transportation corridor,” said Conservative Diakiw.

The residence would provide affordable housing for students at the U of C, Mount Royal College and SAIT. Selnes noted the previous government had agreed to look at it and that the SU would pursue the project with whichever government is in power a month from now.

The Alberta Greens expressed some very interesting ideas for making education more affordable.

“Co-op education gives you a better education and you leave with less debt,” said Maw. “The Alberta government could provide more incentive for co-op [programs], tax incentives to companies for taking co-op students. Certainly some [faculties] are easier to do it than others, but the University of Waterloo shows that it can be done across the board.”

Diakiw pointed out that under the Conservative government, PSE received around $400 million.

“That is a pretty solid investment,” said Diakiw. “Post-secondary education is very important. That is what we saw when the Premier was at the university the other day with the $97 million announcement.”

Others did not see the Conservatives’ gesture as sufficient.

“It was good, but it doesn’t address financial sustainability,” said Maw. “It was a gift and a band-aid. Ask yourself, why does the whole province get nothing for a year and then the week before the writ is dropped, the Conservatives spend money like drunken sailors?”

Some of this money was marked for infrastructure costs–in faculty buildings–but it doesn’t come close to the amount needed to maintain other areas.

“The university is into its 41st year of age,” said Chase. “It’s into its mid-life crisis and that is felt most in the dormitories.”

Selnes noted the deferred maintenance on residence buildings is currently one of the chief concerns of the SU.

Stock-Bateman explained the NDP is concerned about facilitating students’ ability to focus on their studies instead of forcing them to spend all their time working and stressing out about financial matters.

“It’s no different than sending elementary school students to school without having eaten breakfast,” he said. “We need to create environments in which students can excel.”

Chase noted that the Liberal party is also very concerned about this.

“They should be able to have the exclusivity of concentrating on their studies instead of working three or four jobs,” said Chase.

Diakiw noted the Conservative party, through the Access to the Future Fund, was encouraging private donors to give to universities. She mentioned that she was hopeful that the government would be able to begin matching donations now instead of waiting a few years to accumulate the money in the fund to do so. When asked about the fact that most private donations go to engineering and business, she was uneasy with the suggestion that other faculties specifically be compensated by the government.

“I don’t think that the government wants to get into a situation where it is dictating to the university where it should spend its money,” said Diakiw.

Other candidates were more eager to suggest that there should be compensation for the uneven distribution of private money.

“Every faculty has the right to the same minimum standards of education,” said Maw. “If some faculties can attract more funding, good for them, but that should not be at the expense of minimum standards being met in all faculties.”

Another important issue raised was the ability of students to vote in the coming election. The polling station that was in MacEwan Student Centre last election will no longer be there. Instead, the on-campus voting station will be at the student residence. There is concern, as well, about the requirement that students vote where they receive their bills.

“The way it’s set up, it decreases the MLA’s responsibility to the students in the riding,” said Stock-Bateman. “If students could vote en masse, it would be way easier to control things like tuition increases. The voice of the students matter and you should have the ability to vote where you spend your time.”

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