The Student Empowerment Project, created at the University of Calgary by second-year political science student Dave Beninger, looks to fight the recent provincial budget cuts to post-secondary education.
The Alberta government announced a 6.8 per cent decrease to post-secondary operational funding on March 7. On March 29, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Enterprise sent out the first draft of the post-secondary expectation letter, stating a “non-negotiable” plan for universities to streamline their programming.
The Student Empowerment Project held their first meeting on April 3 at the U of C and roughly 20 students were in attendance to share their insights on the provincial budget cuts and how U of C students can combat them.
They generated some ideas, such as poster campaigns, social media use and press releases to increase students’ knowledge of the cuts before the final mandate letters are sent by the government on April 10.
“Once in a generation cuts to education deserve a once in a generation response,” said Beninger.
Beninger said that these cuts are an assault on students and that the government is trying to balance the budget on students’ backs.
“When the government says they had no choice but to cut education, what they are really saying is they choose to tax debt-ridden students instead of corporations,” he said.
He started the project by rallying support through a mass email sent to students on campus. Beninger hopes to begin organizing a course of action against the province’s decision to slash university operating grants.
The Student Empowerment Project started immediately after the first draft letter of expectation was sent on March 29.
“It is a project to empower students with information on how they can respond,” said Beninger. “I really found a possibility for the Student Empowerment Project to step up and say, ‘No, we aren’t going to accept these cuts.’ ”
At this point, Beninger said students have been receptive.
“I’ve noticed a very positive reaction from students. I’ve noticed a very strange reaction from the administration,” said Beninger.
Beninger has been in communication with various groups on campus to spread the word about how students can work together to combat the cuts.
Beninger feels the Students’ Union and the university administration should be working harder to ensure students do not bear the burden of these cuts.
“I’ve been in contact with the SU and administration and I’ve felt like they both are just going to accept these cuts,” said Beninger.
Beninger said the university will raise tuition and fees in order to make up for the losses.
SU vice-president external Raphel Jacob said the SU is working hard to advocate on behalf of students in response to the cuts.
“The [SU] has been meeting with the university and government to ensure that the budget cuts will not reduce the quality of education or result in higher tuition or fees,” said Jacob in an email. “If the university implements increases or adds fees or market modifiers, the SU will engage the public and student body with our efforts.”
Jacob said the SU supports student initiatives that work to increase the student voice.
“We support all students and student groups, like the Student Empowerment Project, who are starting the discussion to create political change — particularly when we are working towards common goals,” said Jacob.
At town hall meetings on March 21 and 28, the university administration notified students, staff and faculty that the university will fall short of its projected 2013–14 operating budget by $47 million. However, the university is still in good financial shape to cover the losses. They also notified the U of C community that tuition and fees are not expected to increase due to these cuts.
“We need to empower students with information and then, as a group, come to decide what we think would be an appropriate, proportionate response,” said Beninger.
Beninger would not comment on whether he attended the U of C’s town hall meetings concerning the budget cuts.
Second-year U of C psychology student Samantha Withnell attended the first meeting of the Student Empowerment Project on April 3. She said she was happy about the number of students who attended.
“I was really glad to see how many people actually came and that they were all eager to talk about what students can do to make a change,” said Withnell. “We are not really getting a clear message from the university on what their plan is to deal with the cuts.”
Withnell has begun the process of reaching out to more students.
“A few of us have started making posters, making infographics to share on social media to educate students on what the cuts actually are and how they are going to affect students,” she said. “We need to get students together so that we are all informed and decide whether we should accept the cuts or not. We need to defend our rights to have access to education instead of being threatened.”