The Alberta government doesn’t care about students. Premier Alison Redford made this very clear when the 2013 provincial budget decreased the University of Calgary’s operating budget by 7.3 per cent. After the budget was announced, her approval rating dropped by 26 percentage points. This particular cut came as quite a shock because Redford had promised a 2 per cent yearly increase to post-secondary operating budgets.
Any fiscally conservative government will make cuts. The issue now, however, is the response to these cuts, which has so far been overwhelmingly silent. Despite a few protests in Edmonton and Calgary, the general response has been apathy. A massive budget cut like this happens rarely, so our response should be equally thunderous. Despite U of C president Elizabeth Cannon promising that the budget cuts won’t affect tuition this year, students will soon feel the budget’s reverberation. In fact, staff associations at universities across Alberta warn that entire programs, and even faculties, may be cut due to lack of funding.
If you compare the few Alberta budget protests to the Quebec protests last year, Albertan students’ response has been inadequate. The Quebec protests had over 10,000 students taking to the streets of Montreal in opposition to the Liberal government’s proposed $1,625 tuition increase over five years. Current Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois cancelled the Liberal’s proposed hikes after being elected and instead proposed a tuition raise of one-fifth of the Liberal plan, or roughly $350 over five years. Although this was not the outcome many protestors hoped for — the day of the Parti Québécois’s announcement drew a protest of over 10,000 students — the result was a decreased tuition hike and proof that protests do matter.
Many Albertans met the protests in Quebec with abrasion. However, this shows a problem with Alberta’s ubiquitous sense of entitlement. The issue goes beyond the fact that Quebec students pay far less for tuition than anyone else in the country. The point is that they wanted post-secondary education to be more subsidized and available and fought hard to make these goals a reality. A common criticism of the protests follow the inaccurate logic of a blogger, who said “Quebec’s arts students are running wild, while the engineering, mathematics, insert money-making majors here are getting fucked over.”
I started my degree in engineering at McGill University, and decided it wasn’t for me. From there I switched into math, then transferred to the U of C and went into English and psychology, which are the degrees I will graduate with. The most important thing I learned in university was to think critically, ask questions and use my voice. The biggest difference I saw in the two institutions, however, was increasing distaste for arts degrees the closer I got to the oil fields.
Obviously, there is a great need and importance for engineers and businesspeople, particularly in Alberta. However, there must also be people who fight against the status quo, particularly when the status quo devalues things like education and the environment. That is not to say that individuals in professional faculties do not have this capacity, but that many arts degrees are based on this critical way of thinking. The biggest problem with university is that not everyone comes out with both a degree and a critical mind.
Yes, people with arts degrees may not make as much money as the average engineer or businessperson, but measuring degrees purely on their economic value is inherently wrong. With an enriching academic environment, people can grow into critical thinkers, question authority and start making much-needed positive change in Alberta, starting with fighting for our right to education.