Students, professors and faculty told the Klein government what they thought of the state of post-secondary education in Alberta in the election last April. Proposed budget cuts of five per cent per year for each faculty, crowded classrooms and annual tuition increases prompted students to elect three Liberal MLAs in the ridings surrounding the University of Calgary, SAIT and Mount Royal College.
Harry Chase is the MLA for the traditionally Conservative riding of Calgary Varsity, which includes much of the area surrounding the U of C campus. He attributes his election to a desire for change and he sat down with the Gauntlet to discuss the state of education at the U of C, and how his party will hold the Klein government accountable to its commitment to post-secondary education.
"The large number of students, the large number of professors, the large number of support staff there was very definitely a desire for change," said Chase of the Varsity riding. "People were tired of seeing the U of C cannibalizing itself."
Chase attributes much of his election success to last year's "I Vote" campaign. The campaign was a joint effort between the students' associations at SAIT, Mount Royal College and the U of C Students' Union, to encourage students to use their vote to send a message about PSE to the Alberta government.
Since Chase is so grateful for the U of C students and staff in his constituency who voted for him, he vows to represent PSE in the Legislature, beginning with pressure for adequate funding across all faculties. Chase is worried that cuts, like the five per cent per year budget cuts proposed by U of C administration last year, create inter-faculty competition, which hinders the creation of the best possibleEeducation system.
"It's great to have a wonderful engineering faculty," explained Chase. "It's important to have a fantastic medical faculty with research associated, but we're also very concerned about arts and science. We're concerned about cultural aspects of the university. We want to see all faculties working in a cooperative fashion and having that underlying financial support to operate."
"We want to have good philosophers, we want to have wonderful artists in addition to well educated engineers and medical professionals. We have the money to have it all. One shouldn't be at the expense of the other."'"Not only are there no opposition members on the committee there are no student representatives and as far as I know there are no faculty representatives," said Chase. "For example there is no support worker representation. There has to be representation from all parties."
Part of Chase's ideal independent review is a specific time-line for restructuring Alberta's system, including infrastructure deficits and tuition fees. This would include addressing access issues by increasing the number of seats in Calgary, and freezing tuition increases until the government creates a sustainable solution.
"The band-aid of this year and the bravado associated with it is 'if there's an increase send the cheque to us," said Chase of the Klein government's tuition freeze for the 2005-06 school year. "That's a one time, one shot, minimal addressing of a problem."
Part of the solution, said Chase, should be to give 35 per cent of the surplus to PSE. The provincial surplus was forecast at $1.2 billion in this year's budget and is now predicted to be $2.8 billion due to record high oil prices. Thirty-five per cent would mean almost $1 billion of extra funding into education, on top of the already budgeted amount.
Chase also wants the Alberta government to remember the past with the surplus. Before the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947, Alberta received transfer payments from Eastern Canada on a regular basis, and Chase believes part of the unbudgeted surplus money also has to be shared with other provinces.
"If we're going to lead the nation in terms of setting standards for education, for health care, for environment and so on, then we need to lead by example," said Chase. "We have to be willing, through the current transfer payment system, to share the bounty that we have."
Chase believes his election, and campaigns like "I Vote" are just the beginning of a new era of student political activism. Students are beginning to look beyond their studies, their faculty and their group of friends, to the political spectrum to get their voices heard and to spread the message of the importance of PSE, a message Chase said he hears loud and clear.
"Every dollar invested in post-secondary gives a nine dollar refund," said Chase. "If we're looking at Alberta's future it has to happen at the post-secondary level. That's the future--recognize it, fund it and you will reap the benefits of it."