Wherever Alberta Liberal leader Ken Nicol goes educating students on electricity deregulation, the conversation inevitably turns to post-secondary issues.
Nicol has been traveling from university to university this summer, talking to students about electricity deregulation. His current campaign criticizes the Alberta government's deregulation initiative. According to Nicol, electricity marketers are telling consumers if they don't sign a contract they will not have electricity. Even without a contract, there's the default regulated rate option. So Nicol feels students may not know their options.
"The real catch for students is, for most of them, they won't stay at the same address for the life of the contract, because they're being offered three- to five-year contracts," explained Nicol. "Students usually move to get a job in the summer or from one year to the next with [roommates]. So make sure your contract is transferable."
As with every campus media interview Nicol has done, he says the questions have turned from deregulation to post-secondary education issues. During the spring session, the government introduced a new bill which updates and combines four existing post-secondary acts into one act which will govern all post-secondary institutions in Alberta. Opposition leaders and student leaders have strongly criticized the new bill.
"Bill 43 is the government's next step in hamstringing the education system," disapproved Nicol. "They're putting limits on what the institutions can do. They're uncapping tuition fees which downloads a lot of the cost they're not willing to pay onto students."
A section of the bill allows independent audits of student bodies, and if any wrongdoing is found, the government could potentially dissolve student governments. Nicol believes this could happen to democratically-elected bodies given the government's history where all Calgary Board of Education trustees were dismissed in summer of 1999. However, Nicol doesn't think this will stifle students' unions.
"If you want students to do something, tell them they can't," said Nicol of his experience as a university professor. "Challenge them by limiting what they can do and they'll take you to the limit on it. If the government was to disband one student body, I think all that would do is rally many more students to take their place."
Nicol doesn't see any relief in sight with regards to high tuition fees. The proposed Bill 43 will move the 30 per cent tuition cap from legislation to regulation. Nicol also sees no restriction on differential fees. Overall, he believes lower-income individuals will be less likely to choose a post-secondary education.
"Low income Albertans are not as accustomed to thinking about investment return," said Nicol. "Investing in your education, you'll get a return from higher salaries later. They are risk-averse, they don't want to put themselves in a debt position. So you're going to see parents not supporting children who want to go into the professional [faculties] because of the very high tuition."
Nicol does not foresee a healthy future for post-secondary education.
"The government touts the TD study that says Alberta's Calgary/Edmonton corridor is an economic miracle of the world," said Nicol. "That very same report chastises the government for cutting education because we're cutting out the knowledge that keeps that running. If we don't have the scientists, technologists, researchers that support that, where will we be in the future?"