Last week, as the temperature outside dove well below zero, I shuffled across campus to make my way to Convocation Hall to witness the naming of the next President of the University of Alberta. Inside the historic building, the room was warm with excitement as the Board of Governors Chairman Doug Goss welcomed Dr. David Turpin to our province and to the University of Alberta.
We have a new Premier. We have a new Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education. We have a new President. As each develops his views and sets his priorities, we have a brief window of opportunity to remind our leaders that if our post-secondary institutions are going to attract talented students, and provide the highest quality of undergraduate and graduate education possible, they need adequate funding.
If the government doesn’t step up to provide funding to post-secondary education institutions in this province, their increasing costs will likely fall on the backs of students. In every debate I’ve had with individuals who oppose the actions of the University of Alberta’s Students’ Union–which is proactively opposing any future tuition increases–they’ve used the amount of funding Albertan institutions get compared to our counterparts in other provinces, the scholarships available to students, and the availability of student loans as their defence. However, I see contradictions in each of these statements.
It is not enough to cite the funding other Canadian provinces give to education to show that we’re better than some. If we truly want to have a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind, best-in-the-world post-secondary education system, we should be trying to raise the bar for all post-secondary education in this country and others if we really want to be in a class of our own. We can’t lean on scholarship and student loan availability to claim that our system is affordable. Scholarships are meant to recognize and reward students who are doing outstanding work, not to make up the gap in funding our government is failing to fill. Student loans do not solve the problem either; they merely let students defer the issue of affordability to an uncertain future. If anything, reliance on student loans and limited, highly sought-after merit scholarships is an indicator of unaffordability.
We can’t say that we want the best students in the world when the price tag makes higher education completely inaccessible to some. This sends the message that we actually want the best students who either have enough funds or are willing to quietly tolerate the risk of substantial student debt. It would seem that our “public” education is less and less for our public.
If we truly want the best students, we should be making education as accessible as possible. In a recent statement to students the University of Alberta Students’ Union President, William Lau, highlighted how the government has emphasized the importance of the quality of post-secondary education. If the government wants us to have world-class post-secondary education, they should be providing quality funding for quality education. To demand more from institutions without providing more, forces our institutions to find ways to creatively make up the difference. And in the past, the extent of universities’ creativity has been to shift the burden to students through new and increased fees.
In recent months we’ve had a change of government in Alberta and the work that has been done so far has been promising. Premier Prentice has cleaned house, addressed issues with seniors care, and made promises for primary education. Yet we haven’t heard anything concrete about post-secondary education. Now is the window of opportunity for our government to step up and work with our institutions to build trust and restore funding, our window of opportunity to raise the bar for post-secondary education not just in Alberta, but across the country.
I have sat back in the past few weeks and carefully observed debates from student government representatives, from University administration, and from elected representatives. There are rumours that our institutions will have to once again bear the weight of funding, which, once again, will leave students bearing the weight of extraordinary debt and post-secondary education costs.
The Council of Alberta University Students has organized a”Rally to Prioritize Post-Secondary Education” at the Legislature grounds tomorrow, Monday November 17th, meeting at the University of Alberta Quad at 1:00pm then at the Legislature at 2:15pm. The intention is to remind the government that we are here, we are important, and if we are going to have a stronger province we must prioritize post-secondary education. I will be going to support my peers, to support a better relationship between our education system and the government, and to show that I care. I encourage all who can to join us.
And to those who have told me that raising our voices is not a good idea, I will remind you that change rarely happens quietly. To those who have told me that this rally should wait until after the government announces what they will do next, I ask: do you want to be proactive, or regret not doing something after the fact? To those who have told me that increasing tuition isn’t that bad, I suggest speaking to some of your fellow students to understand the challenges they are facing. Empathy is good for you and for all of us.
Banner Image Courtesy of the University of Alberta Students’ Union