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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Smarten Up

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday April 2, 05:40 pm
Post-secondary education needs a fundamental shift in philosophy

On March 24th hundreds of students and a few broad-minded faculty-members gathered in front of the Peter MacKinnon Building at the University of Saskatchewan to oppose austerity and tuition. Signs reading “We are students, not customers,” “University is not a corporation” and “Degrees not Greed” sprouted up (as well as some less-articulate efforts, such as a sign reading “Shit” and a little rudimentary ukulele playing).

The rally was timed to coincide with the Revolutionary Student Movement's Pan-Canadian Day of Action. In 14 cities across Canada, thousands of students skipped their morning classes, grabbed a Starbucks mochaccino latte and rallied to demand a post-secondary academic system that is focused on social benefit over private interest.

Although the day of action has concluded, their work is far from over. Mobilization Committees (MCs) have been created on campuses across the country to start demanding changes to our universities. At the University of Saskatchewan, tuition costs have risen 3.3 per cent over the last year, with an average Arts and Science student paying close to $6,000 in annual tuition. At the University of Regina, tuition this year has risen by 3.8 per cent. Saskatchewan has seen the highest tuition fee increase in Canada.

Amanda Bestvater and Mairi Anderson (members of the local MC, organizers of the Day of Action, and students themselves) say it's time to start rethinking the standards of institutional education.

“We’ve grown very complacent to the idea that low taxes and free capital are the ways to a good society. We are trying to say that that's not necessarily true, and it's certainly not inevitable. Fundamentally it's not working, and it's time to try something new,” says Anderson.

The student movement has seen some degree of success in Québec: students in Montréal, despite opposition from the police and hundreds of arrests, have been successful in freezing tuition. Students there have been protesting regularly since 2012.

“Montréal had over 10,000 students come out to the [Day of Action] rally,” says Bestvater. “They've been able to keep the tuition freeze, and so we hope we can make some of these changes too. We hope universities begin feeling pressure as students across Canada start taking this seriously.”

The MCs are looking to adopt something similar to the socialist education model that many countries in Europe have implemented. Sweden, Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Germany, for example, all offer tuition-free education, while France offers education with extremely low tuition rates. With the success they've seen with these models, the committees in Canada believe free tuition here is a feasible goal.

“Some places [with free education] have higher taxes for citizens or for corporations,” says Bestvater. “Our government has a pretty strict laissez-faire model of no taxes for corporations. We think with a very modest increase of taxes for the many multibillion-dollar transnational corporations in Canada, that [free tuition] would be quite simple.

“Additionally, in the last ten years our administration [at U of S] has bloated over 100 per cent, while our student body has grown only 11 per cent. There's also questions like: does the president of our university need a higher salary than the prime minister of Canada?”

(The president of the University of Saskatchewan has a salary of $400,000. That's a lot of tuitions — or mochaccinos.)

But the proposal for free education in Canada also has its share of detractors, who believe that taxes will balloon and that nothing is truly free.

“If you look at some of these other countries that offer free education, like Finland and Germany, even some countries in South America, there’s not this big loss in capital,” counters Cale Passmore, an organizer with the MC and a grad student at the U of S. “In a lot of these countries you actually see a rise in capital, a rise in productivity and sustainability.”

Passmore points out that this is a multi-layered issue, and their focus is far broader than just abolishing tuition, although many media outlets have fluffed off the issue as being simply an anti-tuition rally.

Across Canada, the mobilization committees have come up with five demands. They include open access for everyone to post-secondary education, increased funding for aboriginal Canadians and abolishing boards of governors at post-secondary institutions in favour of a more representative, democratic body.

“The options for indigenous people are severely limited by their inability to attend university, which is very much an offshoot of colonialism,” says Bestvater. “The eradication of social problems, things like racism and sexism, depends on education. People need to study them, understand them and develop strategies for countering them. These things won't change without widespread education, and widespread education won't happen while these barriers exist.”

“That's why these five points go hand-in-hand,” says Passmore. “A focus on free tuition has to be to focus on decolonization. We need a systemic restructuring. Education not only affects the top 10 social determinants of health, it's central to social mobility. So if our current model of education requires taking on greater amounts of debt while relief from that debt is less accessible, not only is social mobility less possible but education becomes a risk to one's health and well-being. For our already inadequate treatment of the underprivileged, this prospect is unacceptable.”

Unfortunately, with so much change on the table, and with students challenging the norms of our educational system, the institution’s leaders remain absent.

“We invited [U of S] President Barnhart and he did not attend. I think it's indicative of how much administration really sees the necessity of these changes. One thing we’re calling for here is a fundamental shift in values, and if our administrators don't come to listen to our values, then it seems like it's going to be a much longer process,” says Bestvater.

And there’s more bad news, as Premier Brad Wall recently announced a revision to the Graduate Retention Program. Now, university graduates, rather than receiving cash refunds, can apply for a tax credit if they meet the minimum income threshold. The change will save the government $30 million.

Julia Quigley, U of S grad student and activist, says that Wall's GRP revision dramatically complicates her life as a student.

“For people like me who have come to expect that cash each year, it can throw our finances completely off; I'm now looking for alternative means of making ends meet, including working more throughout the school year, which could impact my academic performance, and going further into student debt,” says Quigley.

Previously, refunds helped students in the few years immediately following graduation. Now, the changes mean graduates only benefit from the program once they make a taxable income, and the maximum tax credit can't be accessed until you make over $40,000 a year — exactly when you no longer need help, says Quigley.

“The GRP was an extra incentive for me to further my education in hopes of someday finding myself in a viable career. The provincial government has done a poor job of funding higher education — it isn’t affordable, and is no longer a ticket to reasonable employment. The GRP helped alleviate some of the financial pressure the provincial government has placed on students. Without that help, the costs of going to school and struggling to find employment might outweigh the benefits.

“Wall has failed to see that Saskatchewan's young people are the source of this province's vibrancy and economic viability. When economic trouble hits, he can expect a strong reaction from the young people he failed to help,” she says.

With students in Saskatchewan and across Canada fighting for more affordable, inclusive education while the Province and university leadership are clearly going the other direction, the mobilization committee's most immediate task is simply to open up communication.

“These are issues for students now,” says Anderson. “It's easier to have a conversation when people are talking back, when we can have a dialogue. Education shouldn't be restricted to those who can afford it. If we want all Canadians to be part of an equal society and have the opportunities to work in it effectively, then we have to make sure that all education is accessible.” 

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