By Nikayla Goddard, November 29 2019 —
“No ifs, no ands, no buts — no education cuts!” was the chant that could be heard as over 300 protestors encircled the Premier’s Office in Calgary, the McDougall Centre, rallied against the United Conservative Party (UCP) government’s budget cuts to post-secondary education. On the chilly afternoon of Nov. 29, students and staff from the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University (MRU) and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) along with Rachel Notley, Leader of the Official Opposition, members of Students For Direct Action, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and more were present at the “Hands Off Our Education” protest.
At 1:00 p.m. the welcome ceremony began with an Indigenous land acknowledgment along with a round dance. Frank Finley, U of C student and one of the rally organizers, opened the speeches by saying that the protest is to “let this government know that we are listening and that we will not be silent.”
Other speakers included third-year U of C political science and natural science student Nicole Schmidt, MRU professor Roberta Lexier and Fridays for Future organizer Rose Jackson.
“As a student, I have always been of the firm belief that post-secondary education provides a viable means for students to turn their career aspirations into reality,” said Schmidt. “In addition to long-term socioeconomic stability, access to affordable post-secondary education is a way for most Albertan students to set themselves up for a brighter future. However, with the UCP’s recent provincial budget, it is clear that providing the funding required for maintaining the quality of post-secondary education institutions in this province is not a priority.”
Lexier, a student activist when she was in university, has been researching student movements for over 20 years.
“Here we are again,” she started. “I feel like I’ve been here a million times, you’ve been here a million times before. I’ve been fighting austerity and attacks on post-secondary education for over two decades.”
Lexier continued, “We keep fighting the same fight, year after year, decade after decade. We fight because education is a public good. We fight because students shouldn’t be saddled with enormous debt, because no one should have to choose between food and education. We fight because education is a human right and we fight because it’s really our only hope for survival.”
Jackson, also an environmental science student at the U of C, fears for the security of her education.
“This new budget is an attack on our education, on our workers and our future,” she said. “It’s a struggle for me and I know I’m not the only one. I know other people have it worse. It’s heartbreaking.”
NDP Leader and Leader of the Official Opposition Rachel Notley attended the rally, citing how important fighting back can be.
“We are here today to support post-secondary students who are trying to do everything they can to defend their future, to defend their access to post-secondary education, the affordability of post-secondary education and, quite frankly, the quality of post-secondary education,” Notley said. “All of these things are under attack by this UCP government and not only is it short-sighted in terms of the future of our young people, it’s also short-sighted in terms of the future of our economic growth and our ability to diversify our economy. So, we need to do everything we can to fight back because we need more people to get post-secondary education […] and we don’t need folks graduating with literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. And that’s the path that we’re on right now.”
The protest comes on the heels of an AUPE organized picket protesting budget cuts and tuition hikes that drew an estimated 1,000 people.
Looking at the U of C alone, the university is facing an immediate $32.9 million cut to its $479 million operating grant with more cuts expected to occur in the next three years. The budget has prompted backlash from the U of C campus community, with the Students’ Union vocalizing their dissent and student-run campus organizations organizing protests to express their concerns about the tuition hikes and cuts to programs and services. In response to backlash over post-secondary institutions’ budget cuts, the UCP government has stood their ground, with Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides defending the decision.
Last week, 250 positions on campus were cut, with more expected. The university has promised that there will be no in-year impacts on programs and that student experience will remain a priority.
Tuition at the university is also allowed to go up by seven per cent each year for the next three years. The proposed tuition changes see an increase of five per cent for both undergraduate and graduate continuing students, with most new domestic students paying seven per cent more and new international students paying 10 per cent more.
Finley ended his speech by saying, “Let us not forget, a rally or protest cannot be the end goal. While this event today may seem significant, it simply needs to be a jumping-off point for all of us to come together to fight these unfair pieces of legislation that will affect us all.”