Photo by Mariah Wilson; illustration by Samantha Lucy

Little Children: Why those in positions of power cannot afford to treat students like children

By: Frank Finley, February 12 2020 —

Those in positions of power cannot afford to treat students like children, and students can’t afford to act like them either. 

Each day, I schlepp from TFDL to the train station. When the train arrives, it smells a little like urine and sweat, but that’s okay. At Banff Trail station, I am often joined by a group of high-schoolers who are going home. Sometimes they’re a little loud, but really, never all that annoying. However, I find myself looking at them and thinking that they seem so young — that they seem like children. Then in an instant, I realize that they are not much younger than me. Sometimes I catch bits of their conversations and find myself impressed by their wit and eloquence.

It is no secret that students and young people are often perceived as infantile. We are looked at as either whiny, entitled or too precocious for our own good. When I sit around a boardroom table or attend a conference with older professionals, I wonder if they see me as an equal or as a toddler in an oversized suit. 

Even when young people request reasonable and rational action on issues, those with more authority are quick to dismiss. Even if it is not spoken, the voices of power say, “Why don’t you sit down? Why so demanding? Why not wait until you are older, more mature and you have the full picture?” Of course, these questions are often not earnest, but meant to shut up young people. I cannot count the number of times I have formulated strong arguments, backed up with clear data or evidence, but have been dismissed either because of my age, or because the topic at hand is uncomfortable for those in power to discuss. 

It is easier to squint down upon young people asking the difficult questions than it is to actually do something about the problems at hand. I imagine those in positions of authority analyze their life and think “I am someone important — I am successful, smart, educated and I wear nice shirts. I don’t always know what’s best, but I do most of the time. These kids… they want what is best, but they don’t know what is best.”

There is perhaps no better example of these issues than in government. Like a disappointing and shitty album, the most recent provincial budget dropped in late-November. There was a noticeably dismayed reaction from many students at the University of Calgary, and rightfully so. 

The Government of Alberta decreased operating grants at the U of C by $32.9 million. In the long-run, this will likely mean larger class sizes and fewer academic options. All funding for the Infrastructure Maintenance Program was also cut. Deferred maintenance at the U of C is currently over $500 million. As a result of this cut, the infrastructural deficit will continue to balloon. 

Of course, the province also lifted the freeze on tuition, allowing a seven per cent increase in tuition per year. Simultaneously, the interest rate on Alberta Student Loans will also be raised to one percent above prime. This is not a trivial increase. For a $30,000-loan amortized over a decade, the increased interest will cost approximately $1,800. 

To top it all off, the United Conservative Party (UCP) eliminated the Summer Temporary Employment Program, which helped provide worthwhile job opportunities to students through wage subsidies. 

Make no mistake, this government has passed costs onto students while providing a multi-billion-dollar tax break to corporations and the wealthy. They hope that students will be too powerless and disorganized to fight back. Let us hope we prove them wrong. 

However, it has not just been the actions of the provincial government that have me worried. The reaction from the university has also been concerning. 

A month ago, the U of C Board of Governors held a meeting where tuition increases were discussed and ultimately passed. 

Along with the student representatives on the board, two other members voted against the tuition increase — five out of 21 members in total. However, nearly two-thirds of board members said absolutely nothing during the meeting. This is a meeting in which they discussed tuition and fee increases that will have a substantial and tangible impact on the lives of thousands. 

Let me say I am not naïve to the challenges the university faces — I have served on the Board of Governors and have worked in the provincial government for the Legislative Assembly and the Office of the Premier. The bulk of the blame for budget issues does not rest on the university, but the provincial government. However, I have little confidence in the institution’s ability to effectively manage this situation.

Students’ Union (SU) President Jessica Revington and Graduate Students Association President Mohammad Mansouri presented a number of compelling arguments at the board meeting. They made clear the devastating effect these increases will have on many student’s lives and the lack of appropriate consultation from the university. Both presidents were calm, composed and eloquent. Their questions towards senior members of the university were tough and at times biting, but more than fair. Unfortunately, their efforts seemed to yield little result. The Board ultimately passed increases in tuition — five per cent for continuing students, and 10 per cent for engineers and international students. Remember, this is the first increase in what will likely be three years of the same. 

I fear it is easy for many on the BOG to give little thought to the options before them. For many, perhaps voting on university policy feels a bit like a game. When you never directly see or feel the results of your actions, it is easy to forget you are affecting real people’s lives. It is easy to sit in a padded chair, vote on an assortment of vague policies presented by administration, get in your mid-sized luxury crossover, drive home to your lush upper-class neighborhood and sink into your Sealy Temper-Pedic mattress in ecstasy. Most governors have not been students for decades, and many seem totally disconnected from the reality of student life. Unfortunately, prime rib and pinot noir at the Petroleum Club is not an accurate slice of the student experience.

After the board meeting adjourned, not wanting to face students, most board members literally snuck out the back door. Let me be clear — a disconnected, out-of-touch board with vague accountability is not sustainable and cannot be allowed to continue. Dr. Dru Marshall, Provost and Vice President Academic of the University spoke to media after the meeting. She said that there are “a significant number of students who are in favour of the increase.” I would like to see the data Marshall used to draw this conclusion, but I am doubtful it exists. 

The issues with the Board of Governors are not unique and are indicative of larger issues. If rational, reasonable and articulate arguments from young people are not enough to make those in power think twice, what is expected of us? In order to be taken seriously, should we dye our hair grey and complain that no world leader can ever measure up to Gerald Ford? What is to be done to prevent all of us from simply being considered “little children?” 

The first line of focus for students should be the provincial government. 

Student leaders need to learn that they cannot afford to have the backbone of a chocolate éclair. While the performances of Presidents Revington and Mansouri at the board meeting were encouraging, not all other student leaders measure up. 

In the last five months, a plethora of photo-ops and news conferences hosted by this government have been attended by student leaders. In many of these events, student leaders stand behind the relevant minister and force pained smiles, all while some devastating announcement is made regarding post-secondary. It’s a sad and pathetic display and embarrassing for all students represented by individuals more interested in receiving a glowing reference than in being effectual. 

Of course, I am not suggesting that student leaders do not meet with government officials. However, there is a difference between making a case to the decision makers directly and letting oneself be used as some sort of sweating, feeble, spineless political prop who this government ultimately couldn’t give a damn about.

Student leaders must not be afraid to call out this government for their short-sighted policies that will not only harm post-secondary institutions, but will ultimately weaken the economy as we become less able to innovate and compete in an increasingly complex international marketplace. Student leaders will need to make the case to the public that cuts to post-secondary will harm everyone. 

Universities must also listen to students. Post-secondary institutions in this province have been slow and soft to criticize any of this government’s actions. While their position is difficult, and they fear retribution through further cuts to funding, that does not mean they should refuse to speak out. Administrators must take a page from the mayors of Alberta’s largest cities and publically argue against the UCP’s policies. 

Outside of formal student politics, other students must not be fearful to express their displeasure with those in political power. Attend townhalls and ask difficult questions. Hold protests. Rally media around our causes. Send Jason Kenney a cake with your student loan documents baked into it. 

With a provincial government who cares more about the wealthiest and most well-connected in our society than students and regular working people, we cannot be afraid to be bold. Prove them wrong — prove that we are not just a bunch of kids with no ability to shape our futures.

When it comes to dealing with government, administration and others who may look upon us with, we must be organized and strategic. We must think one-step ahead and not fear using any political power at our disposal. 

If I were Jason Kenney or university administration, I would much prefer having to deal with quiet, disorganized students than with a movement of people who are willing to fight for what they believe in. 

In these hard times, we cannot afford to be little children. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.


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