The Minister of Advanced Education was challenged on budget cuts and changes to post-secondary during question period on November 18.
Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said students are his “top priority” and that they “understand” the need for budget cuts. The comments come hours after a joint rally between the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) and Student Association of MacEwan University (SAMU) occurred at the legislature protesting these very cuts.
The comments originated from responses Nicolaides made to several questions posed by shadow critic for advanced education David Eggen.
Eggen first asked when the minister would start listening to students and their opposition to the budget.
“If the minister of advanced education went outside earlier today he would have seen hundreds of students gathered on the steps outside of the legislature to protest this government’s policy of higher tuitions, higher interest rates, and slashed tax credits,” he said. “This minister is making students pay more just to pay for his $4.7 billion corporate giveaway.”
“When will the minister start listening to students, and end his attack on post-secondary?” Eggen asked.
In his response, Nicolaides said he was “quite confused” by what Eggen was talking about. He said “a lot of his time” is spent meeting with students directly, citing his town hall in Fort McMurray’s Keyano College on November 14 as an example.
“Students are our absolute top priority,” Nicolaides said. “They have the strongest possible seat at the table to help inform government decision-making moving forward.”
Eggen responded saying if the minister was actually listening to students, he would hear their opposition to the United Conservative Party’s changes to post-secondary.
“When is this minister actually going to start addressing students’ needs and start doing his job?” Eggen asked.
Nicolaides said he is taking time to “engage with students” and “listen to them.” He said the number-one feedback he heard from student leaders when he met with them post-budget was to ensure Boards of Governors — the highest decision-making bodies at post-secondaries in Alberta — and administrators were consulted and part of conversations before changes were made.
He added that on November 15, he sent letters to all board chairs across Alberta to invite them for consultations and ensure they engage with students as changes are made in response to budget 2019.
Eggen said that the board chairs would have echoed student concerns and that they would not want capital budgets liquidated or impose seven per cent tuition hikes per year for the next three years to make ends meet.
Nicolaides said the previous government “drove the province off the fiscal cliff” and that current spending habits are not “sustainable.”
“We can’t keep going in the same direction,” Nicolaides said. “Post-secondary enrolment in the province over the last 15 years increased by 21 per cent, yet funding increased over 107 per cent… In order to ensure the long-term sustainability and high-quality nature of our post-secondary system we have to make some changes now.”
“And I know our students understand that,” he added. “We are working with them to make some challenging decisions.”
Ministers comment does not accurately represent students, VPEX Adam Brown says
In an interview vice-president (external) Adam Brown, who was also in the legislature at the time as a guest of the minister, said the comment that students “understand” the cuts does not accurately represent them.
“I don’t think it accurately represents what students are feeling right now as was shown today in the rally,” he said.
“I think a lot of students are really confused about why we need to be the ones shouldering the cuts and changes in post-secondary,” he added. “This is not what students have voted for and not what they expect from their government; to make stuff more expensive for them.”
Brown said while the minister has made himself available, has an open door to stakeholders, and continually hosts town halls on campuses, it is another thing entirely to put what they hear into practice.
“It is one thing to go to a town hall and listen to comments,” he said. “It is another thing to act on what you hear. Obviously nobody at those town halls was saying, ‘let’s raise tuition.'”
“Actions speak louder than words and this budget says a lot to students,” Brown said.