The University of Alberta Students’ Union will host a rally against the provincial government 2019 budget on November 18.
The Students’ Union announced the next phase in its response to the provincial budget and the specific effects it will have on post-secondary institutions and students at their Budget Town Hall in SUB on November 7. The rally will happen alongside the already planned and announced Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU) demonstration on the same day.
The Students’ Union will start the rally at noon in front of the Academic Building on November 18. There will be brief remarks and then a march to the legislature. Once there, the Students’ Union rally will meet the SAMU demonstration.
Students are being encouraged to share their stories on how the budget will affect them personally with the Students’ Union. Their stories will be collected and shared with the Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides and the Official Opposition shadow critic for the ministry of advanced education David Eggen.
Eggen attended the Students’ Union town hall and listened to the feedback being presented. In an interview, he said this budget unveiled by the United Conservative Party (UCP) is potentially the largest cuts facing post-secondary in Alberta history.
“We are just starting to see how some students will not be able to go to school,” he said. “Costs will increase and the quality of education will decrease.”
“The UCP wants to cut, but they will have to pay for their decisions,” he said. “This is a good time to push back.”
He said he would “absolutely” support any demonstration against cuts to post-secondary that students organize.
“I support student protests and pushback every step of the way,” Eggen said.
After the town hall, The Gateway reached out to the Minister of Advanced Education. His office said this was the first they were hearing about the Students’ Union rally.
They mentioned SAMU reached out to the minister, who will have a meeting with their executives before the rally and their student leaders will be introduced in the Legislature that day. The minister’s office said this same opportunity will be extended to the Students’ Union executive.
In lieu of a statement, the minister’s office provided The Gateway with a letter penned by Nicolaides himself, addressing some student concerns like tuition increases and increases to student loans. The letter is included at the bottom of the article.
Town Hall Recap
Frustration from students for “delayed” response to budget
Approximately 70 students attended the town hall. The executive opened with remarks on how the budget will impact students and shared the plan for the rally. The majority of time was spent listening to student concerns and feedback about the provincial budget.
Five students throughout the town hall questioned why the Students’ Union is only responding to the provincial budget — which was released on October 24 — now.
Bhatnagar apologized and said the Students’ Union delayed its response to ensure student voices were consulted.
One student asked why the Students’ Union hosted a town hall in first place, citing their political policy outlining how the organization automatically is against any increases to tuition.
“Why exactly are we here?” they asked. “The Students’ Union already has a mandate to fight tuition increases.”
Bhatnagar acknowledged the policy but said the town hall is not meant to ask students if they want to respond, but how.
“We are looking back to students to give us feedback on the best way we can respond,” she said.
“[When] we protest, I don’t want to go to the legislature with three people,” she added. “I want to go with hundreds and hundreds. The only way we can do that is get people bought into the process.”
SU can’t commit to not raising fees on students despite provincial budget increase, says Bhatnagar
One question from a student asked whether the Students’ Union would guarantee no further student fee increases or the creation of new fees, since tuition can increase by seven per cent per year for the next three years.
“Given the drastic tuition increases that are coming and other drastic increases to student affordability, will the Students’ Union commit to not raising student fees?” they asked.
The question referred specifically to a new fee being explored by Students’ Council to address maintenance and sustainability concerns in SUB.
Bhatnagar said maintenance should not be put off, and if it is deferred, the cost of addressing it increases meaning students bear more financial burden.
She did not commit to ensuring that the raising fees or the creation of new ones will not happen. For her, a question for a new fee will be presented to council and if it passes will be given to students to vote on during a referendum. Bhatnagar added that this provincial budget shows — with infrastructure maintenance funding going from $35 million to zero — that the Students’ Union must get its house in order.
“The number one asset we have is our building, the Students’ Union Building,” she said. “We are looking to find ways to make our building more sustainable.”
Concerns over previous SU email sent to students titled “the budget is pretty spooky”
The executive faced two questions from students why the word “spooky” was chosen to describe the provincial budget which deals cuts to post-secondary.
“Is the Students’ Union taking this budget seriously, because based on that email it doesn’t seem like it,” asked one student.
Bhatnagar said “absolutely” the Students’ Union takes the budget seriously. She mentioned that many people, like the person who asked the question, have the privilege of understanding the jargon and technicalities of governance and university administration. For her, the subject line of the email sent out to students was meant to grab attention of those who didn’t already know about the budget.
“A lot of students don’t understand what [cuts to the Campus Alberta Grant] mean,” she said. “I feel like I am in a huge position of privilege when I talk about the budget because I understand the semantics. Students don’t. And so we released a message that was a little more friendly.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that SAMU is meeting with the Minister of Advanced Education during their rally. The Ministry originally proposed this, however, SAMU asked to meet before the rally.2019_11_05_12_09_43