Multiple employee, faculty, and student unions have joined forces to create the Stop PSE Cuts campaign, bringing light to the struggles of post-secondary students, faculty, and staff amidst provincial budget cuts.
Convened by Public Interest Alberta, multiple University of Alberta groups were involved in creating the Stop PSE Cuts Campaign. This includes the Association of Academic staff (AASUA), the Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA), the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) and the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), which the Students’ Union is apart of. The Alberta and Canadian Unions of Public Employees (AUPE and CUPE) are also among the various external groups supporting the campaign. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to raise concerns amongst Albertans about provincial budget cuts against post-secondary institutions.
Alongside raising awareness, the campaign also features an email template that will send Albertan’s MLA and the Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides a letter asking for the reversal of post-secondary budget cuts. The campaign has a goal of sending 1,600 letters and so far 1532 have been sent.
“Working Conditions are learning conditions”
According to Joel French, the executive director of Public interest Alberta, the organization started planning this campaign after the first provincial budget, which saw significant cuts to provincial post-secondary funding.
Over the past year, Public Interest Alberta brought together various post-secondary education groups to create a campaign that educates the public about provincial cuts to post-secondary education funding.
“There’s a lot of concern among faculty, support staff, and students all across the province about those cuts and the negative impacts they’re having on campuses, but also on broader communities,” he said. “It really felt like it was time for all of the groups on campuses across Alberta to speak up and tell Albertans that we need to expect better from the provincial government — we need to oppose these cuts and protect the investment we have in our post-secondary institutions.”
The Stop PSE Cuts campaign not only focuses on students, but also shows how lack of funding affects other members of post-secondary institutions, as seen by the campaign’s slogan “working conditions are learning conditions.”
“[It] acknowledges the connection between what faculty and staff are feeling on campuses as a result of the cuts with the kinds of impacts students are noticing,” French said.
“Support staff and faculty have been stretched more and more thinly as the cuts have been implemented. Support staff have faced significant layoffs — that doesn’t just affect the people who lose their jobs.”
French elaborated that job losses and the stress faculty and support staff are beginning to endure trickles down to students, hence the “learning conditions” part of the slogan.
“Maintenance on campus buildings [won’t] be able to be done as frequently, classrooms [won’t’] be cleaned as frequently — there are all kinds of things that support staff do, around campus, including supporting faculty, that connect to the learning of students,” he explained.
In terms of faculty, French pointed out that budget cuts have left post-secondary institutions relying on contract academic staff, which creates an uncertain future for both instructors and students.
“Maybe you have a visiting professor from a different country that’s there for a semester or a year and not only does that faculty member not have certainty about their job, but the student doesn’t have certainty that the professor they formed a meaningful connection with will be around next year— and quite often they are not,” he said.
On their website, the Stop the PSE campaign described the multiple grants the provincial government has given to post-secondary institutions this year as favouring “research in the interests of corporations and extractive industries, rather than research in the public interest.”
On this point, French said that it’s been recent trend for governments to cater post-secondary to large corporations. On the contrary, the campaign believes universities should instead be geared towards public interest instead.
“We shouldn’t see our post-secondary institutions solely as commercial centres to support industry, but rather places where we have a broad-based approach to advancing public interest…. [such as] arts education and research even if it’s not immediately marketable,” French said.
French went on to explain that it is “short-sighted” for the provincial government to focus on how research can make money.
“Often some of the most advancing research we see… usually starts on university campuses,” he said. “That early research that often leads to breakthroughs often isn’t profitable right at the beginning— it often isn’t commercialized until a lot of research is done at public institutions using public funds.”
With the campaign being a year in the making, French reflected on the large amount of work it took to get all the different groups and unions involved to create it.
However, for French, the time and effort was worth it as he believes this campaign highlights a solidarity of post-secondary institutions against provincial budget cuts.
“It’s especially important when broad coalitions like this are united in a message when they are speaking to the provincial government because it makes it very clear that there is no division in this sector — folks in the post-secondary sector are united in saying the government is making the wrong decision by cutting post-secondary education. “
CAUS invests in the Stop the PSE campaign
Out of the many unions participating in the campaign, CAUS was the group bringing the undergraduate student perspective to the table.
According to Rowan Ley, Students’ Union vice-president (external) and chair of CAUS said that the organization contributed $40,000 to the campaign, which equates to 28 cents per undergraduate student they represent. This money, Ley explained, came from CAUS’s reserves.
“The point of having reserves is saving it for emergencies, and if this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Though it may seem like a large contribution, Ley said that the $40,000 was only a small portion of the reserve, and they have plans for further advocacy plans, such as a future parallel campaign that will “fill in the gaps” of the Stop the PSE Cuts campaign.
“While tuition is mentioned in this campaign, the stand-alone project that CAUS will be doing ourselves has a greater emphasis on tuition and student aid, which is one of the reasons why we’re doing a parallel protest,” he explained.
In terms of why the Students’ Union isn’t specifically participating in this campaign, Ley explained that through the membership fee the Students’ Union pays to CAUS, the Student’s Union’s money did, in a sense, go towards the campaign.
“It just makes more sense for us to do everything through CAUS because when it’s all 140,000 undergraduate students speaking with a united voice, we are able to have a much stronger influence on any project we work on,” Ley explained. “Because this project is not a U of A specific project… it is fair that we share the cost of this project with the [other members] of CAUS. We’re all putting in our fair share — it’s the most equitable but also the most powerful way of handling these issues.”
Ley hopes that this campaign is a reminder for students that they are not alone in the burdens provincial cuts to post-secondary are creating.
“There are thousands of staff at universities across Alberta, that are critical to our education, who are also feeling the brunt of these cuts,” he said. “They are there with us in fighting what’s happening and not just that — they are there fighting against tuition increases. It would be very easy for us to say ‘pay the staff less so we don’t have to pay tuition and it would be easy for them to say ‘make students pay more so you don’t have to cut our salaries.'”
“Staff and students are showing remarkable solidarity right now and I think that’s going to be absolutely critical in helping to fight the devastating cuts we’re experiencing.”