Students’ urgent needs not addressed by advanced education mandate letter 

The provincial government is disconnected from the experiences of post-secondary students.

Years of cutting funding to post-secondary has not made the United Conservative Party (UCP) popular with a lot of students. The new mandate letter written by Danielle Smith for Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney seems unlikely to remedy this. 

The letter does not address many of the actual issues faced by post-secondary students. I wonder if the UCP understands student issues. Or, if they even care.

Firstly, the mandate doesn’t address how the previous UCP government cut funding for the operating budgets for post-secondary education, which later caused tuition hikes in many Alberta institutions. The University of Alberta experienced tuition hikes of 5.5 per cent for domestic students and 6.5 per cent for incoming international students. By 2022, the government had reduced the U of A’s provincial grant by $222 million. The exclusion of affordability mandates feels like they’ve left us in the woods without so much as a compass.

However, one initiative that should benefit students is the investment of $4 million per year for mental health professional spaces in post-secondary institutions. Worries about life post-grad, finances, grades, and personal issues can plague students. We have long expressed a need for increased support. If these professional spaces are readily and freely available on campuses, a lot of students will benefit from them. 

But, on the other hand, financial stress can impact mental health. Food insecurity as a result of unaffordability can impact a person’s mental health severely. Without food security, many students’ mental health will continue to suffer. While essential, mental health services can’t provide someone with three square meals.

UCP misguided in their concern for free speech on campus

The most absurd mandate objective is regarding the protection of free speech rights of Alberta professionals. The UCP announced their concern about free speech on campuses after a lecture by Frances Widdowson at the University of Lethbridge was canceled. Widdowson faced backlash in 2020, when she insinuated that residential schools had educational value and said that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had “destroyed” Mount Royal University. The university cancelled the lecture largely because of protests from students. When Widdowson showed up anyways, students held a protest. Following the protest, then Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides said in an announcement that “it is abundantly clear that more needs to be done to ensure our institutions are adequately protecting free speech.”

In protesting Widdowson’s views, the students were utilizing their own right to free speech. I, along with many others, feel that her comment about residential schools diminishes the atrocities and trauma Indigenous peoples faced, and continue to experience. As well, her comment about BLM shows she is being intentionally ignorant of what the movement hopes to accomplish. 

Our right to free speech means we can openly and fairly oppose opinions we disagree with. The free speech rights of academics shouldn’t be protected more than the rights of students. If students are the future, they need to be encouraged to use their voices to challenge harmful ideas and make change.

And honestly, the UCP is making a mountain out of a molehill. As a student in Canadian higher education, I don’t worry about facing censorship. Instead, I worry that the UCP will cut funding to post-secondary institutions once again, and my education will suffer because of it.

This mandate could’ve been a chance for the UCP to show their commitment to students. In my wildest dreams, they would commit to restoring the funding they cut. Since that’s unlikely, the next best option would have been supports for students. But the mandate letter for the Minister of Advanced Education isn’t really about students. It’s barely about education.

Dylana Twittey

Dylana Twittey is the 2024-25 Managing Editor at The Gateway. She previously served as the 2023-24 News Editor. She is a second-year student studying history. In her free time, she enjoys watching 90s Law and Order, cooking, and rereading her favourite books for the fifth time.

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