We want accessible education for everybody: STUdent-led protest sparks change at Legislature

Written by AJ Alward on April 24, 2019

Students rally against the Higgs’ government budget cuts to post-secondary education. Photo by Jared Durelle.

A recent student protest has pushed the Higgs’ Conservative government to backtrack on one of its cuts to post-secondary education. New Brunswick university students promised free tuition for completing their degrees on time will not have to pay tuition if they are graduating this spring.

A protest by STUdents for Free Tuition was held on April 16, gathering around fifty protesters. Al Cusack read slam poetry, those affected gave speeches, and Liberal and Green MLAs described their dissatisfaction with the current government over the proposed cuts. The students chalked sidewalks with catchphrases and yelled chants in front of the Legislature with posters in hand. The chilly walk lasted about an hour.

STUdents for Free Tuition began at St. Thomas University (STU) in the weeks leading up to the university’s student union elections. The group is not affiliated with the STU student union (STUSU) or its parent affiliates, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and the New Brunswick Student Alliance (NBSA).

The idea for the protest, however, began with the cuts proposed by the current provincial government which reduce tuition relief from $10,000 per student to $3,000 per student attending university, and from $5,000 to $1,500 for college students.

STU students will also see cuts to the education and social work program bursaries because the tuition access bursary that was cut would have benefited those going into these programs.

Sara Nason, a recent STU graduate and aspiring teacher who plans to attend STU in the fall to study Education, described the stress the cuts have put them under: “I was really planning on accessing that bursary as it was for education students (…) I’m going to have to get a pretty big loan to access the Education program.”

Ariel Ottens, one of the organizers for the protest, said “there [were] debt relief programs and tuition relief programs and we knew that, for a lot of students, that meant dropping out of school, which is completely unfair.”

This is true for Jacob Patterson, an incoming fourth year STU student. “With the cuts that are proposed,” he said, “I will not be able to attend STU next year.”

Nason deplores the more serious effects of the proposed cuts: “Debt is a high contributor to student stress and student illness.” Nason added: “When you make students choose between paying rent and buying food, you are contributing to a culture that is slowly killing students.”

Ottens says members of STUSU, the UNB Student Union, CASA, NBSA, the Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas (FAUST), and MLA David Coon were invited to the protest via official emails, but only Coon and FAUST responded and spoke at the protest. “No one I recognized [from the email list] showed up and they certainly didn’t make themselves known to us if they did,” said Julian Humphries, a would-be incoming third-year STU student.

Shortly before the protest began at noon, Humphries received an email from Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Trevor Holder’s office, requesting a meeting after the protest at 3pm “to discuss the Renewed Tuition Bursary Program.” STUdents for Free Tuition representatives Humphries, Ottens, and Naomi Gullison attended the meeting.

The meeting was “very civil,” according to Ottens: “We obviously disagree on a lot of policies: he’s more into private education and private programs and colleges, and we’re more into public education and that was a disagreement he noticed.”

The coming federal election leaves a lot open to interpretation regarding the future of funding students’ tuition, “leav[ing] a lot of opportunities for funding in the balance,” stated Ottens. Students can still apply for federal funding, but if the government changes, the policies on funding allocation for post-secondary education could be in flux.

There is a consensus among the protest participants and organizers about the next step in the group’s activism. “We demand immediate reversal of these cuts. But, in the end, we want accessible education for everybody,” said Patterson, “We need to keep up the pressure. [If we don’t,] then nothing is going to change.”

“From what we’ve seen from the protest, protesting works,” affirmed Ottens since the Higgs government decided, only two days after the protest, to grandfather in the students graduating this spring: “We have a long way to go to get these programs back to help people, but I’m glad he’s listened to us and reversed the change.” Patterson agreed: “It’s a good first step (…) the government is caving to public pressure.”

With an organizer training workshop to stop cuts to post-secondary education in the works for May 5 and 11, offered by Alex Bailey, organizer for the Fredericton and District Labour Council, Ottens is looking ahead to the fall: “Whatever it takes[:] protesting, meetings, letter writing. Whatever it is, we’ll do it.”

Minister Holder did not respond to an interview request.

AJ Alward is a STU student.

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