Our public universities have been foundational to the construction of the Canada that we know today, a country that for many years had one of the highest standards of living on the planet.
University only became accessible to middle class families in the post-war years as government began to put money into institutions in order to educate veterans returning from Europe. This democratization of education opened up the university to students from beyond the upper classes, diversifying the kind of research being done and spreading knowledge throughout the social field, rather than concentrating it among the elites.
However, in the last twenty years, we’ve seen funding cuts that are drastically undermining the accessibility of our education system.
Since the recommendations of the O’Neill Report exploded onto the political scene in September, it has become clear: Nova Scotia is becoming the front line of the battle for publicly funded post-secondary education across Canada.
In order to meet this challenge, students need to work together. What happens in Nova Scotia is not isolated from what happens in the rest of the country, and students everywhere need to join forces. If we see tuition fees increase to over $10,000 a year in Nova Scotia following O’Neill’s recommendations, it won’t stop there. These political decisions set the tone for the rest of the country. Other governments will be able to get away with removing regulations on tuition fees on the grounds that Nova Scotia did it first.
From New Brunswick, we want to offer you some advice. Recommendations of government commissioned reports can be defeated if students hit the streets. In 2007, the New Brunswick government released a report on higher education in the province, recommending that UNB Saint John be merged with the Community College into a Polytechnic University in order to meet the perceived demands of employers, rather than those of students.
This decision was based on the assumption that people in Saint John—a city with one of the highest per capita poverty rates in Canada—needed a training school, rather than a university like every other major city in the province. The report recommended that three polytechnics be created, but none were, as hundreds of students, faculty and community members walked out of their classrooms and onto the streets to protest the recommendations. The recommendations were scrapped, with students winning the right to finish most degree programs in Saint John, rather than having to move away.
The demands of a population can only be amplified if individuals add their voices to the chorus. To speak truth to power is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. Our society would not be able to grant us the kinds of opportunities that it does had individuals been hesitant to speak up against injustice. Many of us are content to reflect upon our opportunities as a result of hard work. While this is not untrue, it is important to consider whether or not our personal goals are attainable if we do not work together to create a society that gives us the chance to fulfil them.
If we don’t act now, we risk not only paying more next year and in the years to come, but watching future generations trudge through a system that resembles the American model, where tuition at many universities tops $30,000 a year, and student debt has outpaced credit card debt. In the US it’s common for students to face upwards of $100,000 of debt as they graduate from their undergrad.
Although fee increases may seem inevitable, we need not look very far to prove that wrong. Tuition fees have actually decreased over the last ten years in Newfoundland, largely as a result of students working together and putting political pressure on the government. In the late 1960s, tuition fees in Newfoundland were $0.
This proves that the full democratization of education is not impossible. It is but an unfinished project—one that can only be completed if we work together as concerned citizens in a democracy. Sometimes that means taking to the streets, sometimes it means writing a letter. It always means standing strong, together.
Ella Henry and Mary-Dan Johnston are members of the Saint Thomas University Students’ Union.
Originally published in The Dal Gazette.