Fredericton – St. Thomas University students plan to defend education as a right in light of the university’s decision to charge them $434 more this year in tuition.
Posters saying, “Poor and can’t pay anymore” appeared on campus last winter before the announcement of the tuition increase that students say they have come to expect every academic year. In March, a newly formed student group called Students Against STUition organized a protest in front of the administration’s offices to denounce the proposed tuition hike.
“The administration at STU has decided to defy a tuition cap because they will obey a financial imperative before anything else,” says Denis Boulet, a third year history student at St. Thomas University and one of the organizers of the March protest.
St. Thomas University’s President Dawn Russell argues that the tuition increase is needed to avoid a $600,000 deficit in light of the provincial government freezing operating grants to universities in the last budget. The tuition increase means that the university will defy the $150 tuition increase cap also outlined in the budget.
Boulet claims he has been told by some in the university administration that inflating the price of a Bachelor of Arts degree will solve the university’s financial and enrollment woes because prospective students will think the cost of tuition is a direct indication of its quality.
“This elitist interpretation of the value and nature of education completely ignores the fact that education is a right, not a commodity. Students are not attending university or are dropping out because they can’t afford to pay. Graduates often have to work harder and at more than one job in order to free themselves from their debt obligations,” says Boulet.
How students are dealing with the prospects of finding no job or a poorly paid job upon leaving university with a debt load of tens of thousands of dollars was examined in a study by the Canadian Organization of University and College Health. Over half of 30,000 Canadian students surveyed (55 %) from January to April of this year said that they are simultaneously grappling with three or more problems related to finances, academics, health, and relationships.
Almost 90 per cent of students surveyed said that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year, and more than 50 per cent said they felt hopeless. Suicide was attempted by 1.3 per cent of the students surveyed, while it was seriously contemplated by 9.5 per cent.
“I have noticed that more of my students are experiencing serious health conditions, including what I expect to be anxiety-related, connected to having more on their plate than just getting good grades,” says Joan McFarland, an economics professor who has been teaching at St. Thomas University for over three decades.
Brad Cross, a history professor at STU, shares McFarland’s assessment of the struggles facing students. He says that it is important for professors to join students in their fight to recognize education as a right and not a commodity.
““The province used to cover about 75% of university budgets but that support has been eroded in the last few decades to meet only about 45% of the costs for undergraduate education. STU receives the lowest per capita funding of all New Brunswick universities but has the highest percentage of students from New Brunswick. It looks to me like the province is increasingly shifting the burden of undergraduate education onto the indebted shoulders of the New Brunswick student. This is a troubling trend,” says Cross.
Boulet welcomes the support for students from professors and also the broader labour movement in Fredericton. “We are learning lessons from the Quebec student movement on how to get organized and we are building lines of solidarity with the labour movement in the Fredericton area. It is our belief that solidarity beyond the student body will be required to face our many challenges,” argues Boulet.
“Only the rich will be able to enjoy the benefits of an education if nothing is done,” worries Boulet.
Tracy Glynn is a writer and editor with the NB Media Co-op.