Still Fighting it

Students let the provincial Government know that they won’t take fee hikes and service cuts lying down

By Katie Toth – April 22, 2011

March 31 is a beautiful day to scream outside Province House. About 75 students have surrounded the front and back entrances of the building. They’re ‘greeting’ MLAs as they re- turn to the Provincial Legislature for the first day of the spring session of the House.

They call their event the “MLA Walk of Shame.” Their goal is to put pressure on MLAs to prioritize funding to post-secondary education.

Students surround both entrances of Province House so that no one can make their way into the legislature unnoticed. Both groups rowdily wave prefabricated placards in the air,
shouting and singing.

Omri Haiven, external Vice President for the King’s Stu- dents’ Union, was sitting in the Legislature as student voices grew louder.

“The chants of ‘Darrell’ could be heard by literally every- one,” he later said. “That was incredible… it showed that of all of the people who are getting screwed over by the nDP in nova Scotia, students really made an effort to come out and to voice their displeasure.”

Then, in the midst of foot stomping and chanting, CFS Maritimes Organiser Rebecca Rose picks up the mega- phone to tell King’s students the good news: “We have got- ten a meeting with Marilyn More for today after the Throne Speech.”

Rose reminds students that this isn’t going to be the end of their fight. But in this moment, it looks like students are winning the battle.
That meeting would quickly become one in a string of of disappointments for nova Scotia students.

Gabe Hoogers, president of the King’s Student Union he and the nova Scotia representative on the Canadian stu Federation of Students, said the meeting on March 31 sit “seemed to be sort of just an exercise in good will in so far as she’s willing to listen to us, but not in so far as the government is willing to change anything.”

Hoogers attended the meeting with elise Graham, the Canadian Federation of Students-nova Scotia Chairpersonnd Kaley Kennedy, the CFS-NS Government Relations and Research Co-ordinator. Hoogers said that More asked for their collective opinions on post-secondary education va funding. More also described the Nova Scotia NDP’s intentions to implement a debt cap.

A debt cap is a form of loan forgiveness in which student loans hit a maximum amount. After that, additional student loans are written off as non-repayable student assistance.
Debt caps in the past in other provinces have been administered in ways that aren’t true to their intention,” Hoogers said. “Unfortunately for a lot of students who can’t afford to pay that upfront cost, the accessibility issue remains.”

However, Hoogers said More was unwilling to make changes to the planned grant system in response to his concerns. “There just isn’t the political will,” he said.

On April 5, the provincial budget was released, along with a strategy for the debt cap which lives up to Hoogers’ fears.
The new cap is set at $28,560, and will take four years to be fully implemented. That means that students who start school in 2011 and max out on their loans will save p $15,232, according to a backgrounder by the CBC.

That’s not a small sum, and not all student groups are unhappy about the cap. Mark Coffin, the executive director of the Alliance of nova Scotia Student Associations, says the cap is a positive move. “We’re very happy about it,” he said. “We think this will probably ease the burden on students alreadwwy attending and graduating from university.”

But even supporters of the cap aren’t celebrating whole- heartedly.“The flaw is that it’s not going to help students who already have a fear of debt,” Coffin said. The cap is also contingent on graduation from a four-year degree program, and on qualifying for government student assistance. Students who on’t finish school or who have to rely on private assistance won’t be eligible.

Graham thinks that a debt cap neglects to take student needs into account. “The best way to cap and reduce stu- dent debt is to ensure students do not have to take on debt in the first place,” she said.

For Jess Geddes, a third year student at King’s, the cap is “too little, too late.”

She says she will likely graduate next year with between $40,000 and $42,000 in loans. “They’re really alienating students that are already in a university education,” she said.

As for students who will receive greater benefits from the debt cap, Geddes is quick to point out, “they’ll have to deal with a 4 per cent (provincial funding) cut to universities so their services will probably go
down next year.”

Officially, the Dexter government maintains the stance that the increases to tuition fees and cuts to post-secondary education are not severe. When proposals for the cuts went public on Feb. 1, 2011, Minister More said in a press release, “Universities in nova Scotia are being asked to manage within the same financial restraints that all provincial departments and agencies face.” Furthermore, they say, they’re the only opportunity to balance the books. But when pushed, some new Democrat voices—both provincial and federal—seem to challenge the government line.

While many MLAs quickly entered the legislature, avoiding eye contact with students, Gary Burill, MLA for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, was an exception. He stood outside Province House, watching the protest for at least 15 minutes. When asked by Rachel Ward about his opinion on the protest, he said, “I think it’s a very, very legitimate concern for students to express.”

“The fact that there’s not going to be a tuition freeze is a very great concern,” he added. “I think everybody involved with it understands what a major burden it is.”

For Megan Leslie, the Member of Parliament for Halifax with the federal NDP, high tuition costs ring alarm bells. “Tuition is making post-secondary education inaccessible,” she said. “I know people who won’t even apply—who won’t even fill out that application because they know or they think they can’t afford it.”

Provincial and federal governments are distinct, and deal with different issues.

“It’s hard for me to second-guess what provinces are doing, because I know they’re not getting the federal support that they need,” Leslie said.
“If they are being truthful when they say that they don’t have the money to invest in post-secondary edu- cation ,then (the provinces) need to come together and demand more from the feds.”

This year may have been one of empty gestures or
“ineffective back end debt relief,” as Hoogers said. But he still wants students to keep fighting.

“We’re looking at the long term here,” Hoogers said. “even if next year isn’t ideal for us—and it definitely won’t be—we need to continue to get our message out to the public to government to ensure that … negotiations for next year are more successful.”

“Students are the only group that are going to speak up for students as a whole, so if we don’t make ourselves known and have a presence—especially to MLAs—then they’re going to simply ignore us.”