“Stay angry,” says a handwritten poster on the wall of the King’s Student Union Office. “Fight the Fees”, says the red button pinned to Gina Grattan’s shirt. As external vice president of the King’s Student Union, free education is a goal close to her heart.
On Nov. 2, Nova Scotian students will take to the streets protesting what Statistics Canada calls the fastest-rising tuition fees in Canada. Their demands: public funding, grants instead of loans and education accessible to all.
Grattan’s anger is personal. She says she owes many thousands in student loans to the government.
“I’m finding it difficult,” she says. “I’m under a lot of stress.”
Grattan tried to speak to a counsellor to help her cope, but they were overbooked and put her on a wait list.
Statistics Canada says that for the 2016/2017 academic year, the average national fees for undergraduates have gone up from about $6,200 to $6,370. At King’s, the rise is from about $5,700 to $7,000. This is without counting international students, graduates and those in professional programs such as medicine or law, whose fees can rise to as high as $16, 000.
King’s president William Lahey says there has been no decision by the Board of Governors to increase tuition for the past two years.
“The KSU is worried about a decision that might be made, not protesting a decision already made,” he said.
Lahey also says that while King’s is expensive, that cannot be helped, as its small class sizes and highly qualified teachers are the reasons for its academic excellence.
“We need to balance affordability with quality”.
Like Lahey, Vice President Kim Kierans is well aware of the challenges of running a small school in a harsh economy.
“Funding from government has shrunk, enrolment has also shrunk,” she says.
The operating budget for 2016/2017 says that though the government grant has increased by 1 per cent, enrolment has decreased. The renovations to the Wardroom, North Pole and Chapel Bays are also adding to the strain. King’s is operating at a deficit for the first time in recorded memory.
Faisal Ali, who worked as a data analyst to pay for his King’s journalism degree, says there is no reason affordability and quality can’t go together. As an example, he cited online learning programs like CoursEra, which offers free courses put together by teachers from Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and other top U. S. colleges.
“We’re paying professors an exorbitant amount of money to lecture in person when they could be videotaped,” he says. “Some of the best classes I’ve ever had were online.”
Is free tuition possible?
“Absolutely,” says Kierans. “If there was political will. It works in Europe, in Germany, but they make the choice to put education first.”
Peyton Veitch, treasurer of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), led King’s students in a “Fighting the Fees” Teach-In on Sept. 20. He says that “absolutely dedicated hard work” is the key ingredient for the campaign’s success. He referred to Quebec’s 2012 student strike, which led to riots and arrests but ended in a tuition freeze, as an example of “change from below”.
Charlotte Kiddell, chairperson of CFS Nova Scotia, said the All Out demonstration Nov. 2 is unlikely to become violent.
“We talked to the police liaison officer, we talked to the Marshall. We’re training to keep students safe,” she says.
“Education is a public good,” said Veitch. “We’re fighting for a system based on your ability to learn, not your ability to pay.”