Student Day of Action will demand government response
In a response to the O’Neill report, students march Feb. 2
Leilani Graham-Laidlaw and Olivia Schneider, Staff Contributors
On Feb. 2 students are taking to the streets for a day of action to advocate for a freeze or reduction of tuition fees.
Dalhousie, King’s, Saint Mary’s, NSCAD and Mount Saint Vincent have combined forces to organize a massive rally and march to Province House in the wake of the O’Neill report recommendations. They’re going there to show the government they care, prior to the release of a new provincial education budget.
“We want students to get involved without feeling like they have to know what’s happening,” says Elise Graham, the chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Nova Scotia, who is taking part in organizing the event. “The O’Neill report had regressive solutions, like deregulated tuition. Nothing that’s really positive for students.”
At Dal, students are meeting in front of the Killam Library at noon and King’s students will meet in the King’s quad at the same time. At both locations, there will be speeches, free food, and at King’s, a pep-up dance performance.
The two groups will then march down to Victoria Park carrying signs and banners telling the Nova Scotia government what they want. Flying slogans like “We’re students, we fight back,” “If this were France, shit would burn,” and “Darrell Dexter, don’t listen to Tim O’Neill/Nova Scotians need a better deal!”
Some professors have made the decision to cancel classes and bring their students to attend the march. King’s and NSCAD have both granted academic amnesty to students participating in the rally so they will not be penalized. At the time of printing, negotiations for academic amnesty were still underway for Dal and SMU.
Students at Mount Saint Vincent, Acadia, St. FX and Université Sainte-Anne will be holding similar events. The Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union and local high school student councils have offered official support to the rally.
Over the past few months, students have been spreading the word about the Student Day of Action, handing out pamphlets at everything from the Saturday morning market, to basketball games, to amateur drag queen shows. Online, people have been spreading the word via Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
The entire event is being co-ordinated by the CFS, a national union of students whose members lobby the government on students’ behalf. According to Rebecca Rose, the regional director for the Maritimes, their bottom line is “to strive towards universal free education through progressive reductions of tuition fees.”
Rose says the CFS’s mandate right now—to reduce fees and drop debt, in the language of this campaign’s title—comes directly from students.
“We’re a grass-roots, bottom-up, democratic organization,” says Rose, running down the lists of elections, letters, town-hall style meetings, polls and petitions that solidify the CFS’s credentials as a union that lobbies for students.
The Reduce Fees, Drop Debt campaign consists of three points: increase post-secondary funding, reduce tuition fees, and increase the portion of student loans that’s available as a bursary beyond 20 per cent.
According to Rose, the Student Day of Action is a direct response to former banking vice-president Tim O’Neill’s report which was released in September.
Recommendations from the report include “strengthening” or merging universities such as Mount Saint Vincent, NSCAD and/or the Nova Scotia Agricultural College with Dal into one education institute. Université Sainte-Anne would be moved to Halifax to merge with Dal. CBU would have to cut whole programs and return to being little more than a technical school.
The report also calls for the deregulation of tuition fees and for universities to drastically increase tuition. Student loan thresholds would be increased for Nova Scotian students, even though over half of the students in Nova Scotia are not from this province and are not funded by this province.
Rose says support drastically increased after the O’Neill report was released. “People kind of started popping out of the woodwork.”
“We’ve known this was going to be a big year for a while,” says Rose. “The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between university presidents and the government, the department of education specifically, is up on March 31, 2011, which means that the tuition freeze is up and the stable funding that our universities see coming out of that agreement is also expiring.”
The MOU is a loose agreement between the Ministry of Education and the Universities’ administrations that states where funding should come from. It’s not binding, but it directs both institutions’ policies.
The CFS and Association of University Teachers had to fight hard for a seat at the negotiating table last time the MOU was under discussion in December 2007, which resulted in a tuition freeze announced when the agreement was finalized on March 31, 2008. It was the first time a student or staff representative was allowed into negotiations.
Rose reports that the government was “initially going to administrations asking for reports on potential cuts of 10 per cent and now they’re asking for reports on three to five per cent.”
“We’re seeing small things happen,” she says, but “they’re being very, very close-lipped.”
According to Rose, protests along the lines of the Day of Action have “won us some major victories,” in the past. “It’s the only way to demonstrate our numbers in a very visual way.”
Most important, she says, the Day of Action “shows the government that we’re not apathetic … but it’s just a part of the puzzle.