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Students Nova Scotia misrepresents us

I care deeply about the right to education. I’ve spent countless unpaid hours doing what I can to build a student movement that can pressure our government to prioritize the needs of students.

This fall I helped start a group called Dal Students Against Fee Hikes to raise awareness and mobilize students around the issues that matter: tuition fees, university funding, international differential fees, and needs-based grants.

Since September, we’ve organized great initiatives: public lectures, a “Rock the Hike” concert where the cover charge is to sign a petition, a petition drive that thousands of students signed, and demonstrations outside a Liberal Party fundraiser as well as the February 4th Day of Action, where 500 Dal students and more than 1000 students in total took to the streets.

These efforts have paid off: after being shut out of meetings for most of the year, invitations to met the Finance and Advanced Education ministers were received following the Day of Action. The focus of our campaign has been to inform and engage students in the lead-up to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) being signed in March, a document that sets tuition fee regulations and university funding over 4 years. It is the most important decision that will affect students between now and the next provincial election.

Our group has a lot to be proud of. We’ve spoken to thousands of students this year about issues, and have heard so many stories and experiences with student debt. Students working two, even three jobs to pay for school, with no time for anything else, and paying the price in burnout and mental illness. In Nova Scotia, the average debt on graduation is $37,000 dollars.

It doesn’t have to be like that. In some places, it isn’t. In Newfoundland, students have been effective in winning government support. They pay less than half what Dal students do because tuition fees have been frozen since 1999. Last spring, 100% of their provincial student loans were converted to needs-based grants. Active, mobilized student movements have also been effective in places like Quebec and Manitoba (to cite Canadian cases) and Chile and Germany, where they’ve just recently won free tuition. Student action isn’t an exercise in futility and misplaced young rebelliousness. It works. Therefore, student organizations and so-called leaders have a responsibility to mobilize for the cause.

Student organizations should be doing everything they can to support groups like Dal Students Against Fee Hikes. Or so you’d think. The chair of Students Nova Scotia, a group Dal students pay over $95,000 per year to, attended our first meeting in September. That was the only engagement our campaign had from Students Nova Scotia all year.

No matter. Over the year we organized and engaged with students, and received strong support. We talked to thousands of students in January building to the Day of Action, which went great. And barely a week later, Students Nova Scotia released a report that got some media attention. Most of this “vision paper” criticized reducing tuition fees. Since they don’t do much to reach students on their campuses, you can be forgiven if you haven’t heard of their other positions. They support increasing international differential fees too.

One defense of StudentsNS is that in order to maintain relationships and get invitations to meetings, they take stances that are more in line with what government wants to discuss. Even if you agree that telling the government what they want to hear instead of need to hear is proper, the least they could do is actually secure these relationships and meetings. Nope. Students have been shut out of MOU negotiations for the first time in many years. They promised us a seat at the table, and they couldn’t even deliver that. Remember what I said earlier about the Day of Action winning meetings with cabinet ministers. It’s a false choice between mobilizations and lobbying: you do both or do neither.

If this organization represents Dalhousie students, why is it taking stances that are directly opposite to what thousands of Dal students unambiguously support? Why is it going to the media to undermine our campaign efforts? And why are we propping up this organization that displays such hostility to Dal students? Why are we giving them $95,000 per year when unpaid volunteers are getting more results?

Our student fees should be used to support student-led efforts, not undermine them. Literally anything else would be a better use of $95,000. This is why I support ending membership in Students Nova Scotia.

John Hutton sits on the Dalhousie Board of Governors as a Dalhousie Student Union council representative.

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