Student protesters decry provincial funding record

CAEK representatives meet with Gerretsen

During a March 14 protest organized by the SGPS and the Coalition for Accessible Education-Kingston (CAEK), a group of students stopped by Kingston and the Islands MPP John Gerretsen’s office to discuss the tuition increase, only to find that he was out of town. They left after making an appointment to meet with him a week later.

Last Friday, five of these students, all members of CAEK—Simon Kiss, SGPS VP (External), Aaron Lemkow, ArtSci ’07, Amanda Martin, ArtSci ’07, Alex Caldararu, MA ’06, and Melissa Houghtaling, PhD candidate in sociology—got their chance.

“There’s a lot of us on campus who feel that the current [tuition fee] isn’t even acceptable and it should be lower,” Lemkow said.

After the Ontario government announced earlier this month that universities will be allowed to gradually raise tuition following a two-year freeze, a group of students banded together to form CAEK.

According to Kiss, the aim of the group is “to work to repeal the tuition fee increase.” Martin said the students went to the meeting to figure out where Gerretsen stands on the issue and whether they could work with him.

They wanted to present Gerretsen with a position that differed from that of the administration and that of the AMS, who have been advocating for lower increases that still constitute increases in tuition, Lemkow said.

He added that while the Gerretsen and CAEK agreed on opposing tuition deregulation, they were at odds regarding the possible tuition increases.

Gerretsen told the Journal he supports the Ontario government’s position that the potential tuition increases won’t necessarily severely limit the accessibility of post-secondary education.

“I indicated to them that in our budget we substantially increased the amount of student assistance that’s available,” he said.

While the students acknowledged this assistance, Lemkow said, they insisted it wasn’t enough to make up for the increase in tuition.

Gerretsen said he understands where the students are coming from but emphasized that the current Ontario government has lived up to its campaign commitment of a two-year tuition freeze.

The past two budgets have seen $6.2 billion allocated to post-secondary education, a move prompted by the government’s feeling that “it was extremely important that [Ontario] no longer be the tenth in all the provinces in per capita student funding,” Gerretsen said.

Kiss said the Ontario government’s funding record is dismal compared to other provinces such as Manitoba, whose government froze post-secondary tuition for the eighth year in a row.

“How [can] a poor, have-not, farming province like Manitoba afford to keep a tuition freeze in place, but the rich, industrial Ontario can’t?” he asked. “[Gerretsen] didn’t really seem to have [a response] to that.”

Gerretsen told the Journal that while universities now have permission to raise tuition, it is ultimately up to the administration and the University’s next Board of Trustees meeting to decide whether to impose increases and, if they do, by how much. He cited an example from the 1980s when he sat on the Queen’s Board of Trustees.

“Tuition increases at that time were sometimes requested by administration, [but] weren’t always automatically approved by the Board of Trustees,” he said.

Lemkow said he and the other students weren’t convinced this argument applied in the current situation.

“That was in the 1980s and that was 20 years ago, and that was before Harris started making massive cuts, so to bring that up is totally bogus because it’s a completely different political climate right now,” he said.

Kiss agreed.

“I can almost guarantee that they’ll raise [tuition] the full amount that they can,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they, if they need the money?” The solution, Kiss said, is more public funding for post-secondary education.

Gerretsen told the Journal that while he understands an increase in tuition fees isn’t welcome, the government contributions from public taxes are not sufficient to fund universities adequately.

“With all the other pressing priorities that we have for people on social services, for municipalities with infrastructure that’s falling apart—this is the best that we could do,” he said. “Through potential tuition increases of no more than four per cent, the students were asked to play their part.”

Lemkow said he and the other members of CAEK are skeptical of Gerretsen’s reasoning.

“All the special interest groups, whether it be farmers or welfare groups or hospitals or education, they’re always asking for more, more, more, and [Gerretsen] says you have to balance it out,” he said. “But when you look at what’s happening, the current trend that’s been going on in politics for a while is all these groups are losing money.” Gerretsen said he encouraged the students to vocalize their positions, particularly in the next provincial election.

He said the meeting was “very fruitful” and that he parted with the students “in a very amiable fashion.” But Kiss said the students weren’t quite as pleased with the outcome.

“We definitely have different conceptions of what the importance of accessibility of education is,” Kiss said. “He seems to think that increasing tuition fees keeps post-secondary education accessible, and we definitely do not,” Kiss said.

Scott Courtice, executive director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), told the Journal that the lobby group supports student action such as that taken by CAEK.

“We’re encouraging students to make their voices heard on campus to university administration,” he said, adding that opportunities such as the town hall meetings held by Principal Hitchcock earlier this week are a good place for students to voice their opinions. Courtice said OUSA was disappointed with the province’s final decision.

“We were hoping that the government would move in a direction where students would pay only 30 per cent of the tuition, with the government picking up 70 per cent … by 2011,” he said. “Unfortunately with [the government’s] decision we won’t make that.”

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