By Mary Chan
Provincial student leaders, including University of Calgary Students’ Union President Rob South and Vice-president External Nassr Awada, met with about 40 MLA’s in Edmonton last week, including Treasurer Stockwell Day, Health and Wellness Minister Halvar Jonson and Technology and Innovation Minister Dr. Lorne Taylor. Organized by the Council of Alberta University Students, a provincial student lobby group, the meetings took place Nov. 23-25.
"We wanted to promote awareness for post-secondary education and students in government," said CAUS Chair and University of Alberta VP External Leslie Church. "The best way to do that is to sit across from government members and say, ‘here are our concerns.’"
The students addressed three main concerns in Edmonton.
"One was tuition and their rates of increase," said South. "Two was core funding to universities and three was student loans and financial assistance."
One idea that went over well was a university counterpart to the Rutherford Scholarship, which high school students receive based on academic standing.
"We pitched the idea of continuing scholarships for second-, third- and fourth-year students to offset costs of rising education and provide incentive for good academic standing," said Church. "We found many members were intrigued. There was a recognition that the Alberta Heritage Scholarship Fund [which funds the Rutherford] hasn’t been upgraded as much as it should have been."
MLA’s were less accommodating on the issue of tuition.
"I came away a little frustrated with many members’ perceptions of tuition: that it’s still at a very affordable level," said Church. "It’s difficult when we hear from students who say it’s not affordable."
"A 194 per cent increase in the past 10 years makes us the fastest rising province in tuition," said Awada. "Alberta families need time to catch up and to plan through resp’s. We need to give the system a chance to catch up through scholarships."
CAUS’ core university funding concerns were better received, especially regarding funding envelopes, in which money is earmarked before universities receive it.
"The message is hopefully beginning to sink in with some MLA’s that all these funding envelopes isn’t necessarily the most productive way to fund institutions, and that institutions do spend money wisely," said South. "It’s still an uphill battle to get that message across."
Over all, the three were pleased with how the meetings went.
"What was good about the meetings was that we didn’t just get blindly agreed to or get tuned out," said South. "MLA’s asked very probing questions [to] get their hands around the issue. We raised awareness of a large number of MLA’s and I don’t think we could have done that over any other form."
Church is still meeting with a few MLA’s who were unable to make the three-day window last week. Bringing the total number of MLA’s to about 42. However, Learning Minister Lyle Oberg is not one of them.
According to Church, meeting with the Learning Minister was not last week’s primary purpose. CAUS met with the minister in September, and they are in contact with his office.
"We’ll be looking at setting up a meeting with him in the new year," she said. "It gives his department time to respond to the suggestions we have raised. When we find out how much money is being allocated [in the budget], we can sit down with Dr. Oberg."
South added that though the meetings were productive, he wouldn’t call them successful.
"One thing we clearly need is to build up the concerns the outside community has for universities," he said.