Editorial: The more things stay the same…

By Chris Beauchamp

By their second or third year in university, savvy students have gotten used to the rituals of campus life. They won’t have trouble finding their classrooms in September, they won’t rush out to buy all their textbooks brand new, and they certainly won’t be surprised to hear that tuition is going up again. Outraged perhaps, disappointed certainly, but surprised? Not a chance.

Indeed, with a decades-long tradition of imposing maximum fee hikes, the story is anything but new. On the university’s side, the board of governors insists each year that government funding has not kept up with increased operating costs, and that anything less than a maximum hike will mean decreased quality. It’s also repeated each year that students have a responsibility to share the burden, since they will directly reap the benefit of their education with increased wages. On the students’ side (at least for the minority who conquer their apathy and disillusionment enough to form an opinion) the usual argument is that the government should be investing more into institutions’ operating budgets, but that taking the shortfall out of students’ pockets can only go on for so long before it becomes grossly elitist, restricting those who can’t afford to pay.

Unfortunately, both sides are right.

History shows that taking the shortfall out of students’ pockets can indeed go on forever, and it’s continued for over 30 years with varying degrees of severity. This year, students face a relatively small 3.3 per cent hike–a paltry sum compared to past increases like the 27 per cent some students faced in 1992. Although the decision to link this hike and all future ones to the rate of inflation is a step in the right direction, every hike illustrates the slow–but virtually unimpeded–encroachment of heavy user fees on once public institutions. It’s also something generations of students have effectively acquiesced to.

Taken as a timeline over the past three decades, the annual tuition hike in Alberta’s richest province is more than a simple shortfall between costs and government funding, it is a deliberate policy decision at the heart of what we hold important as a society. Despite the baby steps in the new affordability framework and constant government assurances to the contrary, truly affordable education is no longer a part of that picture.

From Gauntlet editorial, Tues., Jan. 27, 1976, Noel Jantze:

“By forcing the university to increase tuition fees, the provincial government is embarking on a course which will only further restrict the opportunities for Albertan students from low or middle income families to attend such institutions.

“The magnitude of the initial increase doesn’t matter, any increase can only serve to discourage those students who already are reluctant to mortgage their futures for an education.

“The fee increase must be stopped now. Any compromise, any weakness on the part of students… will only weaken the struggle to make university education available to all Canadians. “

From Gauntlet editorial, Tues., Jan. 30, 1992, Lori Montgomery, co-editor:

“With the recent decision by the university’s board of governors to let tuition fees jump by a monstrous amount, students could be forgiven for thinking that they have few allies.

“The argument runs that students in Alberta pay less than most Canadian students, and that the university and the government are strapped for cash, too. Well, sure, it’s tough all over… We realize that tuition fee increases are going to happen. We understand the necessity for them, and know that we must shoulder the burden of our educations. But we ask that someone meet us halfway.”

From Gauntlet editorial, Tues., Jan. 25, 2001, unsigned:

“Truth is this school is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to generating revenue.

“We live in a province in which the government basically has no choice but to be successful. A dead monkey could run this province. Revenues, mostly tied to the glut of our oil industry, are huge. Neighbouring provinces slobber at our wealth as our budget projections explode in a geyser of black gold.

“Everyone let us down this time.”

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