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Louie Villanueva

PC leadership race an opportunity for university student engagement

By Tina Shaygan, October 18 2016 —

In the past, a Progressive Conservative government meant nothing good for students. Funding was cut time after time, and with Alberta’s tanking economy, it is hard to imagine post-secondary institutions escaping any cost-saving measures if the PCs were still in power.

Only two years ago, the then-PC minister of Innovation and Advanced Education Don Scott introduced market modifiers and advocated for post-secondary institutions to cut programs with low enrollments to save costs. Had market modifiers been implemented, tuition for some programs at the University of Calgary would have been hiked up by 60 per cent.

But since losing the 2015 election, PC members have looked for different ways to save their sinking ship. And with the high stakes of the upcoming leadership race, now is the time to ensure that regardless of which candidate wins, things like the post-secondary funding cuts don’t make it onto the PC platform.

The New Democratic Party has done a lot to address post-secondary issues — they implemented a tuition cap, brought back the Summer Temporary Employment Program, rolled back market modifiers and committed $3.6 million to mental health funding. But there is still room for improvements. No long-term plan for mental health funding is organized yet. And while a tuition freeze is a fine solution, it is not a permanent one.

Post-secondary education won’t be the most pressing issue of the next provincial election — frankly, students never are. But with the chaos that is the current state of Alberta politics, students can gain significant ground. And the upcoming PC leadership race is a good place to start.

“We’ve been trying to let party leaders know that students are going to come out and vote in big numbers and they are a viable voting block,” former Students’ Union president Levi Nilson said. The SU ran Get Out the Vote Campaigns for both the May 2015 provincial and October 2015 federal elections.

“After the fact polls of the 2015 election showed the NDP would not have gotten elected — or not gotten a majority at least — had it not been for the youth vote, especially amongst university students. It was staggering how much the youth impact mattered for the party that won,” Nilson said.

The Wildrose Official Opposition has also taken note of the importance of the student vote.

“We’ve seen some steps in the right direction from the Wildrose and we hope that would continue to happen and continue to develop these policies and make sure post secondary is a priority,” SU vice-president external Tristan Bray said.

PC leadership candidates have a chance to address post-secondary problems in a way their party hasn’t done before.

“It’s definitely on our radar, we want to make sure all the candidates have some understanding of post-secondary education in Alberta,” Bray said.

Post-secondary is largely a non-partisan issue and advocacy doesn’t have to be only through student organizations or movements.

“Elected officials want to hear what regular citizens’ opinions are. Getting a meeting with your councillor, Member of Parliament or Member of Legislative Assembly isn’t impossible. Send them letters — they take these things very seriously,” Nilson said.

Northwest Calgary ridings are overwhelmingly populated with students and usually highly contested during elections. Write to the PC leadership candidates on what you want to see done and the services important to you. Make it known that students are voting this time.

The history of Alberta politics is interesting — one political party leads a majority government for years, and then is never elected to govern again after losing to another majority government. Remember the Social Credit Party? Neither do I.

This is the historical trend the PC party is facing. And the leadership candidates seem to understand that their party’s chances of survival depends on shifting the party’s priorities. Let’s make sure there is room for student voice in this transition.

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