Minister of Advanced Education David Hancock was in the hot seat last week as students grilled him on issues of tuition, accessibility and the province's post-secondary education review.
Hancock visited campus Thu., Oct. 20 for a Students' Union led open consultation with students. The question and answer session both pleased and angered student leaders, who viewed Hancock's visit as an attempt to be seen listening to students, not necessarily providing the answers students wanted to hear.
"He didn't have a lot of answers to students, but I think that's indicative of the whole post-secondary review process," commented Graduate Students' Association President Christine Johns.
Johns and several other students questioned Hancock about tuition policies for the 2006-07 academic year. Johns asked Hancock when students will see a new policy to address affordability. She explained that since the Alberta government paid for tuition increases last year, students are faced with a "double bump" next year, when tuition could increase by 12 per cent.
According to Hancock, since the government and the university operate on different time tables, a tuition solution for 2006-07 is not guaranteed.
"Unfortunately at this time I can't give you the comfort that you need," said Hancock in response to Johns' question. "We could possibly meet that deadline by Fall 2006 but the university is doing tuition consultations right now."
Hancock said with university tuition consultation processes currently underway, tuition for 2006 will be set by University of Calgary administration this week, before the Alberta government makes any changes in their 2006 tuition policy.
To keep up with rising tuition, Hancock was asked to provide an acceptable level of student debt, and described his own university experience. Hancock graduated $16,000 in debt.
"I considered that to be a very big investment, but it was the best investment I ever made," said Hancock. "It's a manageable amount."
Hancock also mentioned his suggestion of free tuition for the first two years isn't guaranteed, and it would increase accessibility to post-secondary education across the board, not just in universities. He added if the provincial government goes through with the free tuition, it won't be any time in the near future.
"It's about college and about technical school," said Hancock. "It's not all about university by any stretch of the imagination. It's about adult learning, community learning and every opportunity for Albertans to advance their learning. Most of what we're talking about isn't going to affect you. We're talking long-term."
All the talk of long-term commitments concerned Johns who wants a more immediate solution.
"I think it's great to think about the future, but there needs to be a solution in place to assist the students who are in the system now," said Johns.
SU Vice-President External Jen Smith said the forum was a good first step to include more student input in the post-secondary review process, which has been criticized by Smith and political opposition for being a closed-door review which omits students and faculty members.
"This was the first general public consultation as far as I know," said Smith. "It showed students at large have intelligent questions and are actually paying attention."
Smith is committed to making sure Hancock heard the messages students wanted to get across.
"I'm typing the student questions and responses out and I'm going to send them to him," said Smith. "We're also having breakfast next week in Edmonton.
The GSA plans to submit a similar list of the questions posed to Hancock during the forum to reiterate the issues of importance to students.
Hanock's office reiterated all student input will be taken into account in the final PSE review report, but the government cannot begin work on a new tuition policy until their PSE review and report is completed later this year.
"The minister says he is committed to seeing students don't face a double bump next year," said PSE Spokeperson Cam Trainer.