COVID-19 has created huge challenges for students in post-secondary, who have been forced to shift to lower quality online learning. Unfortunately for the students at the University of Alberta, instead of helping them face these new difficult circumstances, the UCP government has decided to kick them while they are down. Alberta students are facing massive tuition fee increases, driving many students closer and closer to poverty. 

In their 2020 budget, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government announced it would be lifting the five-year tuition freeze, brought in by the previous NDP government. This sets the table for huge spikes in students’ tuition. It will allow post-secondary institutions to raise tuition by 7% per year, with a total increase of 21 per cent by 2022–23. To make matters worse, the provincial budget also gouged massive holes in the funding for post-secondary education. The University of Alberta lost $44.4 million in funding, with the University of Calgary also losing 32.9 million dollars. These two universities are the biggest in the province, and are responsible for over 60,000 students. 

This has led university administrations to institute tuition hikes in order to make up the lost revenue. Tuition at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary has already increased by around seven per cent for domestic students and four per cent for international students, with more to follow. 

The 2020 budget however was only the beginning of these cuts. The UCP’s 2021 budget brought more cuts to post-secondary education which will result in the loss of over 750 post-secondary jobs. To top it off, tuition is set to continue going up—in 2021, and beyond. As if to add insult to injury to working class students, the government has also slashed tuition tax credits by $225 million and raised interest rates on student loans.

And what are students getting for their increased tuition money? Online classes. That means reduced access to extracurriculars, counselling, and after-class discussion with professors. Students have found it mentally and academically difficult to adjust to online learning. The isolation and stress of the pandemic, coupled with insufficient access to mental health services, have led to mental health crises at many universities. Grace Snowdon, a student in New Brunswick, describes:

I know I’m not the only person struggling with the adjustment… Doing school work takes so much effort, especially trying to complete everything and meet the deadlines while just trying to cope with everything in the world.

Despite the plight of students, the UCP is relentless and tuition will continue to rise. These tuition hikes, along with reduced student services during the pandemic, have revealed to many students that tuition fees have nothing to do with the quality of the education. They are simply a quick way to make extra profits.

Students Lives Worsen Under Pandemic

All of this is especially harrowing given the devastation that the pandemic and the economic crisis have brought to students. This is particularly true for poorer students, who often rely on income from working to pay their tuition. Although Alberta’s unemployment rate sat at about 10.7% in January, for people aged 18–24 it was a staggering 22.3 per cent. A survey conducted in May showed that seven in 10 students had their summer employment plans negatively affected by the pandemic, and half said the pandemic had made it more difficult to afford tuition.

On the other hand, the UCP government has spared no expense helping out their rich and powerful friends. Not long after being elected in 2019, they announced the Job Creation Tax Cut, which they bragged would put Alberta at the lowest corporate tax rate in Canada. And just as the pandemic was hitting, they gave the oil corporations a handout of $7.5 billion for the Keystone XL pipeline, money that has now gone up in a puff of smoke. To put this into context, that is enough money to give free tuition to all students in Canada.

For many working class students, with their budgets already teetering on the edge of a cliff, this means that if tuition increases hasn’t already forced them to drop out then extended unemployment will. Many of these students took out loans before their education was derailed. They will spend decades paying them off, with nothing to show for it. Those who manage to remain in school are sometimes even forced to choose between tuition and food. As Ruan Bower, vice president of the student union at MacEwan University put it:

“We got feedback from students who were the first in their family to go to university and are now choosing between spending their money on tuition and food.”

What next for the students in Alberta? 

Many attempt to paint the struggle for free education as impossible, or as a long-term goal that cannot possibly be won in the current economic situation. However, The money for free education exists. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has pumped more than $700 billion into corporations since the pandemic began. Canadian corporations are now sitting on $1.5 trillion in dead money. About $500 billion of that has been hoarded just since the pandemic began. With this kind of money being put into post-secondaries, instead of into the capitalists’ pockets, we could ensure a free, high quality education to all—not just in Alberta, but across Canada.

The student unions at the University of Alberta, MacEwan University, University of Calgary, and other post-secondaries, have begun to oppose the tuition hikes, called the “Don’t Freeze Our Future” campaign. They kicked off the campaign by building hundreds of frozen penguins on the legislature grounds and outside the provincial government’s McDougall Centre in Calgary. They promised this is just the beginning of their fight against the cuts. 

The University of Alberta Students’ Union wrote regarding the campaign:

“We won’t stop fighting these enormous budget cuts though, because if we’re forced to endure a repeat of last year’s $110m cut (JUST TO THE U OF A ALONE), students from across the province are going to be paying much more for a noticeably worse university experience.”

This is an excellent sentiment, and we wholeheartedly agree that the fight must continue. However, since then there has been no new developments in the struggle against these cuts. By waiting to act, Alberta’s student union leadership risks losing any momentum that has been built.  They must mobilize the students they represent against the UCP’s austerity. They must lead the fight for free, high quality education via protests, and if necessary, even student strikes. The 2012 Québec Student Strike is an inspiring example. Tuition in Québec is famously low, but it is low because Québec students have fought and continue to fight for it. A more recent example during lockdown would be the massive rent strike movement in Britain, with students resisting paying rent to university administrations across the country. Most recently, students have coordinated a student strike by withholding tuition fees en masse. This has led to the University administration very quickly offering a tuition refund to appease the students. This is a perfect example of what is possible with a capable leadership at the head of the student unions.

The tactics of mobilizations, strikes, and mass action have been known to work, and they are the tactics the student unions must adopt to successfully resist these cuts. Only by adopting militant class struggle methods, and broadening the struggle to the whole of Alberta and beyond can the students defeat these cuts and challenge the whole rotten capitalist system which is at the root of the problem.

On Wednesday, March 24, Fightback at the University of Alberta will be hosting an online public event: Abolish Tuition: All out against Kenney! For more information, visit the Facebook page here: