On March 9 and 11, 2022, the United Conservative Party (UCP) approved massive tuition hikes proposed by the University of Alberta (UofA) and the University of Calgary (UofC) administrations. These “exceptional tuition hikes” are over and above the annual seven per cent increase and will lead to upwards of $10,000 more in tuition paid for certain programs. This is a brutal frontal attack on the access to education in the province. Only a mass movement can stop this.

This is a continuation of the general austerity policy pursued by the government of Jason Kenney, which is making the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism in Alberta. In this latest attack on public sector education, the UCP government is working hand in hand with university administrations to gut the higher education system for profit, forcing students, faculty, and staff to pay the costs. 

Eye-watering tuition hikes punish students

The provincial government has pounded public universities across Alberta with cuts to their funding. The UofA alone has seen a $222 million reduction to their budget over the past three years. In response to these cuts, the university’s administration has offloaded the costs onto students in the form of unprecedented tuition hikes. UofA provost Steven Dew, an unelected bureaucrat who raked in a salary of $499,000 in 2021, claims the tuition hikes will “greatly improve” the quality of education students receive. Forgive us for not believing him. These hikes will only mean higher debt and financial stress for students.

New students in undergraduate programs like pharmacy, radiation therapy, law, engineering, and commerce will be forced to pay between 16-44 per cent more per year, starting in Fall 2022. Dentistry students will be paying over $9,200 more per year! It should surprise no one that working students did not get $9,200 raises last year, and these hikes will only make university unaffordable to more and more people. Students entering graduate programs like counselling psychology will have to pay 104 per cent more for tuition. These tuition hikes mean students will be forced to take on more loan debt to afford schooling, or avoid going to university at all. The recent restructuring of the UofA has also led to over 1,000 support staff, adjunct professors, and other vital workers being laid off. 

The same is the case at UofC, where very similar tuition hikes will be hitting the same specialised undergraduate and graduate programs. Like the UofA, the UofC administration claims that the tuition hikes will “[enhance] program quality and the student experience”. The situation is even worse for international students. International engineering students, for example, will be paying almost $16,000 more per year! The UofC is also taking their so-called budget constraints out on precarious workers, by firing and cutting the shifts of over 200 caretakers unionized with the AUPE

How to fight back

After Jason Kenney took power in 2019, we have seen a wholesale assault on workers and youth in Alberta. Massive layoffs and cuts to education funding have gone hand in hand with gifts to his corporate friends. The latest cuts to education should not be underestimated. They represent nothing more than the most significant attack on access to postsecondary education in the history of the country. 

While many have tried to appeal to Kenney to stop this, it is more than clear that this government will not listen unless we force it to listen. The rich administrators, government officials or oil barons who are behind these attacks are in fact a tiny minority of the population. If we stood up collectively to say no to these cuts, who would stop us?

And this idea of a mass movement to fight back against these unprecedented attacks is precisely what is starting to take root. In this, students at the University of Calgary are leading the way. On March 28, for the first time in decades, students organized a one-day student strike and a day of action to protest these cuts. Importantly, last week there was a rally held at the University of Calgary against the layoff of 100 caretakers. These movements point the way forward. Enough of nicely worded letters! This government and its friends in the administrations will only listen to mass action! 

What is needed now is a plan on how to broaden, escalate and develop this movement into a wide-scale struggle of workers and youth against the UCP and the entire system that they represent.  

As a great sign, students at UofC have donned the red square, taken from the fantastic 2012 Quebec student strike. As strike leader, Huarte Aguilar said, “The red square is to say that we are squarely in debt. Squarely in the red.” She continued stating that “Students are going hungry because the cost of their education is so high here at the University of Calgary,”

Most importantly, the idea of a student strike is taking root. As Chaise Combs, VP communications of the Faculty of Arts Students’ Association at the University of Calgary stated: “Ultimately, the school, the university system cannot function if students withhold their participation.”

This inspiration drawn from the 2012 Quebec student strike is a correct instinct. On the tenth anniversary of this amazing movement that shook Quebec society to its core, we need to learn the lessons of how Quebec youth fought back against similar draconian attacks. Our student leaders in Alberta need to learn these lessons and build a mass student strike to fight back against these cuts. 

We demand that our student unions call general assemblies to plan the fight against these outrageous tuition hikes. One of the powerful features of the 2012 Quebec student strike was the mass democratic general assemblies which allowed students to discuss the hikes, the movement, and their strategy. Most importantly, these assemblies allowed students to take democratic ownership over the strike. In order to defeat the UCP’s attacks, a mass movement is needed, and students in Alberta must create one. This is entirely possible. Join Socialist Fightback to help us fight for a mass movement against the attacks from the UCP government!