Students storm Dal board meeting

Snow-day demonstrators demand university freeze tuition fees

By: ADINA BRESGE
@abresge

Classes were cancelled Tuesday, but students came to the Dalhousie University campus with signs, megaphones and makeshift drums, braving the post-storm hangover to protest tuition increases.

“It’s a snow day; freeze our fees!” students chanted.

Around 50 stood knee-deep in the snow, some of them deeper in debt, for a student-organized Rally Against the Reset outside the Henry Hicks Building, while the university’s board of governors met inside.

Board members gathered for a presentation on a proposed three per cent tuition increase across all programs.

For an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, this would raise tuition to $8,279 per year, roughly a $240 increase based on Dalhousie’s fee estimate for this year.

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In addition to the university-wide three per cent hike, the budget plan calls for a 15 per cent increase in engineering and pharmacy program tuition.

The change would be phased in over three years, along with an 18.9 per cent increase for students at Dalhousie’s agricultural campus in Truro.

The university’s budget advisory committee announced the “market adjustments” in a draft report released earlier this month.

The Nova Scotia government lifted its cap on tuition increases last spring, giving post-secondary institutions a one-time chance to increase or “reset” fees.

“For Dalhousie’s board of governors to keep students outside of this meeting is a show of a lack of accountability and transparency,” said Michaela Sam, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students for Nova Scotia.

“Nova Scotia students are already graduating $37,000 in debt (on average), and to raise fees by increases as egregious as the ones being proposed will affect all of Nova Scotia’s students.”

Statistics Canada says Nova Scotia undergraduate tuition fees rose 5.2 per cent in the 2015-2016 academic year, the highest increase of any province.

Carolyn Watters, Dalhousie’s provost and co-chair of the budget committee, told Dal News that raising tuition is difficult, but necessary to balance the budget.

“When you’re working in an environment with constrained revenues and increasing expenses, there are fairly few and limited options to address cost increases,” said Brian Leadbetter, a communications director at Dalhousie.

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The budget advisory committee projects that university expenditures will rise by $15.1 million in the next academic year, bringing the Dalhousie budget to more than $405 million.

The extra tuition revenues will offset the $12.8-million gap between the increased costs and the $2.3 million increase in provincial assistance.

The report also recommends a 2.5 per cent reduction in the faculty, and $1.5 million in reserve fees, which are “to be used for emergency purposes,” according to Leadbetter.

“This is the reputation of the university,” said event organizer Patrick LeClair, an engineering student.

He says he would be fine with paying above-average tuition if it were reflected in the quality of education.

“We have very little support from the university, very bad facilities.”

LeClair says the Sexton campus, the Barrington Street satellite that houses the engineering program, is rundown.

Storage rooms have been converted into classrooms, and some second-year students take classes in the nearby Park Lane movie theatre.

“We know that these programs have specific needs for improved infrastructure,” Leadbetter said. He said half of the tuition increases for engineering and pharmacy students will be funneled back into those programs.

Jimena Prado, a science student from Mexico, says the increase will have an even greater impact on international students, who will pay nearly $9,000 for tuition if the budget proposals are implemented.

“Maybe I wouldn’t be able to come here,” Prado said. “I would have to go back home and finish my degree.”

John Hutton, vice president of Dalhousie’s student union, says students have to make these types of decisions far too often.

“Students need to take on jobs during school and stretch themselves thin,” he said.

“On so many levels, students are choosing between paying for books and paying for food.”

Dalhousie security personnel refused to let most protesters enter the building, but a handful of the students were allowed in for the meeting.

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Students inside the meeting communicated with the chanting crowd by holding handwritten notes against the window.

When student members on the Board of Governors spoke, the outside ruckus quieted down.

“It was very much noticed,” Jessie Hallett said.

Hallett, a third-year pharmacy student from the Antigonish-area, is the first person in her family to go to university. She is $32,000 in debt and says by the time she graduates, she will owe twice her family’s annual salary.

“It’s making it harder for me and my siblings to go to school, and I’m really worried about what’s going to happen when … tuition fees are even higher than now,” she said.

The board of governors will vote on the proposed budget in April.

 

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