Print Edition: February 22, 2012
Even the back steps of BC’s parliament building couldn’t remain quiet this Valentine’s Day as BC’s first legislative session resumed for the 2012 year.
Making all that noise in Victoria on the first day of the legislature was the WTF (Where’s The Funding?) campaign, an independent collective of student unions from across the province with the goal of promoting the issue of student funding.
They wanted to use the attention drawn by the various ceremonies planned for that day. Unfortunately, the premier shelved the Throne Speech in favour of appearing on a radio talk show, but there was still plenty of other happenings going on, such as the “Black Rod” which celebrated the Queens 60th anniversary on the throne.
This particular event was organized by the University of Victoria’s Students’ Society (UVSS), and lead by their Chairperson Tara Paterson. And as the date aligned with Valentine’s Day, it was a perfect opportunity to up the dramatic impact by having students design cards addressed to Advanced Education Minister Naomi Yamamoto.
So, it was with those cards and the three WTF demands of eliminating interest on student loans, the re-establishment of needs-based grants, and greater core funding for post-secondary institutions that the WTF took to those back steps.
Representing UFV’s contingent there were three SUS representatives in attendance: vice president academic (and UFV’s leader on WTF) Kate Nickelchok, rep-at-large Mehtab Singh Rai, and president Carlos Vidal.
At around 10:30 a.m., the roughly 25 representatives in total began by making use of popular social media services, particularly Twitter, to get the message out to as many people as possible.
It was then Paterson who, at the microphone and behind a stack of over 6000 student-made cards, delivered the speech for WTF. “We are here today on the steps of the legislature to ask Minister Yamamoto to show BC student a little love this Valentine’s Day,” she began.
Paterson noted that Newfoundland Labrador has eliminated interest on student loans and how the federal Conservative government had already introduced a needs-based grant system. She then began to read out some of the student-made cards.
“Dear Minister Yamamoto and Premier Christy Clark, I am a student who comes from a middle-income family with a single mom and the first of four kids to go to post-secondary education. With a needs-based grants program, the rest of my siblings will get the opportunity to attend post-secondary and not take on the $40,000 debt load I have already achieved. Education is a beautiful thing. Why deny it to people who can’t afford it?” said one of a few cards read by Paterson.
Afterwards, Paterson commented that “We got coverage from CTV, CBC, as well as many local papers. And we’re hoping that come budget day, and within the budget consultation period, we’ll be able to see some improvement for the state of funding for post-sec in BC.”
Aside from the reporters in attendance was Advanced Education Critic Michelle Mungall, who when asked if this will have an impact on Minister Yamamoto, said “To date she hasn’t responded favourably to any of the ideas put forward by [the] Where’s The Funding? campaign, which is unfortunate and it’s in stark contrast with where the NDP is with our position, which we’ve already said that we would commit to $100 million into that. We’ve identified how we’d pay for that as well, and the Liberals just haven’t taken that idea up. So, I think that the more students speak out and make sure their voices are heard, not only by engaging in the political process between elections but at elections, they’re going to be a lot harder to ignore.”
The event ended with one representative from each student union going along to Minister Yamamoto’s office to personally deliver the cards. As she was in caucus, though, the cards weren’t able to be given directly to her, but would instead be left as a surprise when she returns.
Later on in the day, Nickelchok, Rai, and Vidal struck out on their own to visit with Abbotsford-South MLA John Van Dongen. Van Dongen proved to be very receptive to the idea of WTF and thought that a reduction of interest rates would be the strongest case to work on. As BC has the highest interest rate on student loans in Canada, it sits on an extreme end – a place of weakness governments don’t like to be in.
The WTF campaign is BC’s first truly self-organized movement. With UFV having joined in October, and most recently the University of Northern British Columbia, it now represents eight post-secondary institutions and more than 160,000 students, with the purpose of a better-funded education system.
BC receives revenue on each loan given as they borrow at one per cent below prime and loan it at 2.5 per cent above. However, if the interest was eliminated, it would cost the government $30 million – a small number compared to the $600 million BC Place roof or oil and gas subsidies.
Paterson made the case that establishing a needs-based grants system would actually be a benefit to the province. Instead of servicing loans, “There’s a lot of research that shows that students who graduate with a post-secondary degree end up making a lot more money in the long run and therefore investing a lot more money back into government in tax revenue. And so, it is a crucial investment in our economy” stated Paterson on investing in students up-front.
To the goal of greater core-funding towards post-secondary education, it could be seen as necessary just to keep up with the cost of inflation. The period of 2001-2009 saw operating grants decline by eight per cent. Given UFV is operating at 105 per cent capacity, that pinch is certain to be felt and result in looking program cuts.
For those interested in expressing concern, the wheresthefunding.org has a form letter addressed to Minister Yamamoto, or as Van Dongen suggested strongly – take time to speak with your own MLA.