Opinion: Alberta students can’t afford Doug Ford-style policies

Students march at a lunch hour protest at Western University against the Doug Ford government’s decision to cut free tuition for low-income students and other changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Plan (OSAP). Photograph taken on Friday January 18, 2019. Mike Hensen / Mike Hensen/The London Free Pres

Albertans pride themselves on their ability to ignore Ontario.

We’ve endured far too many hot takes from the east. We get it, Ontario, you like the Maple Leafs. You blame us for winter weather when it’s not actually cold. Your love of cottage country is predicated on faulty nomenclature. They’re called cabins, Ontario. Cabins.

But every once in a while, Albertans should pay attention to good old Upper Canada. Recent changes to post-secondary education are a case in point.

Earlier this month, Doug Ford announced a 10-per-cent tuition cut at Ontario schools. Framed as a big win, it’s actually a poison pill. The tuition cut comes without government investment. Universities and colleges will have to make up for a $440-million loss. Expect bigger classes and fewer professors.

Ford’s plan doesn’t stop there. He’s making student fees optional, another change that seems to help but will actually hurt. Fees pay for student support groups and safety. They pay for U-Passes that cut costs and help local municipalities build better public transportation. And fees help pay for student bodies and newspapers that stand up for their rights and interests.

While Ford isn’t actually giving students very much, he’s taking a lot. By repealing assistance for low-income students, he’s putting university and college out of reach for those who need it most. He’s removed a six-month post-graduation grace period for repaying student loans. In a changing job market that can be extremely hard to crack; six months can mean the difference between success and failure. It can mean settling for survival instead of putting education to good use.

Before Alberta’s 265,000 post-secondary students shrug and head off to class, it’s important to bring this 3,000 kilometres west. If Albertans aren’t careful, pocketbook populist attacks won’t just remain at Queen’s Park, they’ll get a long soak in the Alberta Legislature pool.

It’s no idle threat. Jason Kenney has mused about his “bromance” with Doug Ford. He’s been trying out the same populist tactics. And at the UCP’s founding convention last spring, Kenney’s party voted to make university fees optional.

Students shouldn’t be fooled. Opting out of fees isn’t a win. It will mean real cuts to programs that make campuses healthy. It will hurt welcome weeks and mental-health programs. And it will absolutely gut student unions, leaving students with a weaker voice.

As future leaders in an increasingly complex world, students need to fight any policy that promises more than it actually delivers. We should be doubly suspicious of a political party embracing Doug Ford’s tendency to pit ordinary “buck-a-beer” policies against higher learning.

Like Ford, Kenney’s lack of public-policy positions haven’t seemed to cost him yet. He’s been given free reign to get Albertans angry. He makes promises like a “summer of repeal,” a vague plan to quickly de-legislate everything Rachel Notley’s government has fought for.

A legislative mulligan might sound good at the Blackfoot Diner, but it’s unlikely to convince the crowd at MacEwan Hall or at Dewey’s Pub. Over the past four years, Alberta students have benefitted from tuition freezes that didn’t affect class sizes. We’ve seen stable and predictable funding and long-neglected investments to infrastructure. We’ve had a government that values universities as economic drivers, places where Alberta can innovate, grow and build a better future.

Post-secondary students should be worried about what might happen. A new UCP government might prefer poison pills to an affordable tuition framework, Alberta’s sensible new legislation that ties tuition increases to the cost of living.

Alberta’s election could be called around the same time students are juggling exams, term papers and other responsibilities. While students might have very little time to spare, we will need to study hard and press the UCP and Jason Kenney for answers.

It hurts to admit it. We might need to stop ignoring Ontario.

Kyle Paziuk is a first-year University of Alberta student enrolled in political science.