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Alberta Election: University of Calgary forum on post-secondary issues draws mixed response from students

Some undecided University of Calgary (U of C) students attending a provincial candidate’s forum on post-secondary issues said the forum didn’t address the most pressing issues to students.

The forum, held Tuesday at the U of C’s MacEwan Student Centre, featured candidates from the five major parties, running for different ridings. Attending were Calgary-Varsity candidates Anne McGrath (NDP) and Beth Barbaree (Alberta Party), United Conservative Party (UCP) candidate for Calgary-Elbow Doug Schweitzer, Calgary-North Liberal candidate Saliha Haq, and TJ Cartwright, Freedom Conservative Party candidate for Red Deer-South.

The event was fairly sparsely attended, with fewer than 50 students in the crowd.

Undecided students Milana Leskoeac and Kira Feigan said that tuition was a major issue.

Chemical engineering student Ayah Metwaly said that she was undecided between two parties, and was looking for one of them to address support for low-income families.

After the debate, Metwaly said none of her concerns had been addressed.

“I now have three candidates, but each one has a major flaw,” she said.

Alisha Gordon, a representative for the U of C Students’ Union (SU), said that while her position meant she could not comment on which party she preferred, she was looking for more clarification from Schweitzer on the UCP’s policy of making student union fees non-mandatory.

“I’m really disappointed that students’ unions weren’t part of it,” said Gordon.

“The (U of C SU) is really blessed because most of our revenues come from our businesses. . .but other schools, it’s going to be devastating.

“Honestly, for me, as somebody who does not find post-secondary very accessible, things like (students’ union) health insurance are necessary for me to get through university.”

That UCP policy has been the subject of articles in both The Gauntlet (the U of C student magazine) and The Weal (the SAIT student magazine.)

Not all students interviewed were left unsatisfied, however.

Another undecided student, Saba Riza, said she had been swayed by Haq’s Liberal Party platform, because it directly addressed students’ concerns the most.

“I thought (Haq) raised a lot of really great points, she had a lot of concrete plans about what she was going to do, and as a university student that was the most valuable for me,” said Riza.

“A lot of the other candidates had good ideas, but I felt they weren’t specifically catered toward the University of Calgary.”

Haq said she came to the debate because she’s a U of C student herself, and knew the challenges faced by post-secondary learners. She added that students were a significant part of her riding, Calgary-North.

 “We indeed have tuition frozen, and that’s amazing, except for those students who are so burdened with debt upon completion of their degree,” said Haq in her opening statement.

“We need to ensure grants are provided to lower-income families to ensure true accessibility to post-secondary education.”

Haq added that help needed to be provided for students’ mental health.

Before the debate, psychology student Matusz Salmassi said he was hoping to hear progressive policies on tuition and mental health care.

“Those are typically the top concerns for students,” said Salmassi.

However, Salmassi and Feigan also said they wanted to hear about environmental policies, which went unaddressed in the debate.

McGrath, meanwhile, emphasized that either the UCP or NDP would take power, and that the former would result in cuts to education and healthcare. She said that the NDP’s tuition freeze and increased funding for post-secondary institutions proved that they prioritized post-secondary education.

McGrath said that the NDP would maintain the tuition freeze, while also providing more funding to increase post-secondary enrollment. The U of C’s current policy is to maintain enrollment at the appropriate levels of funding.

“I hate to comment on math at a debate, but the (UCP’s) math doesn’t add up,” said McGrath.

“You can’t give away $4.5 billion to wealthy corporations, freeze spending, and make post-secondary education affordable and accessible; you cannot decrease spending, and reduce student fees, and increase support for the university.”

McGrath drew some applause from students attacking the UCP’s plan, while Schweitzer’s rebuttals got a politer, more muted response.

Schweitzer said that while the UCP supported the tuition freeze, they had to consider the deficit first.

The UCP candidate’s plan for post-secondary institutions emphasized “unlocking” them via reduced red tape.

“Too often, our universities are constrained, and what they do, the mandate comes out of Edmonton,” said Schweitzer.

“They want to innovate; they so often want to engage in development here.”

Schweitzer also said the UCP wanted to promote entrepreneurship by supporting more international students and making sure they stayed in Alberta.

For the Alberta Party, Barbaree pointed to their just-released platform on post-secondary issues.

That platform includes maintaining the NDP’s tuition freeze, and creating 45,000 new post-secondary spaces. Barbaree questioned McGrath on whether a re-elected NDP government would maintain the tuition freeze.