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March of the penguins: Students set up Calgary display to spread the word on post-secondary costs

Contrary to the size of the signs, the message from University of Calgary students demonstrated there’s a big problem.

Lead by representatives from the school’s students union, an army of snow penguins was set up outside McDougall Centre in downtown Calgary on Monday to help raise awareness for the growing financial struggles students are facing.

The penguins were an alternative to protesting in person, abiding by restrictions set in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was borrowed from a similar demonstration set up at the Alberta Legislature in late January.

Vice President External of the University of Calgary Student Union Marley Gillies said the message is bigger than an individual school or city.

“This is a provincial message and it’s coming from all students of Alberta and it’s something we’re united on,” Gillies said.

“This is a continuing message of stopping the cuts to post-secondary education and continuing to make Alberta education affordable,” she said.

Gillies said students in Alberta have seen tuition increase in each of the last two years. Additionally, the province announced last year tuition fees would rise more than 22 per cent over three years.

The province also eliminated the tuition tax credit, which amounted to approximately $200 million in tax hikes on students and families.

Employment to help pay is an issue

According to a survey run by the student union last summer, 60 per cent of students were also not able to find employment types they were seeking over the summer. Gillies said many students rely on such employment to supplement their loans and to afford living and school expenses.

“They’re having to take out more loans and are increasing the amount of student debt they’ll see post graduation,” she said.

“We’ve been hearing from the government over and over that debt is bad for the government. Students are wondering, ‘if debt is bad for the government, why is it good for students?’” she said.

Serena Moar, a student at the University of Calgary said she has nearly maxed out her student loans for the year, and worried that without employment it still won’t be enough.

Moar was laid off seven times in 2020. She worked for a major airline during that time and employment was tenuous. That resulted in more student loans being taken out to subsidize her living expenses.

All for an education that’s amounted to a streaming service, she said.

“I’m very poor, and I’m really struggling to keep up with any sort of payments at all,” she said.

More student supports needed

Gillies said Alberta currently has poor financial support for its post secondary students compared to other provinces. Alberta’s Student Aid System is just over 80 per cent repayable student aid as opposed to non-repayable grants and funding options.

The hope is for the message to be heard loud and clear by authorities “who look after post-secondary students.”

Gillies said an ideal scenario for students would be for additional funding resources to be made available. She’d like to see non-repayable options, as well as student supports to help pay for living expenses.