Dalhousie student and Solidarity Halifax member John Hutton addressed the crowd during the February 4th Student Day of Action. Here is a transcript and video of his speech.
Hello everyone thanks for being here! I’m John Hutton, I’m a 5th-year student in international development studies and economics and I’ve gotta say, what a beautiful sight! It’s great to see so many students here today. Who can look at actions like this and say students are apathetic? We know that’s a myth, and our presence here shows that we’re not going to be stereotyped and ignored any longer.
Youth apathy isn’t the only myth out there. We’re told many untrue things about our society, about our education. We’re told things to try and keep up quiet, complacent,accepting of our fate. The reality is that another world is possible. We don’t have to be the first generation in a century to be worse off than our parents. We don’t have to obediently take on huge debts to earn degrees we may or may not want to maybe, if we’re lucky, get a decent-paying job that we may or may not like, but of course getting worse pay, benefits and pensions than the generation got for the same job. I want to use my time here to cast some light, and give a glimpse of the better world that we can make possible so easily, if we want it.
We’re here today to call for reduced tuition fees, because student debt is bankrupting a generation. Students collectively owe the federal government $15 billion dollars, and that’s not even counting provincial or private student loans. We’re here today to call for converting student loans into needs-based grants -like Newfoundland just did last year- because education should be accessible to all regardless of their ability to pay. We’re here today to call for increased core funding for universities, because we see the negative effects of growing class sizes, crumbling buildings, replacing tenure-track professors with contract teachers, cuts to our libraries, classes, and we’ve even lost whole departments like Italian. We’ve had enough of paying more for less.
When we make the relatively modest demand that government agree that an educated, skilled society is a good thing, we’re told that we’re naive, idealistic, and impractical. They tell us that in these tough economic times that we just can’t afford it.
But that’s simply not true, and to be frank, they’ve given us no reason to believe that they’re remotely responsible with money or the economy. Lets put this in perspective. All budgets are about PRIORITIES. If education is not a priority, what is a priority? Well, lets consider some things our government is using our tax dollars on: 5 Canadian banks got a $114 billion bailout in 2009; Harper’s made $8.7 billion in corporate tax cuts since 2006; Canada gives $2.8 billion in handouts to the tar sands every year, which boggles the mind given how much profit they make… but tax dollars also finance $3.2 billion in oil exploration abroad! $114 for the banks, $8.7 billion for the CEOs, $6 billion for profitable oil companies… well, it’d cost $7.8 billion to make education in Canada free to the PHD level! The provincial government next week is holding consultations on tax reform in Nova Scotia. They’re proposing a $72 million tax break for the top income bracket and for corporations.That money we can apparently afford to get rid of is enough to convert 100% of Nova Scotia student loans into grants AND reduce tuition fees by 24 percent. Don’t ever let them tell you that you need to pay high fees. We deserve better than to pay for their warped priorities.
Indeed, in opposition, even Premier Stephen McNeil said that “education isn’t a line item in a budget, it’s our future.” Fine words. In opposition, Education Minister Kelly Regan said “Why is it okay to be on the side of students in opposition but ignore them in government?” Then the Liberals came to power, and they cut the $50 million graduate retention rebate, excluded students from memorandum of understanding negotiations, raised tuition fees, and want to spend the next four years cutting away. Since there’s clearly plenty of money in government I have some alternatives to suggest.
Last spring in Newfoundland, they converted 100% of student loans to needs-based grants. Newfoundland has the lowest fees in the country because they’ve frozen tuition fees since 1999. As a result, Nova Scotia student enrolment went up by over 1097%!! Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. Education for all is not only possible, but we know it works well. Over 25 countries already have free education,and it’s time Canada joins that list.
They say that we shouldn’t worry about student debt, because if we just work hard enough and don’t pick the wrong degree, we’ll get a good job with good pay, and the debt has a good return on investment. Sure. It’ll have an even better return on investment if we pay less! And frankly, many 17 year-olds have no idea what they want to do, and you can improve their benefits from education if they can experiment in different programs instead of dropping out due to the cost! As a student rep on the Dal board of governors, I’ve been asked to sit on a bunch of committees studying why so many first year arts and International students dropout. Umm, how about the $6000-per-year price tag? Hey look, I just saved Dal a few hundred thousand in consulting fees!
They say that students are apathetic. When we prove them wrong on days like today, they say that action doesn’t work. Quebec premier Jean Charest will never say that, of course. Students brought down his majority government when he tried to raise fees by 75%! And last year in Scotland, a place with the same so-called apathetic youth as here, over 85% of young people voted in a referendum. Why? Because people vote when voting makes a difference. We will not be told that we’re to blame because they don’t care about young people. It’s entirely on them to be relevant. It’s entirely on them to do better. It’s on them stop selling us ridiculous partisan rhetoric and actually make young people and education a priority.
Education matters. It’s a wonderful, transformative thing that improves our quality of life and society, improves our chances of success and yes-it’s also great for the economy. We know that education is worth fighting for, and we know that affordable, accessible education is possible. What the politicians offer isn’t the way things need to be. Through collective and persistent actions, students have the power to change things too. I believe in student power, and I know that we can win this fight. Today isn’t the first or last day of the struggle, but we’re going to send a very clear message to Stephen McNeil today.
I’m so proud of you all for being here. Lets go down to the government’s house. We’re going to be loud, we’re going to be clear, and we are united. We are the student movement, we demand free education for all, and we will never give up!
Note: Statements by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.