Speech: Welcoming the New Liberal Government

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This speech was delivered on November 28th, 2013 outside the Nova Scotia Legislative assembly by John Hutton, student representative to the Dalhousie Board of Governors and member of Solidarity Halifax . Students from Dalhousie and around Halifax were present as the first day of the first session of the new government began, presenting a petition calling for restored funding to universities.

John Hutton addressing the crowd with megaphone.

Hello everyone, thanks for coming out in such weather. My name is John Hutton, I’m a 4th year economics and international development student, and a student representative on the Dalhousie Board of Governors. We’re here today because students are struggling and we want a different direction than what’s been taken in the past. This October, Nova Scotians voted for change. We’re here today to welcome the new government, and share what we see as change for the better.

So,with thanks to the minister for being here, I would like to present this petition. It was signed by 1,281 students from Dalhousie, King’ s College and even NSCAD students, and calls for the restoration of funding for the student academic experience. The last four years have been difficult for students with budget cuts and tuition hikes. The previous government said that the cuts would not affect the quality of our education but Dal students know otherwise- our library ran out of money to buy books in October this year and over 400 academic journals were cancelled. As students, we truly hope to see the change Nova Scotians voted for.

As we know, students in Nova Scotia pay among the highest tuition fees in the country and graduate with over $35,000 in debt on average. It hasn’t always been this way, of course. 25 years ago, more than 80% of university funding came from government. Now, NS has the dubious honour of being the only province with less than 50% public funding,and students are stuck picking up the tab. All through the 90’s tuition fees rose at three times the rate of inflation and students fell deeper and deeper into debt. But we’re students, so we fight back.

We organized ourselves to reverse skyrocketing tuition fees. In 2006, we held a province-wide day of action. The Liberals, sitting in the opposition benches then, stepped up and echoed the voice of students in the legislature. At the time, Diana Whalen, who was recently appointed as finance minister and at the time was the party’s eduction critic, said this in May 2006:

“Again this year we’ve seen a white flag of surrender from the minister and an unwillingness by the Cabinet to address the enormously high cost of tuition in this province.”

The students, who collected petition signatures, lobbied committees inthe legislature, and marched in the streets made a difference and the government endorsed a freeze on tuition fees until Nova Scotiareached the national average. Did the Liberals support the freeze? Even better. Diana Whalen said this in June 2006:

“We would certainly like to see a more aggressive reduction in tuition. I think that the government… is obliged to look at a method of coming up with real reductions in tuition and not just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to us. We really need to look at some way to directly reduce tuition for our students.”

Liberal leader, and now premier Stephen McNeil said this:

“High tuitions and low government funding are resulting in Nova Scotia students leaving our province to pursue their post-secondary education elsewhere. We should be doing everything we can to encourage our young people to learn and work in Nova Scotia.”

So students, with the help of supportive MLAs, won a freeze on tuition fees in the memorandum ofunderstanding signed in 2007.

But the Conservative government of the day had been in power for many years by then and Nova Scotians wanted change. In 2009, for the first time ever, voters put the NDP into power. Students had good reason to be hopeful. The New Democrats had long been supporters of affordable education, having sent their volunteers around the province knocking on doors to petition for a ten percent tuition reduction and ran on it in their 2006 platform. They supported students and helped win the tuition freeze in 2007.

Well, we know how that went.

Rather than reducing tuition fees, they re-heated a policy supported by Harper’s conservatives called the graduate retention tax rebate. The idea is that recent graduates that make enough money to qualify for the tax credit can save some money, which supposedly keeps graduates here. Data doesn’t agree, but boy it looks good on political pamphlets. Students opposed it then, and we still do today. And in 2009 when the NDP moved to implement it, the Liberals were on side with us too. Karen Casey, now the Minister for P-12 eduction, summarized the critique wonderfully:

“A tax credit at the end of a four-year program is meaningless if you haven’t had enough money to get to university to start with.”

And that’s the best thing the NDP did for students.

In 2010, it was time to sign a new memorandum of understanding. The NDP asked bank of Montreal economist Tim O’Neill to write a report advising the government on what to do with education funding. Here’s a question: when you ask a person who profits from student debt to advise you on student debt, what might they say?

Basically what you’d expect. Tim O’Neill told the government that they should slash education funding, remove all regulations on tuition fees, let students take on unlimited debt, and merge NSCAD and King’s with Dal. A far cry from when the NDP were running “cutthefees.ca”

Students were very opposed to the O’Neill report, and we organized the largest public protest since George Bush came to Halifax. Three thousand students were there on the streets- in the middle of a blizzard. See? Bad weather doesn’t stop us.

The Liberals were critical of the O’Neill report, thankfully. Kelly Regan, who is now the advanced education minister, said to the government:

“Why is it okay to be on the side of students when you are in Opposition and then ignore them when you go into government?”

Fine words.

The NDP was forced to slow their implementation the O’Neill report, rather than immediately, and only “won” (from their perspective, not students or Nova Scotians) a three percent per year tuition hike and a ten percent cut to university funding. They said the funding cuts wouldn’t affect the quality- yet the Dal library ran out of money to buy books this year and students were left wondering how to do their research without access to journals. They said our tuition fees were near the national average, yet students are graduating with over $35,000 in debt on average- as Diana Whalen predicted, the government didn’t make education affordable, they just waited for the rest of Canada to be unaffordable too. They said that it wasn’t affordable to fund affordable, quality eduction. Again, the Liberals were on it in the legislature. Zach Churchill, at the time the advanced education critic and now minister of natural resources, said this to the premier:

“The premier says we didn’t have money to put into it. Well where did they get the $600 million to give to six corporations in this province? They have $600 million for six corporations that laid off 1,300 people, but didn’t have $100 million to invest in our education system, and the province is going to hurt. Universities inject $805.2 million into Nova Scotia’s economy every year. Universities are an economic driver for the province and are responsible annually for about $968 million in gross domestic product, $227 million in tax revenue and $4.39 billion in economic output. Unfortunately this Premier doesn’t care about any of that and chooses to cut education instead. My question to the Premier is, students and universities are wondering why the Premier has endless amounts of cash for corporations but had to cut $100 million out of our universities?”

Which is why students are here today. When Nova Scotians went to the polls in October, they voted for change. They voted against corporate welfare, against tuition hikes, and against university cuts. The government that now sits in power has a record of criticizing policies that make education less affordable. Now, they have a chance to put their money where their mouth is. They can be the change that we want and need. They can make education affordable. They can reduce tuition fees.

So I welcome the new government and wish them well over their mandate. I welcome them to end the graduate retention tax rebate, as students have called for, because its worth enough money to make one hundred percent of Nova Scotia student loans into needs-based grants. I welcome the new government to reduce tuition fees, because high debt loads are bankrupting a generation and forcing young people to leave the province. I welcome the new government to restore the funding recklessly cut from our universities, because education is a right and a powerful economic engine to boot. Welcome to government. We students are here today because it’s your first day on the job, and the symbolism of our presence as the first thing you see entering the legislature for your first session will remind you of the values you campaigned on. I welcome you to never forget what your election platform said: “Education isn’t a line item in a budget, it’s our future.”

The students are here, we want change, and we’re watching. Welcome to government.

Brogan Carruthers hands the petition to the Minister of Advanced Education.
Brogan Carruthers hands the petition to the Minister of Advanced Education.

Note: Statements by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.