author: derek cameron | news writer
Jermain McKenzie lays down the need to know
Derek Cameron: Let’s start with recent news. Tuition has gone up. What is your take on that?
Jermain McKenzie: I can’t say I’m surprised, especially with what came out of the provincial budget reading. It was made known that the universities would not be getting more funding and since the two revenue streams for universities are government funding and tuition, the writing was on the wall. The expectation was that students would pay more. I stood my ground to the Board of Governors and made it known that a growing number of students are experiencing dissatisfaction and that it shouldn’t have to come to a protest situation to show that [increases] can’t continue. It’s easy to look at the increases in isolation and think “this is fine,” but if you put it into the wider context of increased cost of living and rising cost of food, then its a different picture.
Derek: How did the Board of Governors react?
Jermain: They were sympathetic, but there was very much a sense of “what are we supposed to do?” The discussion focused around what should students be paying. It is an argument that should be had, but there needs to be a wider argument. More and more jobs will need university education, which means more people will want access. Our society likes to think that there is equal opportunity, but the reality is that people starting from lower income families are not given a chance to succeed. The real issue is how we tell children that to advance economically you must pursue higher education, but at the same time make education more and more inaccessible.
Derek: So the Board of Governors attitude was “what are we supposed to do?” do you have any ideas?
Jermain: Well, part of it is having that conversation about the expectation of the burden of cost for students. A proposal I want to take to the government is to move money from the graduate retention program up front to reduce the costs for students now, not ten years down the road after people have accrued debt. I’d want it in the form of grants targeted to students with needs, low income, middle income, and families. Definitely there are families that can afford to pay more. They don’t want to, but they could without it being a burden. But there are also families where an increase in tuition means a significant amount of belt tightening. Ideally, we would be able to organize a system where tuition doesn’t determine outcomes. When the burden of cost rises, it really picks winners and losers. I have heard the government say they’re not interested in picking winners and losers, but when money becomes a deciding factor in access to university education, that is picking winners and losers. I believe in a merit-based university program.
Derek: Why do you think tuition has gone up in this province recently?
Jermain: There’s a sense that students are fine and are bearing the increases well because they aren’t speaking out, but what I see is that there are murmurs because there’s a culture that doesn’t foster speaking out against the government. A lot of people bear whatever it is in silence. I believe my job is to give voice to those murmurs and to speak out.
Derek: Moving away from that, what are your plans for 2016-2017 URSU?
Jermain: One of our upcoming campaigns will be mental health, and that ties into tuition. Across institutions, more and more students are experiencing mental health issues. The root of the issue is higher cost. In the last seven years, the increases are close to 20 per cent. If you look at that, paired with an uncertain economy and having to maybe take up a job to pay for university, it causes a significant amount of stress. It’s a difficult burden to bear.
Back to the campaign, it will be a run to get as much funding for our URSU mental health line. The message will be that physical health and mental health go hand in hand; when mental health fails, we withdraw and that causes more problems, so we want to get and keep as many people moving. Although URSU may not be able to affect change right now, we understand that we can deal with the fallout of increased tuition in the meantime and ensure funding for students with need to access help and to sign up for physically active programs.
Writer’s Note: URSU has a mental health fund for students to apply for funding in accessing mental health services and a variety of other activities to promote mental health. Contact the Student advocate to access this fund.
Derek: Any other initiatives?
Jermain: On top of that, we are partnering with the library to provide textbooks on hold for every class. Provided that the textbooks are over a certain price point, we are hoping the library will carry two copies on reserve for students. The hope is that those who may have trouble accessing textbooks will have more options in pursuing education to the fullest of their abilities.
Derek: You campaigned on advocating what are your plans that front?
Jermain: One of my plans is to revive the Saskatchewan Students Coalition (SSC). It existed in 2010. The idea was that through unity, Saskatchewan’s centres for higher education could better lobby the government. I have talked to the executives at the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU) and I’m looking forward to talking to Sask Polytech and other centres that wish to join. It’s a big job but I’m looking forward to it. As well, last time the SSC only included undergraduates, this time I’d like to add graduate student voices to ours.
Derek: Do you find that URSU and the USSU are on the same page in regards to being advocates?
Jermain: The students at the U of S face the same issues so we have common concerns to cooperate on.