Universal tuition debate sparks frustration at STUSU meeting

Tears, walk-outs and back-talking occurred during the Student Representative Council meeting on March 17. A petition was presented by students Ariel Ottens, Naomi Gullison and others, demanding for the St. Thomas University Students’ Union to leave the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the New Brunswick Student Alliance, in order to provide universal free tuition.

About eight students attended in support of the petition, which has 193 signatures.

A paper outlining the petition was passed around to STUSU executives, representatives and others. It said the lobbying techniques used by STUSU under CASA and the NBSA “are adequate only for ensuring the slow and controlled increase of tuition.”

STUSU, CASA and the NBSA advocate for a targeted model of free tuition for low and middle income families.

Petitioners had spoken to students and circulated their petition, but didn’t approach STUSU or the St. Thomas University International Students’ Association directly to discuss their concerns prior to speaking to them during the meeting. They presented a letter to STUSU at the Feb. 10 SRC meeting outlining their concerns, however.

Husoni Raymond, the vice-president administration, said this is not effective lobbying.

Sara Nason, the sexuality and gender diversity representative for STUSU, signed the petition. They were asking on behalf of the petitioners for a student referendum for STUSU to leave CASA and the NBSA.

Jarrod Ryan, the chair of STUSU, said there wouldn’t be enough time to hold a referendum before the end of the school year.

Al Cusack, a St. Thomas University student, rebutted this by asking for “tangible action items” to be discussed, considering the council wouldn’t be able to vote on a potential leave from the two student organizations.

“Just because we’re saying the structures you’re working in are oppressive structures, doesn’t mean we’re saying [STUSU is] not trying,” said Cusack.

Throughout the meeting, the suggestion of joining the Canadian Federation of Students was proposed by petitioners.

Personal letters written by students Jo Dempsey, Cusack, Nason, Kris Foreman and Gullison, were read aloud – explaining their reasoning behind wanting universal free tuition.

Points made throughout the letters included: low-income students are at a disadvantage, focusing on targeted free tuition isn’t enough because it could be cut altogether, dealing with significant amounts of debt and fighting hard to attain and keep scholarships which contributes to bad mental health.

“If you’re not advocating for free tuition and for funding so that students don’t have to work during their degree, you are literally calling for students to suffer,” read Foreman’s letter.

“The access that disadvantaged students have now to free tuition is conditional. Conditional on us staying perfectly in line, on us never getting sick, or facing a crisis, or, dare I say, learning by making mistakes. No, we have to be perfect. The rich get to mess up. We don’t have that luxury,” read Cusack’s.

Members of the SRC read their own letters in response to the individual ones presented. Cusack said councillors were coming in with responses to letters they hadn’t heard yet. All but Gullison’s were already made public on Facebook prior to the meeting.

Diana Chavez, the international student representative, read a statement made by St. Thomas University International Students’ Association, highlighting international students’ take on the topic.

“As non-citizens who cannot vote but see their everyday lives inherently affected by the outcomes of any election, STUSU’s advocacy with the NBSA and CASA is the only way in which our voices are being directly channeled to the provincial and federal governments, and we appreciate STUSU’s representatives,” a part of the statement read.

STUSU executives like Raymond, as well as SRC representatives, said they heard students were being misinformed and unethically talked into signing the petition, specifically international students.

“I’ve reviewed the names on this petition and spoken with these students and that is what they’ve communicated with me and I find it’s just so very unethical to have them sign something that will ultimately go against their interests,” said Raymond.

Manuel Garcia, president of STUISA, said international students make up 10 per cent of the student population at STU, but should be considered regardless of the percentage.

Petitioners including Ottens said they were not pressuring students to sign and that there was a blurb at the top of the petition explaining exactly what it was for. Ottens also said if students wanted their names taken off of the petition, they would do so.

Gullison said that the students weren’t misinformed by them, but that STUSU has been misinformed by CASA and the NBSA regarding their information.

While Tyler Dupuis, Harrington Hall representative, read the house’s statement against the petition, Nason started to cry. Cusack and Ottens comforted them.

Ottens said she brought students with herself and Gullison because she thinks STUSU has “taken this activism personally.”

“I brought students here today that weren’t us for this reason and I also thought that you wouldn’t be assholes to them, but I was wrong.”

Ryan deemed this out of order and Ottens took back using the term asshole.

Nason said they had a lot of hope resting on this and hoped something would be done.

“I ethically cannot sit on this union anymore and I am scared to be in this room, so I’m going to leave.”

Nason left the meeting with Cusack. Their cries in the hallway could be heard in the meeting room.

Throughout the meeting, petitioners expressed they did not feel heard.

All of those who wrote personal letters left before the end of the meeting.

Emma Walsh, vice-president education, appreciated that petitioners and other students came out to express their concerns.

“I extend my empathy and sympathy to those folks. I think their views are legitimate … I want to make a difference.”

Raymond said STUSU acknowledges the issues students face.

“We do acknowledge that student debt is a problem and students are facing mental health problems … We are also students, we’re in debt, we’re also facing these mental health problems having to work during our degree. It’s not just an observation. For me, it’s a lived experience,” said Raymond.

Raymond said in countries where free universal tuition exists, like Germany, there’s a low access rate to post-secondary education. There are caps on the number of students who can attend. Access depends on grades, meaning high-income students have an advantage to getting in because they have less socio-economic barriers that would affect their grades.

Brianna Workman, president of STUSU, chose to wait until everyone else had spoken before she shared her thoughts.

“I did hold off speaking for a long time because I wanted to listen and listen very carefully and listen intently … I appreciate anyone that came out tonight, whether or not they’re still here,” she said.

“I don’t want to invalidate those feelings or concerns in any way … but I also do want to say that never was my intention and I don’t think that was the intention of anyone in this room.”

Workman said she will likely reach out to the students who left early. She urges any other students to approach herself or other executives with any concerns they may have or if they would like to discuss the topic further.

Raymond, the incoming STUSU president, said he’s open to new ways of communicating concerns.

“In the future we could be more inclusive in how we hear concerns. That is something we’re open to.”

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