Two student-focused provincial election public forums took place on College Hill this past week with mixed student attendance.
Most of the seats set up in the SUB atrium for last Wednesday’s Fredericton South Candidates Q&A, hosted by student unions of both UNB Fredericton and St. Thomas University, were filled with students eager to hear from candidates Craig Leonard of the Progressive Conservative Party, Kelly Lamrock of the New Democratic Party and David Coon of the Green Party.
Although Liberal candidate Roy Wiggins and the independent, Courtney Mills, had agreed to participate, they were not present.
“There [was] a way bigger crowd than I’d ever expected and it really awesome to see,” said Nicole Saulnier, vice-president external of the UNBSU and organizer of the event.
The main focus of the Q&A – all questions were related to issues affecting students the most – may have played a part in attracting students.
Dr. Donald Wright, from the department of political science, was the moderator of the Q&A session. He began the event by addressing the issue of low student voter turnout.
“These are important events in the life of a democracy. Remember, I can’t tell you who to vote for but I can tell you to vote. And if you don’t vote, you can’t bitch. Remember that,” he said.
The student unions had prepared four questions for the candidates, addressing the issues of mental health services, youth unemployment, international student resources and tuition and funding.
For mental health, both Lamrock and Coon said their parties would look into providing more funding to mental health services with the NDP promising a one million dollar fund administered over four years and the Green party by increasing the department of health’s budget in favour of the mental health sector.
Leonard said the PC party would look to continue their collaboration with education researchers at UNB to fund an initiative of raising awareness and training people in how to help those suffering from mental illness.
The training of entrepreneurs was a focus on each party’s platform on youth unemployment.
“It’s not just about creating jobs but also helping people to make work,” said Coon.
“One of the more interesting areas and certainly the focus that we’ve put on youth unemployment is the training of entrepreneurs,” said Leonard.
Lamrock said that instead of bailing out big companies, the money could be used instead to “giving students the training and credentials they need.”
Each candidate also addressed the lack of international student resources. Encouraging international students to stay after they graduate in order to grow the province was a stance each candidate seemed to agree upon.
The issue on which each candidate differed the most was tuition and funding in the province.
Lamrock spoke of a tuition freeze and making sure money went towards lowering tuition.
“One of the best ways to make sure that we make post-secondary a priority is to say no to things that are a waste of money,” Lamrock said.
“Making sure that we have effective programs to lower first year tuition instead of giving tax cuts to those with high incomes after they graduate.”
The Green Party has a goal of eventually having free post-secondary education in New Brunswick. Coon said that, right now, the party is focusing on the gradual steps it will take to get there.
“Our long-term ideal is the European model where post-secondary education is free. And we need to figure out how to get there. And we can get there if we start talking about it and having a plan for the long term,” said Coon.
Leonard said that a tuition freeze is not feasible at this time but that the current government has invested in funding to keep tuition costs reasonable.
“We can talk about tuition freezes but we all know what the reality is which is that cost increases on a yearly basis and as a result, if we freeze tuition, it puts an additional pressure on budgets,” Leonard said.
Students were also given a 20-minute period at the end of the session to ask their own questions.
But this wasn’t their only opportunity to speak up last week.
An all-party debate surrounding the topic of post-secondary education took place last Monday at the Kinsella Auditorium on the St. Thomas University campus.
The debate was hosted by the New Brunswick Student Alliance (NBSA), a student organization that supports students in getting a quality education in New Brunswick.
Each party sent a representative qualified to field questions about post-secondary concerns.
Present were Lamrock; Coon; People’s Alliance Oromocto-Lincoln candidate Jeff Langille; Victor Boudreau of the Liberal party and candidate for Shediac-Beaubassin-Cap-Pelé; and current post-secondary education, training and labour minister Jody Carr of the PC.
The debate focused on questions surrounding the recommendations put out to parties by the NBSA in their document titled “Degrees of Prosperity.”
The document, which can be found on the NBSA website, essentially outlines improvements the Alliance feels must be made to the post-secondary education system in New Brunswick. Based on the document, the NBSA asked all parties four prepared questions.
All parties came to a general consensus on the needs of post-secondary students but had different views on how to fulfill these needs. The Liberal, PC, Green, NDP and People’s Alliance parties all agreed that there are issues involving tuition rates and student loans within the province.
“[We plan on] stabilizing tuition by capping the increases at three per cent,” said Carr.
Both Carr and Langille agreed that stabilizing tuition should be the primary goal for lowering rates.
The NDP and the Green Party believe that capping student loans is the best choice of action when it comes to making university more accessible in New Brunswick.
Lamrock explained that their party would be capping how long loans could be paid back — a maximum of eight years.
“We’re the only party that is talking about putting hard caps on the amount of time that you can be in debt, and the government not only suspending your student loan payments, but also taking them over to make sure you’re out in eight years,” said Lamrock.
As for the Green Party, David Coon wants to reduce the tuition cap from $26,000 to $20,000.
One solution brought up by the Liberals was moving government grants from when students finish their post-secondary education to when they begin it.
“A commitment that we’ve made in our platform is putting in place a grants program that would be at the front end of the student loan equation as opposed to the back end where you have to max out your loans before you can get a grant,” said Boudreau.
Boudreau also said that eliminating parental and spousal contribution from the student loan process is in the Liberal platform this year.