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SFUO execs part of group that demanded provincial minister invest more in post-secondary education

Screenshot courtesy of SFUO/Facebook

The University of Ottawa held a party for the official launch of its new research building—and student officials were there to crash it.

Several executive members of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) and a few other students showed up at the unveiling of the Advanced Research Complex (ARC) to demand the Ontario government drop student tuition fees and further invest in post-secondary education.

The morning of Sept. 30, the university celebrated the opening of the $70-million ARC, located on King Edward Avenue near the Minto Sports Complex. The school revealed plans for the five-storey, 14,000-square-metre complex two years ago, designed to give a bigger home to the university’s advanced photonics and geoscience research.

In attendance was Reza Moridi, minister of training, colleges and universities, which granted the group of students “a brilliant opportunity to raise awareness and put pressure on him about students’ discontent,” according to Nicole Desnoyers, the SFUO’s vice-president of services and communications.

At the launch, SFUO executive Chris Hynes stood a few metres from the podium, where he interrupted the university’s vice-president of research Mona Nemer with a pre-written speech while fellow members stood nearby behind a large banner.

“We are here on behalf of students of this university to send Minister Moridi and the Government of Ontario a message: defy the conventional and invest in post-secondary education,” Hynes began, playing off the slogan from the U of O’s new marketing campaign launched last month.

“This is a research centre, and research for the public good requires public funding,” he continued. “Under the current Liberal government, however, we have seen nothing but cuts to our PSE institutions.”

Hynes, the SFUO’s vice-president of university affairs, cited rising tuition fees over the last decade that he said are “largely due to underfunding of our education.”

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Ontario has the lowest per-student funding in Canada.

The U of O saw provincial funding drop by one per cent in 2013–14 and by two per cent in 2014–15, representing a total loss of $6.2 million from its budget over the last two academic years.

Tuition at the U of O has increased annually for the last nine years. The latest hike came this May, when the university’s Board of Governors voted in favour of a three per cent increase for undergrads and a five per cent increase for graduate students.

“When push comes to shove, students will fight back,” said Desnoyers.

However, the university has said it’s just trying to offset costs, since expenses mount at a greater rate than revenues. For the first time, government funding accounts for less than half the university’s current $1-billion budget.

Hynes’ short speech was followed by a call-and-response chant between an audience member and the SFUO executive: “Drop what? Drop fees!”

After Nemer finished speaking, university president Allan Rock took the podium. Rock emphasized his appreciation for the “major contributions” from the provincial government and then asked the group of students to step out.

“Now, we’re very proud of our students—all of them,” Rock said, drawing a laugh from the crowd and the protestors themselves. “We’ve had some students here this morning expressing their point of view. I think they’ve done that very clearly. And I would now ask that they show respect for the occasion by withdrawing.”

The SFUO uploaded a Facebook video of the demonstration that drew a polarized response from students, some of whom deemed the action “justified” while others said they were “embarrassed” by the “disrespect” shown by the group.

Kyle Larkin, an elected student official who represents the Faculty of Social Sciences on the SFUO’s Board of Administration, said he agrees that tuition fees are too high, but the federation’s plan of action that day was wrong.

“It’s not an effective tactic if you’re pissing off the people that you’re trying to lobby,” said Larkin, who also works at a firm that deals with government lobbying.

“First of all, when you disrespect someone, they don’t want to talk to you,” he said. “Second of all, when you are going out and disrespecting not only elected officials but also the administration of the school … on behalf of students—I don’t think people are voting you in to disrespect people who hold important positions within the government or within the University of Ottawa. “

Desnoyers said the SFUO engages in a number of lobbying tactics, and protests like this one are a necessary part of that.

“Through years of having these conversations with university administrations and with the government and not seeing a lot of action coming from them, students feel the need to escalate,” she said.

The protest wasn’t necessarily about the ARC itself, Desnoyers said, but she did point to criticisms that despite a space shortage on campus, “millions of dollars went into this … that only a handful of students will actually have access to because it’s prioritizing external researchers.”

The university did not provide any further comment.