Reps from local parties chat on advanced education policy at Mount Royal University
"The appetizer before the entrée," was how Marc Chikinda described Thursday's post-secondary open forum at Mount Royal University, which featured representatives from local parties discussing higher-level education to a sparsely-filled theatre.
The forum's moderator and Mount Royal's dean of communications was alluding to the televised provincial debate happening the same night, which saw party leaders battle over both the issues and their own public image.
With most parties' platforms focusing more on the soon-retiring baby boomers than the younger-students demographic this election, Chikinda's joke seemed apt in more ways than one.
Still, the political scrapping later that night was in short supply during the open forum. This was due, in part, to the loose format, which featured more audience questions than speech making. There was also tthe fact that the representatives all came from different ridings, having little to gain from direct mudslinging.
This came in marked contrast to last Tuesday's "voting game" debate that also took place at Mount Royal University, which saw heated dialogue between Wildrose candidate James Cole and Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford, both from Calgary-Elbow.
Another obvious difference was the lack of a Wildrose representative on Tuesday's panel, which featured representatives from only the Liberal, NDP, PC and Alberta parties.
While Chikinda assured the audience that "every attempt possible was made," to find a fitting representative from the party, Robert Scobel, NDP candidate from the Calgary-Currie riding, did take that opportunity to point out "one can draw some conclusions" from the Wildrose's lack of attendance.
The Wildrose absence quickly became easy fodder for Scobel and Kent Hehr, Liberal candidate from Calgary-Buffalo, who expressed concern over the Wildrose platforms, as well as its lead in recent polls.
"They scare me," said Scobel.
PC MLA Greg Weadick, minister of Advanced Education and Technology in Alberta, praised the growth he has seen in post-secondary education and research, citing rapid growth in fields like medical research, as well as British Prime Minister James Cameron's statement last year that "Alberta has the finest education system in the English speaking world."
In response to a question of the province's perceived low university enrollment rates, Weadick offered Alberta's industrial growth as a culprit. "We are blessed with an extremely active economy," he explained, one in which young people can so quickly make money in the oil-based economy without a formal education.
This conclusion is seemingly at odds with the rhetoric coming from all representatives regarding the "new knowledge-based economy."
Weadick added that many Albertans, while initially choosing work over school, do come back later in life, and that "by the age of 35, we are on a Canadian par for people with post-secondary education." He said that 20 per cent of apprentices are trained in Alberta, "and we desperately need those."
Greg Clark, running for the Alberta Party in Calgary-Elbow, took a progressive approach to reform, saying "we need to approach learning from a lifelong perspective, and think not just of post-secondary education as something you do from ages 18 to 25.
"It's something we should consider as a lifelong venture."
Both the Liberal and the New Democratic representatives criticized the current administration's continued deficit, despite oil prices continually staying above $100 per barrel, and re-stated their commitments to free — or at least cheaper — post-secondary education.
"People live more vibrant, more thoughtful lives as a result of education," said Hehr, adding that "learning how to learn" is the primary skill for the new workforce. To this effect, the Liberals will immediately lower tuition by $250 and give $1,000 back on tuition if a graduate stays in Alberta, he promised.
"This is an investment in people's futures. I don't buy the notion that people will value it less because it's free."
Scobel said the NDPs are committed to reducing tuition fees by 10 per cent in the short term, and "ending the charging of non-instructional fees in post-secondary schools." They will also "work with trade unions to increase apprenticeship training programs."
"We see cost as the Number 1 barrier to post-secondary education," Scobel said.
While Clark said he believes there should be "no interest on student debt for the first couple years after university," both he and Weadick agreed that education in Alberta needs a monetary value to retain its current elevated status.
Students should "pay their fair share, but they shouldn't pay too much," said Clark.
Weadick defended the current tuition rates, saying that Alberta's "graduate-level tuitions are the lowest in Canada," and undergrad tuitions are the fourth-largest countrywide.
"I believe that students should have skin in the game. They should be part of the process," said Weadick.
This last stat was later corrected by Hehr, who said it was the third, rather than the fourth, largest.
- By CONNOR BELL