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UOIT students walk out

UOIT walkout

Jesse Cullen, now the president-elect of the student union at UOIT, says the fight to reduce student debt is far from over.

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Students from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology walked out of classes to protest high tuition rates and the resulting student debt.

Jesse Cullen, one of the organizers, says that at its height there were “between 100 and 200 people.” However, according to the Facebook page of Drop Tuition UOIT – which organized the walkout – there were issues bringing students from North Campus to the downtown rally.

“We scheduled buses to pick North Campus students up and drive them to the rally today, but nobody showed up,” the group says in a reply to a Facebook comment from a student voicing a complaint that the rally was held downtown. “We hold meetings on North Campus all of the time and barely anybody shows up.”

Regardless of how many students showed up and which campus they came from, Cullen – who was recently elected president of UOIT’s student union – says he felt the group’s message was heard.

“It was the first time that many students had been involved in any kind of political action or rally or walkout. So, it was really good to hear them articulate their issues and their troubles in such an intelligent way,” Cullen tells The Oshawa Express. “Not only did our message, but the students themselves got their message out.”

As the student president elect, Cullen says he wants to get the message out that student tuition is too high.

“I called on (UOIT president) Dr. Tim McTiernan during the rally…to release an open letter with myself and the faculty association to call on the four major federal parties for action to create a fully funded post secondary education system,” he says.

Cullen adds this is due in part to an initiative from Cape Breton University last month where the heads of the school’s administration, faculty association and student union released an open letter calling on Ottawa to open a discussion on free post secondary education.

“Hopefully as the president, I can work with the institutions on these sorts of issues. We hear often that their hands are tied and they rely on tuition fees to balance their budget every year, so we’re asking them to put their money where their mouth is,” Cullen says.

Bryan Oliver, UOIT’s communications officer, tells The Oshawa Express in an emailed statement that while the university recognizes some of the barriers students face when it comes to tuition, there are plenty of opportunities available.

“Despite bursaries, scholarships and government aid programs, universities recognize that many students go into debt to fund their education,” he states. “UOIT offered more than $60 million (in 2013-14) in financial aid that includes $7 million through scholarships, bursaries and wages to student employees, which help offset tuition. In the same year, we processed over $54 million in OSAP assistance. Over $14 million of that was in up front, non-repayable grants. The Board of Governors has also created a program that has set aside $1 million to match donations to the university’s Student Success Fund. The Student Success Fund augments the university’s scholarships and bursaries. New student award opportunities are being created every year.”

Cullen says the group will hold another meeting before the end of the year but at this point, there are no definite plans for future events in the near future. However, the significance of the group’s message, Cullen says, is still important.

“At the end of the day, tuition fees are one thing, but tuition fees lead to student debt. And students who are having to take out massive loans to pay for their education are actually paying more for the same degree than folks who can pay up front,” Cullen says. “We have created a two-tier system in this province and across the country. The folks least able to pay are paying more. That runs contrary to the things Canadians believe in and hold close like our public health system and public pension system. To me, that just seems to be an injustice.”