A student union at the University of British Columbia is asking the United Nations to appoint an independent expert or special rapporteur to look into human-rights violations in Canada.
The Alma Mater Society made the request in a November 25 complaint filed with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which argues the Canadian and B.C. governments have violated a human-rights treaty by not ensuring postsecondary education is accessible to everyone.
Blake Frederick, president of the AMS, told the Straight that his student union has lobbied both governments for years to remove the financial barriers that stand in the way of many students trying to get a university education.
“There are a vast range of stories of a number of students who because of these barriers have faced significant challenges just trying to attain an education,” Frederick said by phone from the Point Grey campus. “We believe that it is not appropriate for students to be denied education, and that’s why have filed the complaint.”
The complaint—submitted by the AMS along with UBC graduate Tristan Markle, and with the help of the law firm Pivot Legal LLP—notes Canada signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976.
Article 13 of the treaty reads: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”.
Frederick noted that, over the past decade, tuition fees have continually gone up in B.C. while government funding for postsecondary education has dropped.
His student union’s complaint argues that governments aren’t providing enough financial aid to students who need it.
“We submit that the Governments have engaged in a consistent pattern of gross human rights violations,” it states. “The facts set out in this complaint demonstrate a sequence of legislative and policy changes that have resulted in a post-secondary education system that is inaccessible to a very significant population of Canadians. In particular, post-secondary education has become increasingly unavailable for individuals from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds.”
The complaint notes that average annual undergraduate tuition fees in B.C. rose from $2,568 in 1999-2000 to $5,040 in 2008-2009.
It also asserts that cuts to government funding have weakened postsecondary institutions’ ability to make education available to all.
According to the complaint, the lack of funding for postsecondary, combined with a shift from student grants and bursaries to loan programs, has resulted in average student debts of $27,000 in B.C.
Frederick said the AMS feels it has “exhausted all other avenues”, so it’s appealing to the UN to step in.
“We’d like them to come and investigate the facts, so that we can get those facts out in the open and hold the government accountable to their commitment,” Frederick said.
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