Snow penguin protests spread across Alberta universities

Colonies of snow penguins built by university students are cropping up around Alberta to protest cuts to post-secondary education.

Survey says growing number of U of A students plan to leave after graduation

A penguin made out of snow as part of a protest against post-secondary education cuts is shown in Calgary on Monday, Feb. 8. (Michael Brown handout/The Canadian Press)

Colonies of snow penguins built by university students are cropping up around Alberta to protest cuts to post-secondary education.

It's the latest protest organized by the Council of Alberta University Students with student unions joining in on Monday at MacEwan University, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge.

Mount Royal University and Athabasca University helped construct 250 penguins out of snow at the Calgary protest at McDougall Centre, which is the location of Premier Jason Kenney's southern Alberta office.

"We want the premier and the Alberta government to not cut the budget of universities and colleges in the provincial budget later this month," said Rowan Ley, vice president of the University of Alberta Students' Union.

"It's the worst possible time to do that, when we're already struggling with an exodus of young people from Alberta and the worst recession in living memory."

Monday's demonstrations follow last week's protest at the Alberta legislature grounds where students made roughly 800 penguins. The protest penguins were deemed tripping hazards and were destroyed by groundskeepers the next day.

Marley Gillies, vice-president of University of Calgary Students' Union, said they contacted management at McDougall Centre in the hopes that Monday's penguin display would last longer that the one at the legislature.

The demonstrations aim to bring awareness to a 22.5 per cent rise in tuition over three years and cuts to Alberta's post-secondary institutions, organizers said. 

Survey results 

Organizers said penguins represent students that will be forced to leave Alberta. The campaign uses the hashtag "Don'tFreezeOurFuture."

The protest comes as a survey of University of Alberta students indicated a growing number may leave the province after graduation.

The survey of 559 undergraduates at U of A was conducted by the student union.

The student union said 33 per cent of students imagined themselves probably or definitely moving outside Alberta after graduation — up from 24 per cent at the start of the school year.

"Clearly, things are changing in this province that are leaving people not wanting to stay here and not wanting to build a future here," Ley said. "If we don't invest in post-secondary education, they'll leave and never come back. That will make us all poorer in the long run. And as a province, we need to change course before it's too late."

The student union said the survey also suggested that marginalized students, such as LGBTQ2S and low-income students, want to leave at higher rates.

Food or tuition

Ruan Bouwer, vice president of the student union at MacEwan University, warned that cuts were forcing some students to make tough decisions.

'We got feedback from students who were the first in their family to go to university and are now choosing between spending their money on tuition and food," Bouwer said. 

"We have students who were competitive athletes who are now dropping out of all of their extracurricular activities and deciding whether or not they should continue with schooling altogether."

Last year, the Alberta government introduced a new post-secondary funding model that ties funding to institutions' success at meeting goals, such as enrolment targets or employment rates of graduates.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said he is listening to the students' concerns. 

"I understand there are concerns with funding to post-secondary institutions and I want those who organized and participated in the protest today to know that I've heard their concerns," Nicolaides wrote.

"That being said, our province is facing some incredibly challenging financial and economic realities. We must make some difficult decisions today, to ensure we have a strong and sustainable post-secondary system for future generations."

Nicolaides said several options are being considered through the Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs strategy which will be presented in the coming months. He added that he is open to hearing new ideas to balance funding within the government's limited resources. 

With files from The Canadian Press