1988 Another Tuition Hike? Students Take the Fight to UBC!
By: Sheliza Mitha
No, we’re not talking about 2022. Though we very well could be talking about the current tuition hike – or any number of the tuition increases over the past several years that have made higher education unaffordable. Indeed, UBC has one of the highest tuition fees in the country.
But this article isn’t about today. This is about a specific moment in time, when student support was particularly unified. This is about the student tuition hike protests of 1988-1989, and one of the key organizers who – along with her cohorts – took over the UBC president’s office in retaliation to the same problem students face today.
This is about lead organizer Vanessa Geary, a student in the late ’80s with a penchant for activism that she inherited from her mother, who herself had worked with Rosemary Brown and devoutly fought for women’s rights.
By the time Vanessa was a UBC student, tuition had already been increased in the 1960s and again by 10 percent in the mid-80s. At this time, UBC had one of the highest tuition fees in the country at $1,455 for first-year arts students. A 10 percent increase would bring that up to $1,600. To put this in perspective, BC’s minimum wage at the time was $4.50 per hour.
To further exacerbate the issue, the 1980s marked the early days when tuition fees began replacing government revenue and taxes that contributed to higher education.
“At the time, we argued this increase would put a hardship on students, particularly low-income students,” Vanessa says, reflecting on her past activism. “Our answer was that education should be funded by the government as it benefits everyone… society, as a whole, benefits from education.”
In response to the proposed tuition hike, Vanessa and her fellow organizers presented a petition with 2,800 signatures to then-BC Finance Minister Mel Couvelier, who claimed he had no position on the matter, but added: “You’re no different than any other segment of society fighting for a share of the trough.” Considering the most common, well-known definition of “trough” is a long, shallow open container used for feeding livestock, the insult was generous and encompassing.
The result? Student organizers worked harder and smarter. Following The Great Trek in 1922 and the Solidarity Movement in the early 1980s, this could be considered one of UBC’s leading examples of campus activism.
With tuition increases across Greater Vancouver and nationally, student organizers not only worked with the AMS and the UBC Graduate Student Society, but reached across the city and country to connect with the Simon Fraser Student Society and the Canadian Federation of Students.
“Back then, it was feet to the ground – we stood outside the student union building, got coverage through Ubyssey and local newspapers and radio,” Vanessa says. “It was very grassroots, and we understood that it wasn’t enough to complain, we had to stand up and speak out and propose solutions… and create a movement.”
Results were vast and varied: more protests and rallies, including one that drew more than 1,000 students, and another at the Vancouver Art Gallery where local punk band D.O.A. played for free in solidarity and support of students and their fight for affordable education.
Lead singer of D.O.A. Joe Keithley, now a Burnaby City Councilor, recalls that particular day and protest as full of hope, anger, fiery protests and rain.
“We were happy to participate because people need education… it’s better for society to educate people, and it doesn’t matter if you’re left wing or right wing, the government cuts funds to education,” Councilor Keithley says. “We don’t care about the party system, we care about helping people. To me it was a fun thing to do, a necessary thing to do… standing up for people’s rights.”
It was around this time that Vanessa and other protesters also marched across campus to the office of UBC President David Strangway, who was out of the office that afternoon. The group made themselves at home in his office and proceeded to make calls from his desk to media outlets such as CBC and CKNW. All in an attempt to raise awareness and demonstrate commitment to the cause.
Despite their efforts, however, tuition hiked. “Though we didn’t stop the increase, we were able to create momentum that led to subsequent tuition freezes,” Vanessa says. “We brought awareness of the importance of affordability for post-secondary education, and its impact on community, economy, and the greater benefits to society. We were part of that contribution.”
Vanessa earned her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and her Master of Arts in Community Planning from UBC, and was elected the External Affairs Coordinator for the Alma Mater Society during her senior year.
For nearly 20 years, Vanessa’s work in politics has continued with positions in the Vancouver Mayor’s Office, as an Executive Assistant for Larry Campbell and as the Executive Director at the Premier’s Office – among others. Today she is the Senior Executive Lead at the Crown Agencies and Board Resourcing Office (CABRO), where she is responsible for recruitment and support of some 250 sector organizations, advising on governance and ensuring communities are represented.
“My professional life has grown from my activism at UBC,” Vanessa says. “Creating and fighting for change through community or political activism efforts, this – along with my classes – have been key in what I took away from that time.”