The University of Calgary campus was the site of tent cities and soup kitchens during the spring of 1999 as students protested proposed increases in tuition fees. The
proposed increases came as a result of province-wide fiscal restraints as Alberta emerged from the recession of the late 1980s-early 1990s with a huge debt load. Premier Ralph Klein’s austerity measures aimed at paying off public debt resulted in deep cuts in government spending, and operating grants to the university had been reduced or only marginally increased annually since 1994. As a consequence, the university’s operating grant for the 1999-2000 year was less than that received for 1991-1992.
Faced with decreasing revenues and increased costs, the university’s Planning and Finance Committee proposed a number of scenarios for tuition levels, including increasing tuition fees by the maximum allowed by provincial legislation. Board of Governors’ Chair Ted Newall expressed concern that increased tuition fees might be necessary in order to retain faculty and staff and maintain the quality of programs offered at the university. Discussions with the province regarding the university’s funding issues had received the response that the university needed to raise more funds from the private sector, he said.
Students’ Union representatives pulled out of the consultation process with the Board of Governors in December 1998 when they felt that the discussions were not leading to the results they wanted to see. The SU committed over $30,000 to fight the tuition increase, and during the spring of 1999 it spent some of these funds by sponsoring a series of Soup Kitchens on campus through the Campus Food Bank. In the days leading up to the March 26th Board of Governors’ meeting that would determine tuition fee hikes, student protesters camped in tents outside MacEwan Hall, and on the morning of the meeting about 800 students marched across campus carrying placards protesting the proposed increase.
Ultimately, a four-hour-long Board meeting resulted in a decision not to increase tuition fees by the maximum allowed, settling instead on an increase of 80% of that amount. The Board indicated it was “very sensitive to the views of students” and the 10,000-name petition presented to it by SU President Paul Galbraith. Hence it voted in favour of a lesser increase which would result in a $1.054 million shortfall in the university’s budget. Galbraith predicted students would be pleased with the outcome, though unhappy that there was any increase at all.