COVER: Has Klein missed the boat?

As Alberta students return to class this week they will face the third highest tuition fees in the country, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the Alberta government is predicting an enormous and growing $1.9 billion surplus. This has student leaders and opposition MLAs across the province calling for tuition relief. They point out that provincial neighbours–east and west–are moving toward tuition freezes and reductions rather than continued increases.

“Given that there is such a large surplus, there is absolutely no reason to continue underfunding post-secondary education,” said NDP Education critic Raj Pannu.

“If there is surplus money to be dolled out, students have certainly done their fair share in creating it through tuition increases and have a right to expect some fee relief,” echoed Canadian Alliance of Student Associations National Director Jason Aebig.

Since the early 1990s, university students across the country have faced a steady rise in tuition costs. But in some provinces, the times–it seems–are a-changin’.

Students in British Columbia, for example, have enjoyed a tuition freeze since 1996. And it appears others are following BC’s lead. Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow is proposing free tuition for first-year university students. In Manitoba, where it is currently election time, both leading parties have made commitments to ease the tuition burden–the NDP by cutting tuition ten percent, the PCs through tax credits for students.

So far in Alberta, where tuition has tripled since 1991 (the largest increase in the country), the trend has not caught on. And critics say the rising cost of post-secondary education is taking its toll on Albertan students and their families.

“One repercussion of skyrocketing tuition is skyrocketing student debt,” said Pannu. “Another is the high probability that students, who are otherwise qualified, will not be able to get there [to university], particularly among low-income families.”

University of Calgary Students’ Union President Rob South added that though new money may be coming, it is directed to new programs to increase enrolment.

“This type of funding does not address the problem that faces new and existing programs alike,” said South. “The funding levels are not adequate in order for the programs to achieve the level of performance that students and the public deserve and expect.”
The Ministry of Learning, however, insists it has taken steps to ensure finances are not a barrier.

“Those who cannot pay are given opportunities for assistance; Alberta has one of the most comprehensive assistance programs in the country,” said Ministry of Learning spokesperson Ed Greenberg.

Greenberg also pointed out that Alberta students are among the lowest in average debt load upon graduation.

Greenberg didn’t want to speculate on whether some of the government’s substantial surplus might be used to halt tuition increases, but said that Learning Minister Lyle Oberg is presently meeting with student groups.

“Tuition fee roll-back or freeze will be on the agenda in talking with student representatives,” said Greenberg.

The NDP is calling for a 30 per cent tuition rollback which they say will require $80 million in new funding, a fraction of the total surplus.

“Institutions must not lose a single cent; any reduction in fees must be accompanied by new funding,” said Pannu.

On Sept. 21, a provincial student lobbying organization, the Alberta College and Technical Institute Students’ Executive Council, will meet with the Minister to discuss a potential tuition freeze. However, much of the provincial surplus has already been earmarked for debt reduction, and there is likely to be a scramble for any leftover money.

South hopes students will see some progress.

“I am optimistic that some change will occur,” he said. “How much change is very much up in the air. A lot of change is necessary in terms of tuition and student debt policy if the province expects to attract and maintain the individuals to run a robust economy in the long run.”