Provincial politicians debate tuition policy

By Michael Bowerman

With the Alberta government now predicting a $5.5 billion dollar surplus at the end of this fiscal year, many students are wondering why post-secondary tuition in Alberta has tripled over the past decade to become among the most expensive in Canada. While the Progressive Conservative government is touring the province announcing additional funding for post secondary expansion, the opposition parties are calling for lower tuition to help today’s students get out from under increasing debt loads.

Alberta Liberal Advanced Education Critic Don Massey said that over the years the government has slowly taken more money from students’ pockets. Tuition costs were once limited through government policy to providing only 20 per cent of net operating costs for post secondary institutions. During the past decade the PC government changed the former policy of a 20 per cent cap of net operating revenues to a legislated 30 per cent cap.

"The burden has been shifted to students," said Massey. "Students benefit so they should be paying a substantial part of the cost, but we all benefit. The wealth, ability and skills of our community have to be fostered."

As the official opposition, the Liberals are advocating a return to the previous 20 per cent cap on tuition along with developing new plans for financing post-secondary education in the province.

University of Calgary Students’ Union Vice-president External Duncan Wojtazsek appreciates the plan to lower tuition but notes such a strategy needs to be coupled with concrete financial plans to avoid depriving post-secondary facilities of much needed funds.

"These policies would directly affect tuition," noted Wojtaszek. "But talking about tuition without funding won’t help our education. Any decrease in tuition has to be matched with more funds to keep the quality of education high."

The New Democrats also weighed in with their solutions to tuition woes by proposing a rollback of 30 per cent across the board on tuition. "Tuition costs keep rising well above the rate of inflation," observed NDP Research Director John Kolkman. "Our rollback would be a first instalment and then we argue that there should be a freeze. The maximum price tag is not that large relative to most government expenditures, in the $80-100 million range to make that investment in our young people."

Another strategy option not mentioned by the opposition parties is indexing tuition rates to inflation, a tactic chosen in provinces such as Ontario, and one that allows students a greater degree of predictability in planning for the long term, since they are able to predict with greater certainty what the long-term costs for their education will be.

Meanwhile, the government asserts it is making more tangible efforts to assist students with costs via such efforts as the remission program, which caps the maximum amount of debt that students can accrue in the course of their degree, as well as increasing scholarships and bursaries.

"Tuition in Alberta is comparable to the rest of the country," said Ministry of Learning Spokesman Randy Kilburn. "Students asked for tuition to be capped at 30 per cent and that happened. The issue now is space; we’re turning away students and the minister has announced several capital expansion grants. These will create around 10,500 new spaces for students."

The extra spaces are undoubtedly a boon to Alberta’s economy and aspiring post-secondary students but these efforts don’t satisfy everyone. The 30 per cent cap leaves room for greater increases in tuition and the remission program cap of $20,000 for a four-year degree is also above the current debt average of around $17,360 for a four-year program. Both of the government’s caps allow the financial bar to be raised still higher for students who are already facing steeper education costs and lower real wages than those enjoyed by earlier generations.

Currently the U of C uses about 26 per cent of the net operating figure and this amount could go higher. If either the Liberal or New Democrat tuition propositions were attempted without matching funds from the government the result would be a university administration with more limited options for funding.

"The university has no other ways [than tuition] to look for operating funds for things like heating bills and professor’s salaries," said Wojtaszek.

If New Democrat figures are accurate, the cost of matching the funds lost if the government were to lower tuition across the province by 30 per cent would be a fraction of one per cent of this year’s projected fiscal surplus.

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