Editorial: Surprise! Tuition turmoil! Again!

Schools are facing record deficits across the province and, with the government unable to bail them out due to its own cash shortfall, post-secondaries are looking at any option available, and those options now apparently include raising tuition.

Earlier this week Alberta minister of advanced education and technology Doug Horner announced that his government would allow post-secondary institutions to apply to increase student tuition to address schools’ budget shortfalls next year. This is despite the fact that three years ago the province amended the Post-Secondary Learning Act to cap tuition at 2004 levels (plus inflation) until 2016.

Last May, in the midst of the recession, I had the opportunity to meet with minister Horner at a conference of student executives. With many of our home institutions already forecasting deficits and the government eliminating base operating grants, everyone had the same question: “Will you remove the tuition cap?” His answer: “No.” So what’s changed since last May? It’s something that many students are now asking, along with how this will affect their ability to afford their education.

Details are still murky as to what schools will be allowed to raise tuition and for which programs. The Calgary Herald is reporting that, starting September 2010, programs such as medicine, business, law, engineering, dentistry and pharmacy will be able to submit applications to hike their tuition rates.

But if the government begins to allow any school to raise tuition it’s only a matter of time before they all do. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology has already proposed in their business plan to raise tuition by 40 per cent over the next three years as a solution to their (currently) $2.3 million deficit. This means an increase in yearly tuition from around $3,800 to more than $5,400, or with around 13,000 FLE students a near $21 million boost to the operating budget.

So NAIT’s plan to eliminate a $2.3 million deficit is to take in $21 million from students. This may be an indication of the plans other post-secondary institutions have to solve their budget issues; the U of A, $59 million in the red, is hoping to raise tuition in professional faculties by up to 66 per cent. What can we expect from schools yet to release their budget numbers?

NAIT’s rationale for the seemingly outrageous tuition increase is the cost of attending its sister institute in Calgary. SAIT’s current annual tuition is in the neighbourhood of $5,500 and while I somewhat understand NAIT’s desire to be at parity with the province’s other technical institute as it believes its own tuition is too low, couldn’t the argument be made that SAIT’s tuition is too high?

Since the recession began experts have stated that we need to be investing in post-secondary. With people becoming unemployed in low-skill jobs they’re more likely to return to school for specialized training, creating barriers to that need doesn’t help the future of the province or the economy.

Education should be invested in to diversify Alberta’s workforce and encourage new business and technologies. It seems like the perfect time to tap into the Heritage Fund, which was created “to provide prudent stewardship of the savings from Alberta’s non-renewable resources by providing the greatest financial returns on those savings for current and future generations of Albertans.”

This seems like the perfect time to invest in current and future Albertans by ensuring quality, affordable education in the province. We already have one of the highest tuition rates in Canada, why make it more difficult to attend college or university?

I’m sure our Students’ Union, and those across Alberta, will fight hard to resist this change but the Post-Secondary Learning Act only requires a tuition consultation with students, not their approval. Students are essentially helpless fighting against any sort of imposition in our current political climate.

Until students, and the populous of Alberta, raise their voice in displeasure — and not just on Facebook groups and message boards — tuition will continue to rise unabated.

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