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Samantha Lucy

Tuition freeze not black and white

On Oct. 19, the Alberta government announced a one-year extension to the tuition freeze through the 2017—18 academic year. Normally, tuition is tied to the National Consumer Price Index and changes are voted on by a university’s Board of Governors. But with the freeze extended into the upcoming academic year, there will be no increases in tuition rates.

The freeze applies to non-mandatory instructional fees as well as loopholes like market modifiers. It is expected to save $16 million for approximately 250,000 full and part-time students in Alberta.

It is difficult to criticize a policy that directly saves students money, but the issue is not black and white.

A tuition freeze in itself is not a solution. Rather, it is a sign that changes are coming to Alberta post-secondary institutions. There are the obvious benefits to the tuition freeze extension, but is it a fundamentally strong policy? That depends on how the rest of these changes to Alberta post-secondary policies unfold.

Besides directly saving students money, the tuition freeze also indicates the government’s recognition of the value of accessible and affordable education. Education is one of the strongest instigators of social and economic upward mobility and it is a positive sign that the government wants to do something about it.

When the newly elected New Democratic Party announced a tuition freeze in 2015, the announcement was followed by reversing the previous Progressive Conservative government’s funding cuts to post-secondary — as well as increasing base funding to make up for the shortfall in the institution’s costs. While it would be beneficial to see the funding continue, there is a chance it might not. The debt-ridden government doesn’t have a whole lot of cash to throw around.

Presidents of both the University of Alberta and Mount Royal University recently voiced their concerns over the lack of certainty associated with the extension of the tuition freeze, calling it “unsustainable.”

In a public statement, University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon said, “as revenue from tuition represents approximately 27 per cent of our operating budget, the extension of the tuition freeze is a significant issue for the University of Calgary.”

Cannon has a point. Although the tuition freeze does not mean 27 per cent less money for U of C, the mismatch in funding and revenue resulting from the extension of the tuition freeze needs to be made up for somehow.

This isn’t an ideological issue —it’s economics. Something has to pay for the cost of post-secondary institutions. And even if the government does commit to providing funding to make up for the shortfall, not everyone will agree that it is a good idea to do so. That would be approximately $16 million from a government in debt, versus a couple hundred dollars from individual students. People have differing ideas as to which is worse.

But if the government does not provide this money, services and programs will have to make compromises. This would simply make the tuition freeze an indirect cutting of funds.

The good news is that students are saving money, the government has committed to a thorough consultation process and it seems Alberta university administrations are on-board to work with stakeholders.

The bad news is that the government is still in major debt, there is no guarantee the consultation process will result in changes that students actually want and we’re not yet sure how the funding gap will be made up for.

Alberta student politicians have been quick to call the tuition freeze extension an advocacy win, but based on the NDP’s voter base — which is disproportionately high amongst youth- — the NDP are just keeping their campaign promises. It would simply not make any sense for the government to announce a tuition freeze extension without the promise of a follow-up consultation in order to keep both the students and the institutions happy. What matters is ensuring meaningful consultation actually takes place.

If things with post-secondary education are actually changing in Alberta and if the government is actually committed to a comprehensive review process, the need for student advocacy has just begun.

Students will not see any increases in tuition for the next year and that’s good for our wallets. But the overall impact of the tuition freeze is still undetermined. The important questions are how this money will be made up for and what durable changes the consultation process will bring.

Tina Shaygan, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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