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Tuition freeze benefits students

At General Faculties Council on Feb. 16, University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon said the U of C is unlikely to receive funding to make up for the shortfall in its budget due to the extension of the provincial tuition freeze.

While a budget shortfall can impact the quality of education at the U of C, the current tuition freeze is ultimately beneficial for students.

The governing New Democratic Party implemented the freeze in 2015 and extended it over the 2017–18 academic year in order to conduct a comprehensive review of Alberta’s post-secondary tuition and fees model.

“This review will ensure a long-term solution to keep education accessible and affordable for Albertans,” minister of advanced education Marlin Schmidt said in a prepared statement regarding the extension of the tuition freeze.

In Alberta, tuition is normally tied to the Consumer Price Index. However, loopholes like market modifiers still exist. But under the current tuition freeze, post-secondary fees cannot rise, even by the rate of the CPI.

In 2015, the province provided $16 million in funding to 26 Alberta post-secondary institutions to make up for the gap in their budgets. The NDP government will likely not provide similar funding this time around. This should not come as a surprise. In January 2016, a $10.8 billion budget deficit was forecasted for Alberta. Unfortunately, government budgets are a zero-sum game and any increase in funding for post-secondary institutions to make up for this shortfall would have to come from elsewhere in an already tight budget. Many argue that increased funding from a budget with a deficit is irresponsible governance.

The U of C is projecting a loss  of $2-–4-million as the result of the tuition freeze extension. U of C Students’ Union vice-president external Tristan Bray said, “this would not be an issue if tuition had risen by the rate of inflation this year, as in the regulation.”

This is not the first time the U of C has faced budget cuts. In 2008, then Progressive Conservative government slashed post-secondary funding. In 2013, then education minister Thomas Lukaszuk cut $147 million from post-secondary budgets, resulting in 7.3 per cent less funding for the U of C. And most recently, the 2015–16 budget of the PC government projected four per cent cuts to post-secondary funding due to the province’s projected deficit as a result of the worldwide oil prices slump.

Back in 2015, Cannon called these cuts “manageable” and suggested that increased efforts to raise enrolment would alleviate the financial deficit for the U of C. This year, she stated that the university was not expecting backfall funding in place of the tuition freeze and have thus not included it in the budget.

The importance of predictable and sustainable funding for education need not be stated. Education is vital to socio-economic mobility and sustainable funding ensures growth and competitiveness for Canadian post-secondary institutions. But that should go hand-in-hand with accessibility to ensure equal opportunity in attending university.

This is why a review of the tuition and fees model in Alberta is essential. The U of C has faced various funding cuts in previous years while the cost of education has risen. A $2–4-million shortfall in the budget does comparatively little damage to the U of C as an institution. What matters most is that the government has implemented a tuition freeze to alleviate financial stress for students in an already grim economy — on top of initiating a long overdue review of the post-secondary tuition and fees model in Alberta. This is our chance to ensure the accessibility of post-secondary education as well as sustainability of funding for universities.

To demand the government do anything else other than a thorough review of post-secondary fees in Alberta is a lazy solution. Student executives should work to ensure students feel minimal impact from the potential $2–4-million shortfall. They should also work to ensure that the review process results in favourable outcomes for students — such as tuition policy being a part of legislation rather than regulation, as advocated by previous SU executives. However, what student executives should not do is complain about a tuition freeze implemented to keep things afloat while the review process is conducted.

Tina Shaygan, Gauntlet Editorial Board 

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