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Students must advocate for impactful, long-term tuition solutions

December 7 2017 —

For the fourth year in a row, tuition will not rise for students at all of Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions. The provincial government is extending the tuition freeze through the 2018–19 academic year.

The move is immediately beneficial for students, just as it has been in previous years. The freeze lessens some of the unpredictability of post-secondary education by ensuring tuition won’t jump for at least one more year. Anything that makes post-secondary education more accessible for students is always a good thing. By extending the freeze, the provincial New Democratic Party shows they recognize the value of post-secondary education.

But the freeze can’t be extended indefinitely. Right now, the NDP is kicking the can down the road by providing millions in backfill funding to universities, even though their time as Alberta’s government may end in the 2019 election. Something has got to give if the party wants to actually implement a tuition relief policy instead of just providing four years of frozen tuition.

The answer should come in January, when the long-promised results of the province’s tuition and fees review are expected to be released. The review’s results will “ensure a long-term solution to keep education accessible and affordable for Albertans,” according to Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt.

Puncham Judge, the University of Calgary Students’ Union vice-president external, says the SU wants the government to legislate tuition, tie tuition increases to the rate of inflation, regulate international tuition and close existing tuition loopholes like market modifiers.

These are all necessary measures to advocate for to ensure tuition is predictable for future students. But they’re also areas that the review is likely already looking into. While these are certainly positive tweaks, they still work within the existing framework for tuition. The SU should use this situation as an opportunity to advocate for impactful changes.

There’s a strong chance that Alberta will have a significantly less student-friendly government in the near future. The previous Progressive Conservative government made large post-secondary budget cuts in 2013 and 2015. Now’s the time to lobby for changes that would dramatically reduce financial barriers to education in the long-run rather than merely make tuition predictably expensive.

Students can look to other provinces for an example of what policy could look like. The Ontario government budgeted in early 2016 for grants that covered the entire tuition of college students whose family income was less than $50,000. University students in the same situation still received the grants but were not guaranteed that their tuition would be fully covered. In the program’s second year, the province estimated over 210,000 students would be eligible for free tuition. A similar program in New Brunswick offers the same reprieve for students with familial income under $60,000. And while free tuition may seem like a radical idea in Canada, it’s commonplace for many countries, notably in the European Union.

These solutions aren’t without flaws — family income is far from a perfect measure of students’ ability to pay for education — and they aren’t perfectly analogous to Alberta. But asking for an increase in post-secondary funding on the condition of a decrease in tuition isn’t unreasonable. Any measure that takes financial burdens off students is an improvement.

The NDP knows that young Albertans comprise a hefty portion of their support base. Advocacy efforts should capitalize on the party’s reliance on the student vote and use some imagination to target policy that will do more than maintain a mediocre status quo.

If how long it’s taking is any indication, the NDP’s tuition and fees review will be thorough. It will almost certainly address known problems, like the presence of loopholes such as market modifiers that allow universities to hike tuition beyond regulated levels. Instead of focusing on those known issues, student advocacy may as well dream big when it comes to tuition reform — what’s there to lose?

Jason Herring, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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