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Sustainable tuition policy too valuable to be delayed any longer

March 28, 2018 —

Since 2015, students in Alberta have awaited a sustainable tuition policy. Just last week, Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt claimed that it will be a reality in the “very near future.” For students’ sakes, it is imperative this policy comes into effect well before the 2019 election.

It’s important that the Alberta government doesn’t rush this policy, but time is running out. The longer tuition is frozen, the more it will jump when the freeze is lifted. It’s obvious to most student advocacy groups, the government and Alberta’s institutions that the tuition freeze is merely a Band-Aid fix to post-secondary affordability woes. All of the students who have just started their post-secondary studies or are mid-way through them live with the knowledge that after the next academic year, they have no idea what tuition and other fees will look like. This means they cannot estimate how much debt they will be in upon graduation if they are relying on student loans, whether they can make financial decisions that have long-term implications and, for some, if they will even be able to afford to finish their studies after the freeze is lifted. This is an unfair and unnecessary stress on students that can be fixed with well-crafted regulation and policy.

Tuition regulations are in place in other provinces, such as British Columbia’s two-per-cent tuition increase limit policy. New Brunswick just signed four Memorandums of Understanding with their universities to create predictable tuition schedules. Ontario’s government extended their tuition framework and cap for two more years in December 2017 — and there are countless examples from other countries and provinces. Tuition policies are not uncharted waters. There are models for Alberta to follow that allow for flexibility and reasonable growth so that both students and institutions can sustainably meet their goals. It’s difficult to understand why Alberta has gone so long without regulations on tuition. Some provinces’ policies pre-date 2015, when the ‘student-friendly’ New Democratic Party took government.

The tuition policy needs to be strong, stable and account for all actors within the post-secondary system. If the government changes after the 2019 election, policies could be put on the chopping block or amended so they are no longer effective. In 2015, Nova Scotia waived their tuition cap for one year, allowing institutions to make large, one-time hikes to fees and tuition for no good reason. It’s not difficult to imagine the United Conservative Party acting in a similar fashion if they are elected since they were more than willing to hike tuition and implement market modifiers in their previous Progressive Conservative days. It is in students’ best interest for institutions to grapple with the massive changes the policy brings to tuition well before the election.

This policy should not be jeopardized by becoming an election issue. The NDP have shown that they understand the value of post-secondary education by supporting diverse paths to education and seriously proposing regulating tuition. The conservative movement in Alberta simply hasn’t done this in the past 40 years and it’s unlikely they will in 2019. If the NDP keeps dragging its feet on tuition policy, it’s possible that little to no regulation will be in place by the time the election is over. Students are an important part of the population and deserve to know their financial futures as soon as possible.

Predictable and sustainable tuition is not just a collection of buzzwords. It’s an important aspect of being a student and the  provinces that have these regulations in place are able to draw students out of Alberta. Students should not live in a state of financial ambiguity. Here’s hoping the “near future” that Schmidt described is as near as we hope.

Jesse Stilwell, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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