Only three days before Christmas, the news of the province’s approval for massive tuition hikes in 25 separate post-secondary programs in Alberta dropped “like lumps of coal” into the stockings of many student leaders and advocacy organizations.
“We were disappointed with the results,” says Beverly Eastham, executive director of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), a post-secondary education advocacy group that represents more than 100 000 university students across the province.
“It felt like a strategic move on the government’s part to bury [the announcement] into other news like the Wildrose story, and with the Christmas season hope that students wouldn’t be tuned into the final decision.”
Advanced Education Minister Don Scott revealed the province’s decision to approve student-tuition increases—ranging from six percent to 71 percent—for 25 different programs at 10 universities and colleges in Alberta.
The tuition hikes will generate a projected $21 million in additional revenue to post-secondary institutions and, according to Scott in a press release, “Allow institutions to enhance quality and make these specific programs more responsive to student needs.”
While tuition is currently tied to the Consumer Price Index and can’t be increased more than annual inflation—as legislated in the Post-Secondary Learning Act (2006)—the government is using market modifiers to correct what they call “anomalies” between the cost of programs in Alberta and across the country.
Student leaders are calling market modifiers a “loophole” in legislation for increasing tuition and demanding that it be closed.
“Market modifiers enable the government and institutions to go around the tuition cap we have in place to make increases,” explains Justin Benko, executive director of the Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC), a student advocacy group with a membership of 17 associations from 15 institutions.
Navneet Khinda, VP External at the University of Alberta Students’ Union, echoes Benko’s concerns and stresses that market modifiers will create an unpredictable market for students.
“For a family that’s planning to save money for next year’s education, it drastically changes what you have to pay. It does put pressure on young people and families,” Khinda says.
Market modifiers to tuition fees were introduced in August 2010 when the government approved eight programs to bring tuition fees in line with other Canadian universities and colleges. Eastham and other student leaders stressed that the government assured student advocacy groups it would be a one-off increase.
“In July 2014, we heard out of the blue that the Premier and Minister Hancock were going to allow for market modifiers to come back, which was very surprising,” Eastham recalls.
Shortly following their announcement, the government solicited for a maximum of three market-modifier applications from post-secondary institutions in Alberta.
Student leaders cite their frustrations over a lack of consultation that took place between students and the Alberta government leading up to their decision.
“[ASEC] wasn’t involved in an official capacity whatsoever,” Benko says. “Although individual members were able to consult their institutions, the consultation process was inconsistent. From each institution they consulted different students—it wasn’t a comprehensive process to get feedback from students and student groups.”
Eastham calls the government’s approval of 25 programs—only rejecting one application—a “free for all” and is uncertain of the criteria used to approve and justify the tuition hikes.
The University of Alberta submitted not three, but five applications for market modifiers—and all five programs were approved. Pending the approval of the Board of Governors, students enrolled in economics courses, the Faculty of Law, pharmacy, the Masters of Business Administration program and rehabilitation medicine will be facing a tuition increase.
“To me, the fact that five programs were approved indicated that the process wasn’t really honest, nor transparent, because the government wasn’t following their own guidelines,” Khinda says.
But not all students at the U of A are disappointed with the market-modifier outcomes.
Scott Meyer, president of the Law Students’ Association, felt as though the student consultation with the Faculty of Law was “substantial” and that the increased revenue will improve educational quality and better prepare students for an “increasingly complex legal marketplace.”
The Faculty of Law program currently costs students $10 221 per year and is one of the most affordable programs in the country. The recent approvals allow for a 56-percent tuition increase, bringing the total cost to $15 995 per year.
“Because we did go into it willing to discuss tuition increases, we got a number of concessions from the faculty about how we wanted the money to be spent,” Meyer explains. “We’re getting an expansion of experiential learning opportunities by 20 to 25 percent, as well as a significant enhancement in career-service support. We want to make sure as many dollars as possible goes towards educational quality.”
Meyer also states that 20 percent of the revenue generated will be spent on scholarships and bursaries that will help law students gain access to education and articling.
But even with increased funding for scholarships, Khinda and other student leaders are worried that the 56-percent tuition increase will ultimately create barriers for prospective law students.
“The fact that it’s going to cost a lot more to get a legal education means there will be less diversity, and that could also lead to further ramifications for our justice system,” Khinda says.
She argues that when the cost of non-instructional mandatory fees is added to the equation, U of A students are already paying among the highest tuitions in the country. Further, she and other student leaders believe that comparing cost of tuition province to province can be disingenuous.
“The funding model for Ontario is very different from Alberta, so it’s not quite fair to compare across jurisdictions like that,” Khinda points out. “If we were to compare, though, we could look at the University of British Columbia who are ranked higher than the U of A, but the tuition is lower.”
What Meyer, Khinda and other student leaders in Alberta can agree on, is that students alone shouldn’t be responsible for investing in post-secondary education. Meyer stresses that it can’t be a “one-sided conversation” of asking students and their parents to foot the bill for high-quality post-secondary education.
“If we want to get off the boom-and-bust cycle of oil-and-gas prices, we need to have a very well-educated population,” Meyer says. “We need to work towards innovating under a knowledge-based economy versus a resource-based economy.”
But as the unveiling of the 2015 provincial budget approaches, student advocacy groups, including CAUS and ASEC, are bracing themselves for more government cutbacks to post-secondary education—given the price of oil that’s plummeted in recent months.
Student leaders say the best way of moving forward is encouraging post-secondary students to take their issues to the ballot box.
“There’s rumblings of an election coming up,” Eastham says, “Whether or not that happens—the next steps for us are to send the message to the government that post-secondary students do vote, and it’s important they keep their promises to students.”