Alberta post-secondary students will have to wait before they can officially celebrate having the most affordable education in the country.
The much anticipated 2007 tuition policy was released Fri., Nov. 3 and announced that tuition for Alberta students will remain at 2004 levels next fall with further increases based on inflation. Though the policy is expected to save university students an average of $3,800 over a four-year degree, in 2004 Alberta's average tuition was still the fourth highest in the country.
University of Calgary Students' Union president Emily Wyatt said the policy does not live up to the promise of affordability.
"There was nothing surprising and nothing that new about the policy," she said. "It doesn't really do much for Albertans going to school."
U of C Graduate Students' Association president Christine Johns agreed.
"We were expecting more considering we waited two years," she said. "Instead of the best system, we are left with the middle road of affordability."
While Advanced Education Minister Denis Herard is sympathetic towards student concerns, he stressed tuition is only part of the package when it comes to making post-secondary education affordable. He explained the government has yet to release the affordability framework, which aims to make student loans, grants and scholarships more accessible.
"In total, this package will make Alberta the most cost effective, efficient and innovative jurisdiction in Canada," said Herard. "I stand by that. It's because [they] only saw half the picture that most of the students are saying it's not enough."
Promises of a new tuition policy for September 2006 began when Premier Ralph Klein announced in February 2005 that the provincial government would pay for tuition increases, effectively freezing tuition at 2004 levels. While there was a slight delay with the policy, Herard explained the government was waiting for the A Learning Alberta report, which was released in June and included student recommendations.
"I don't think it took us very long once we got the report," said Herard. "We looked at it and said there are some things here we need to work on right away and that's one, tuition policy, and two, the affordability framework."
Wyatt, however, does not believe the framework is the answer to the affordability problem.
"It's going to make some changes to the loan system," she said. "But, it's a loan system, not a financing system."
Johns also fails to see an answer within the proposed framework.
"Loans are a band-aid solution," she said. "We need to address affordability and not see students go into debt."
In addition to reducing tuition, the new policy limits tuition increases to the annual inflation of the consumer price index, which has been calculated at 3.3 per cent for this year.
Under the old policy, institutions were allowed increases of up to 11 per cent. While the university has increased the cost of each half course over the last two years, students have not felt the impact because the government has been paying the difference.
U of C vice-president finance and services Mike McAdam explained the university was planning on asking for a 7.2 per cent increase for the 2007/08 year. If this increase was approved, students could have been paying $556 per half course next fall, but with the new policy they can expect to pay $474--a $15 increase from the current cost.
"The new dynamic is that the board will ask for a 3.3 per cent increase and then ask the government to cover the rest," said McAdam.
Herard noted the government spent $130 million over the past two years to cover the cost of tuition increases for students. He added the new policy includes an additional $136 million to assist institutions with inflationary costs over the next three years.
While McAdam is pleased with this contribution, he also expressed concerns about what will happen when that money is used up.
"We don't want to go back to an era of cutting again," he said.
Critics have also expressed concern with the uncertainty of the provincial government and how the leadership change will affect the policy. While Herard stressed post-secondary education is a top priority for all the leadership candidates, Wyatt is concerned about the fate of the policy.
"The question of the leadership is worrisome," she said. "There are some [candidates] who don't like the A Learning Alberta review.
Wyatt is also concerned about the impact of Bill 40, which allows the tuition policy to be passed through regulation instead of being debated in the legislature.
"Regulation could make it easier to make changes in the negative sense," she said.
Herard said he believes moving the tuition policy to regulation will only benefit students.
"Regulation allows for continuous improvement," he said. "Changes can't be passed without consultation with the people that it affects."
The affordability package will also include more financial support for part-time students, expanded eligibility for Rutherford Scholarships, an expanded program to encourage students to pursue post-secondary, and it will not require students to make payments on their student loans while on parental leave, an internship or residency.
Though the 2007 tuition policy has been officially approved, the policies for the affordability framework must be approved for the 2007 budget before exact details of the framework can be officially released.