The University of Calgary Students' Union hosted an open debate around the state of Quality, Affordability and the Future of Post-Secondary Education in Alberta on Wednesday. And while the forum touched on a variety of topics, for most students, the main issue was tuition.
Last week Advanced Education and Technology minister Doug Horner made public his intention to allow post-secondary institutions in Alberta to submit proposals to his office requesting tuition increases for professional faculties such as medicine, pharmacy and law -- which typically cost more to operate than others.
Following shortly behind the announcement the University of Alberta released plans to increase tuition in these faculties by up to 66 per cent.
While the minister said he has yet to see any proposals come across his desk, let alone make a decision, members of the panel thought that even opening the door for an increase violates their trust in the government.
"I had a meeting with minister Horner over the summer, and asked why we couldn't put the tuition fee calculation in legislation," said Kay She, SU vice-president external. "His response to me was 'don't you trust me? I'm giving you my word that the tuition fee policy will not be touched' and here we are now and they're accepting proposals to change the tuition fee regulation."
Charlotte Kingston, SU president and moderator of the discussion, agreed, stating that as recently as Sept. 21 she was reaffirmed by Premier Ed Stelmach that the current tuition fee policy, which is not set to expire until 2016, was a commitment his government made and was not willing to budge on.
"Less than two months later we're seeing those promises drastically broken," said Kingston.
As it stands, the tuition fee calculation is based on annual increases by the consumer price index and was established in 2006 after a two year tuition freeze at post-secondary schools across the province. While many students saw this as a victory, the tuition fee calculation itself was removed from legislation into regulation, allowing the minister to change the calculation at any time, despite a 10-year commitment. When the cap was put in place in 2006, Horner said certain programs at schools in the province weren't reflective of their true cost, locking them in at bargain rates for students that made institutions suffer.
Panelist and Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore Kilgannon was there during the government's decision to change the tuition fee policy, and said that stripping it from legislation was planning ahead on the government's part. Kilgannon said the government knew that while in 2006 the Alberta boom would allow for a tuition freeze there would be a time when they might need a contingency plan to get out of their promise to students, and that that time is now.
"As an order of cabinet they are going to change the tuition fee policy," said Kilgannon. "They're not going to change it broadly, but this year you're going to see a number of institutions come forward and announce that they need increases, the government is going to agree to that, and then a year from now we're going to be in serious trouble, because it's going to get worse."
Anne Stalker, University of Calgary Faculty Association president, agreed that despite the minister's insistence that there will be no broad tuition increases, there's nothing to stop them from happening. Stalker said that in tough economic times the universities see the option of increased tuition as a potential way out of debt. These large institutions also have the ear of the government making broad increases, in Stalker's view, even more likely.
"If it works for the professional degrees and they can get way with it then they will move on to apply it to everyone. Why shouldn't they?" said Stalker. "Of course our university will be sending the message that this is the right move. Somebody has to be sending a different message and they have to be sending it now."
Many of the panelists saw the immediate increase in professional programs as the start of a tiered system within the province, forcing students to choose their studies based not on skill or interest, but on finances. Ayo Jeje of the Academic Programs Committee said that any increase must be relative based on whether students can afford it or not and if it affects their ability to pay then the increase is not good for the institution.
"People are paying enough as it is and sooner or later doctors and lawyers and all the professional faculties will become something only open to the rich," said member of the U of C Teaching Excellence Hall of Fame Ron Glasberg. "We need to give [students] the opportunity to go to university without falling into horrendous debt or working off campus for such a level to get themselves sick."
Kingston said it's important the government understands what the consequences of removing the cap will be. Saying it's not just students complaining about being forced to pay more, but forcing them out of the system and causing Albertans to be left out of post-secondary.
Kilgannon relates the current situation to his time as a student in Quebec, where he said if the government talked about increasing tuition at all, students would protest. Action that he said played a large role in helping Quebec gain currently the lowest tuition rates in Canada.
"This is the perfect time for students to rally around something like this," said VP She. "Students by definition pay tuition, if there is nothing else we can agree on we can agree on tuition."
The SU encourages students interested in voicing their concerns to the ministry through letters available online at the SU website which they can customize and use to tell their own story about how these increases would affect their education.