By Chris Adams, February 26 2015 —
Alberta’s student leaders are worried the provincial government may scrap the inflation-tied cap on tuition in the wake of potential budget cuts to post-secondary education.
Current regulations stipulate that tuition can’t be raised more than the rate of inflation based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Tuition increases this year were capped at 2.2 per cent.
But CPI-capped tuition isn’t written into law, it’s only a regulation in the Post-Secondary Learning Act. While the government would have to pass a motion to remove the cap, Alberta’s student leaders aren’t sure of its future.
The provincial government can’t confirm cuts to the budget until it’s released at the end of March. But the low price of oil has left a $7-billion shortfall in revenue and provincial politicians have hinted at what’s to come.
Alberta finance minister Robin Campbell said on Feb. 11 that the province is likely facing a nine per cent cut to spending. Minister of municipal affairs Dianna McQueen said “every line item in every ministry is on the table.”
Current Students’ Union vice-president external and incoming president Levi Nilson said since the funding situation is so uncertain, CPI-capped tuition isn’t safe from being scrapped.
“It could be changed on Saturday. It could be being changed right now. Prentice just needs to get his ministers together and say, ‘we’re going to get rid of this.’ There doesn’t need to be a public vote, there doesn’t need to be a debate,” Nilson said.
Cameron McCoy, Grant MacEwan Students’ Association president and Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) vice-chair, said CAUS wants to keep the tuition cap intact. They’re afraid students will have to fill the funding gap left by budget cuts, warning that universities could “change tuition at will” if the cap is removed.
“That’s incredibly dangerous. This would be an entirely different game. We could easily become the highest costing province in education if funding is continued to be cut,” McCoy said.
University of Calgary provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall said administration is planning budget cut scenarios, including a five per cent cut to funding.
Nilson called a five per cent cut the “best-case scenario,” but added that it’s tough to prepare for cuts before the budget is announced.
“If it’s anything more than five, it’s going to be a huge problem,” Nilson said. “[The U of C] could probably weather a five per cent cut. Anything more than that and we’re in trouble.”
Grant MacEwan’s funding was cut by seven per cent in 2013. McCoy said another seven per cent cut would be devastating.
Rumours surrounding cuts to post-secondary funding have circulated since the price of oil plummeted late last year. But McCoy said he’s simply stopped listening.
“What I’m hearing more is a five per cent cut, that’s more of the common language that’s going around,” McCoy said.
CAUS will lobby the provincial government to keep CPI-capped tuition in the Post-Secondary Learning Act. But McCoy said he’s fine if it stays a regulation as long as it doesn’t get cut.
Liberal MLA for Calgary-Buffalo Kent Hehr said the high cost of education should encourage the government to keep the cap.
“If this cap is lifted, it’ll be detrimental to equality of opportunity. Whether you’re rich or poor, you should have the opportunity to go to school. This mechanism allows some semblance of that to carry on,” Hehr said.
CAUS hasn’t met with minister of advanced education Don Scott since he took office in September 2014. They have their first meeting scheduled with Scott at the end of March.
“Knowing that he’s had meetings scheduled that’ve got rescheduled indefinitely, I don’t put any weight into us actually getting it,” Nilson said. “The biggest thing is not having access to the minister.”
Nilson acclaimed the SU presidency for 2015–16. U of A vice-president external Navneet Khinda and Mount Royal University president and CAUS chair Erik Queenan will both serve as president of their student unions next year.
“We’re kind of the same group coming back. Since we’re all still bitter about market modifiers, we’re not being held back by any kind of pretence of keeping a good relationship,” Nilson said.