Alberta has had the highest postsecondary tuition-fee increases in the country for the past two years, according to data from Statistics Canada.
The agency recorded a 5.7-per-cent year-over year increase in September of this year, which followed a 6-per-cent increase the previous year – both the highest of any other province or territory. The figures were included in Statscan’s most recent inflation report, which was released last week.
Universities and colleges across Alberta have been increasing tuition after the United Conservative Party government cut spending across various ministries to rein in the deficit while also lifting a freeze on tuition fees.
“We have seen this translate into very tangible economic impacts on the students,” said Nicole Schmidt, president of the University of Calgary students’ union.
“There are students who have had to apply for secondary jobs or who have had to take out additional student loans.”
Tuition fees in Alberta for full-time degree programs remain slightly below the Canadian average, according to Statscan. The agency says the average tuition cost across Canada for the 2021-22 academic year is $6,693, compared with $6,567 in Alberta.
Rowan Ley, president of University of Alberta’s students’ union, said the tuition increases have made the cost of postsecondary education in the province even more challenging for students, who have also been hit by job losses because of the pandemic. He also said the province does not offer enough financial support.
“There are students who dropped out because they can no longer pay for postsecondary education,” Mr. Ley said.
He added that students who do continue with their studies are already accumulating debt.
Andy Karesa, a part-time student in his second year of the MBA program at the University of Alberta, had to rearrange some of his expenses and take out a student loan to continue his studies. As a part-time student, he can’t access financial supports that are available for full-time students.
“Someone like myself, there’s no chance that I’m getting any university scholarships or bursaries that will help me fund this,” he said.
The UCP came to power in 2019 on a promise to bring government spending in line with other provinces as it sought to bring down the deficit. Its first budget, tabled in October of that year, outlined hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts over four years, while also counting on universities to cover a greater share of their own costs through increased tuition.
The 2021-22 budget, tabled in February, showed that the government intends to cut operating grants to postsecondary institutions by about 16 per cent by 2022 compared with before the UCP took office – from about $2.7-billion in 2019-20 to $2.4-billion next year.
The government also lifted a freeze on tuition fees imposed by the previous NDP administration. Instead, the UCP government limited tuition fee increases to an average of 7 per cent for each school, with increases for individual programs capped at 10 per cent.
The province’s Advanced Education Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, said earlier this week that the government leaves decisions about tuition rates to individual schools, subject to the cap. He also said average tuition rates in Alberta are comparable to those in neighbouring British Columbia.
Mr. Nicolaides said his ministry has been increasing student aid and will be looking into providing additional financial resources to help part-time students and others who may not currently qualify for such supports.
“The demographic and dynamic of learners are changing, especially right now as we restart the economy,” he said.
David Eggen, the NDP’s advanced education critic, said the current funding model is broken and needs to be fixed.
“Alberta’s grant system compared to other provinces is quite poor, and that’s part of the reason why it’s so much more expensive to go to school in Alberta,” he said.
He adds that students are leaving the province because they cannot afford to pay tuition fees and that public funding is needed for all postsecondary institutions to help retain their student populations.
Postsecondary institutions can still apply for increases above the government’s cap by asking the province for permission to impose an “exceptional tuition increase.”
Both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta are in the process of consulting with their students on potential exceptional tuition increases before submitting them to the provincial government for approval.
The province delayed negotiations with U of C earlier this year and told them to consult with the students on new submissions by Friday.
In an e-mail response, U of C’s provost and academic vice-president Teri Balser said the university’s board of governors has approved three exceptional tuition increase proposals and plans to submit them to the Advanced Education Ministry before the deadline. A decision is expected to be made by Dec. 15.
The province also rejected U of A’s proposal to hike tuition fees for new students by anywhere from 17 to 45 per cent across several programs and sent it back because of a lack of consultation with students.
U of A’s board of governors approved a new exceptional tuition increase proposal earlier this month and is planning to submit it to the ministry.
The province is also instituting a performance-based funding model to determine how much funding individual schools receive.
The system was originally set to start last year, but the government delayed it by a year and scaled it back. Starting this year, 5 per cent of schools’ operating grants are tied to their performance on work placements for students, with additional metrics expected to be added in the coming years as that proportion increases to 40 per cent.
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