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The University of Alberta campus is pictured in Edmonton, Alta., on Aug. 26, 2016.

CODIE MCLACHLAN/The Globe and Mail

When first-year law student Suzanne Ross was deciding where to attend university, her concerns about affordability motivated her to choose the University of Alberta over schools in her home province of British Columbia.

“The price of living in Edmonton is a lot lower, the tuition was so reasonable, and the university has such a good reputation, so I thought I’d really hit the jackpot,” said Ms. Ross, incoming vice-president of the Law Student Association.

The university currently charges $11,701 a year, some of the lowest tuition fees for undergraduate law programs in Western Canada.

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That may soon change. Faced with significant cuts to postsecondary education in the provincial government’s February budget, the University of Alberta is considering dramatic tuition increases for new students in 12 programs including law, engineering and pharmacy.

Increases range from 17 per cent to a 104 per cent for some professional programs and will take effect in 2022 if they are approved by the Ministry of Education. The tuition hikes have some students concerned that historically marginalized and low-income students will face further barriers to accessing affordable education.

“When I applied to law school, the U of A was attractive because it was one of the cheapest tuitions in the country,” said Gavin Wilkes, the incoming Indigenous representative of the Law Student Association. He said he’s concerned the new fees will be prohibitively expensive for other racialized students.

The recent budget reduced the provincial government’s share of postsecondary funding by $135-million in 2021-22, compared with the initial budget for 2020-21. The cuts are part of a broader push by the United Conservative Party government to freeze spending in order to address years of significant deficits.

The government is attempting to bring per-capita spending in line with other provinces. A government-ordered review of its expenses, released in 2019, singled out universities as an area for potential cuts.

The University of Alberta is home to 25 per cent of postsecondary students in the province but the school says it is shouldering almost half of this year’s budget reductions. Combined with cuts in the 2020-21 school year, the university is now facing a $170-million reduction in provincial funding.

In a statement, Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education, Demetrios Nicolaides defended the decision. “Alberta’s government recognizes the importance of postsecondary education for economic prosperity and growth,” Mr. Nicolaides said. “The funding in other provinces demonstrates that we can operate more efficiently, and we are making changes to achieve this.”

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The statement said that in 2017-18, the average funding per student in the province was $11,791 while at the University of Alberta, funding per student was $18,179.

Steven Dew, provost and vice-president of academics at U of A, said in a statement that because tuition had been frozen for most of the past decade in Alberta, the university has not been able to keep up with its Canadian peers in offering more customized and experiential-focused programs. He said that exceptional tuition increases are required by the Alberta Tuition Framework to be invested directly back into the affected program.

“They must be used explicitly for program improvements, whether that is reducing class sizes, increasing experiential-learning opportunities or improving access for disadvantaged or underrepresented groups,” he said.

He added that the university plans to allocate a 20 per cent of the raised fees toward scholarships and bursaries.

The Law Student Association has warned that forcing students to turn to unpredictable scholarships and bursaries to make ends meet will only put vulnerable people at greater risk and limit who is able to access law school.

Ricardo Acuna, president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta, said he’s worried about the effect the tuition increases will have on the reputation of the university.

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“Increasing tuition by 104 per cent is not going to entice students to come here,” he said. “Students look for predictability, but it’s very difficult to make the case to students that they should pay more tuition at a time when the university is getting rid of 1,200 support staff. It’s hard to fathom how a student would look at that and say, ‘that sounds like a good deal.’ ”

Mr. Acuna says he isn’t confident the tuition hikes will have a meaningful impact on the quality of the programs, either. “Whatever they’re able to gain from increased tuition is a just a small Band-Aid on the damage that was done [from the provincial cuts]. It doesn’t speak to long-term sustainability, affordability or quality.”

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