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Alberta Premier Alison Redford says the province will assume the cost of a one-year tuition freeze.

Chris Bolin

Facing growing outcry over cuts to postsecondary education funding, Alberta Premier Alison Redford is instead looking to win the support of parents and students.

Ms. Redford stopped by Edmonton's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology Thursday to announce a one-year tuition freeze that had already been announced a week earlier by Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk. Her visit, though, comes as universities and colleges look for program cuts and layoffs, with leaders such as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaking out against the decision.

Under pressure to reverse the sudden cuts or stretch them out over a longer period of time, Ms. Redford has, in effect, instead sought to stress that she's looking for universities to axe their budgets without heavily impacting students, something administrators have warned is impossible.

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The province will cover the cost of next year's scheduled 2.15 per cent tuition increase – a total of $16.5-million – meaning students won't pay more next fall but universities can still count on the income, and is also urging student associations not to increase the fees their members pay to support them.

"We've been very clear that we will not be balancing the budget on the backs of students," Ms. Redford said in a statement at Thursday's reannouncement.

A day earlier, Mr. Nenshi wrote a letter to Calgary's Mount Royal University pleading with its leadership not to "capitulate to the government's bad policy" and cut arts funding after "a terrible error" by Ms. Redford's government.

Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel has also spoken out against the cuts, saying the premier is showing poor leadership and threatening the well-being of his city, which has several postsecondary institutions, including the University of Alberta.

The budget cut $100-million from postsecondary funding. In some cases, that amounted to cuts of 7 per cent rather than previously promised hikes of 2 per cent. Postsecondary institutions said, at the time of last month's budget, that they'd been blindsided by the move. Mr. Lukaszuk has said the province's 26 postsecondary institutions need to work more efficiently together, streamlining administrative costs and avoiding duplication of programming.

At NAIT, where Ms. Redford's announcement was held, administrators are looking to cut 80 to 90 positions through voluntary buyouts and retirements. The institution took a 7.3 per cent cut, rather than the two per cent hike it had been promised, a difference of roughly $11-million.

"I guess I just have to have faith that that [provincial government] support has continued and will continue into the future. You know, make no mistake, this is going to be a very difficult year, but NAIT is phenomenally strong and will come out the other end of this even stronger," president Glenn Feltham said in an interview.

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Mr. Lukaszuk acknowledged those job cuts affect "real people" who "have families and probably mortgages."

"I'm troubled by it. There's no doubt about it. But at the end of the day, the advanced education system, it's not for me, it's not for employees, it's for our students," Mr. Lukaszuk added. "So we have to make sure with the finite amount of dollars we have we deliver the best programming possible."

Some student groups welcomed the surprise tuition relief. "We consider that a good thing, at the end of the day. It means students will not have to bear the full brunt of these budget cuts that we've faced," said Raphael Jacob, chair of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), which represents undergraduate students at the province's three largest universities.

But graduate student leaders were caught off guard, and voiced their displeasure. "One of Minister Lukaszuk's big pushes was that the universities needed to be more consultative of the student bodies. And when he issued these decisions, the only reason we were informed of them was because we watched the news," said Joey Windsor, vice-president of academic for the Graduate Students' Association at the University of Calgary.

Mr. Windsor also warned that the freeze is a one-year measure, meaning students could be hit with double the tuition hike next year when the one-time provincial funding runs out. And he questioned whether the funds could have been better used to protect the quality of education at a time when funding has been slashed so drastically.

"Our students see the value of education and the value of the programming that we offer, and we're willing to pay for the continuance of those programs," Mr. Windsor said.

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In response, Mr. Lukaszuk said, "that is not a position uniformly shared among students," adding that, "today I have received nothing but positive comments relevant to sheltering students from tuition increases."

But while Mr. Jacob of the CAUS maintains that "right now, students across Alberta are being saved $16-million, and that's a good thing," he admits his members are still looking for answers from Mr. Lukaszuk about how this latest move might affect educational quality and class sizes.

"We actually have a meeting with the Minister tomorrow, and that's, I assure you, a question that will come up – where exactly this $16-million came from, and why it wasn't on the table before to help alleviate the impact of these cuts somehow," Mr. Jacob said.

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