New tuition controls don’t do enough for students

Bill 19 just puts what was convention onto paper

The long awaited and overdue tuition review concluded on Monday with an anticlimactic sputter. Aside from a few good jokes, Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt didn’t give himself much to announce.

The Alberta NDP government initiated the tuition review in late 2016 as part of a plan to examine the funding models for all public post-secondary institutions in the province. Work conducted as part of the review included an extensive online survey, an advisory panel, and an external consultant.

We’ll never know what the government heard because they’re never releasing the results. Minister Schmidt said there was never any commitment to release any reports on the consultation, and while he’s correct, this only adds to the frustrating lack of transparency around tuition fees in Alberta. Bill 19 puts current tuition rates and fees back into the Post-Secondary Learning Act, but doesn’t go any further. Nobody knows the true cost of educating an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, or how much of the cost tuition covers. Post-review, tuition remains an essentially arbitrary number, set to balance university budgets after the severe provincial budget cuts of the 90s, occasionally adjusted in relation to national averages. Students have no new justification for the cost of tuition, except for the NDP promising that they know best. The funding model for universities has been left untouched, aside from backfill for the final year of the tuition freeze.

International students received slightly more exciting news, as they’ll now be guaranteed the cost of their tuition for the duration of their degree up front. This change is far from radical, however, as international rates will still be unregulated and adjustable by institutions at will. The impact of this decision will only be understood when the Board of Governors sets international tuition; as university provost Steven Dew has previously warned, predictability comes at a cost as the administration will have to attempt to account for four years of rising costs when proposing international tuition rates.

I wouldn’t be surprised if tuition for incoming international students is raised by API (academic price index, the university administration’s newly created fantasy inflation metric) multiplied by two to four. While predictable, this will also stratify international tuition rates by intake year, resulting in students paying different rates for the same education and further deepening inequality on campus.

University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) president Reed Larsen and vice-president (external) Adam Brown were on stage with the Minister on Monday applauding the government’s announcement, despite the fact that domestic tuition will almost certainly increase by CPI every year after the freeze ends in 2020. Violations of the spirit of SU political policy aside, it’s disappointing that our student leaders in Alberta were so satisfied with legislation that amounted to the bare minimum students could expect from a centre-left government. Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) policy states that members want mandatory non-instructional fees (MNIFs) eliminated, tuition rolled back to 1992 levels and adjusted to yearly inflation, but you rarely hear that from any of the executives. While this reflects students’ choice to elect conservative-leaning representatives, it left me wondering whether UASU and CAUS political policy is worth anything more than the paper it’s written on.

Premier Rachel Notley stated in 2017 that the government was aiming to bring down tuition and rationalize post-secondary funding, but neither of these goals were achieved. The tuition freeze was a nice five-year break from inflation, but it was far from rational, leaving students in the lurch every year as they wondered whether the freeze would be extended. While predictability and regulation of fees is good news, there’s no help for students who are already struggling to pay tuition, or anyone who can’t afford to pursue post-secondary education.

After three years of Alberta’s first NDP government, students aren’t left far from where we started: they’ll still be paying tuition fees justified only by their arbitrary convenience to government, but with the new and improved taste of predictable increases. I expected more, and Albertan students deserve better.

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