Editorial: Tuition caps come with a cost

When the Alberta government unveiled draft legislation last week to cap post-secondary tuition, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt offered a telling acknowledgement:

“Really, students wrote this bill,” he said.

The bill seeks to cap average tuition across all programs  — just as student advocates have long demanded. The cap will be tied to the consumer price index, although individual programs will be able to increase tuition up to 10 per cent annually.

The cap proposed for fall 2020 comes on the heels of a tuition freeze the NDP imposed in 2015 and plans to extend for 2019-20.

Bill 19 also gives the minister authority over mandatory non-instructional fees such as fitness-centre costs and students must approve any new ones.

For context, note that average tuition for 2018-19 in Alberta for university undergraduates is $5,744, compared to $6,838 nationally.

With millennials emerging as the largest single voting cohort in North America and a provincial election just months away, it’s clear why the NDP is making tuition a priority.

So far, little has been heard from either the minister or academic leaders  on the implications for post-secondary institutions.

But when MacEwan University president Deborah Saucier visited the Edmonton Journal editorial board recently, she offered a glimpse into challenges that the bill may bring to schools such as hers.

“Coming from Ontario, which has had a long history of cuts and tuition freezes, eventually you start to starve the organization, Saucier said.

“One to two years out, we’re looking at being able to balance our budget. But starting in years three and four, we’re going to have to make hard choices and these choices may affect affordability and/or access.”

If provincial grants don’t cover the difference, tuition increases tied to inflation likely won’t be enough to offer competitive salaries for teaching staff, leaving MacEwan vulnerable to poaching, she said.

MacEwan also faces a growing space crunch, especially in high-demand programs, while fees for student services such as sports, recreation and health services already fall short of their full costs, she said.

Capping tuition is good news for students but it’s counter-productive if cash-crunched institutions are forced to make drastic cuts to pay the bills or limit enrolment as a result.

For a province that relies on post-secondary schools to train its labour force and to produce innovations that diversify the economy, starving them of resources doesn’t make sense.

It would be wise for the province to consider the concerns of all stakeholders — not just the one with the most votes — and clearly spell out a long-term, stable funding plan that addresses the concerns of all participants.

Local editorials are the consensus opinion of the Journal’s editorial board, comprising Mark Iype, Dave Breakenridge, Sarah O’Donnell and Bill Mah.

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