Students in 2011 rally against tuition hikes and government funding cuts to universities. Photo: UNews

Students in 2011 rally against tuition hikes and government funding cuts to universities. Photo: UNews

Tuition, debt top list of student concerns

February 1 is Day of Action for university students

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University students in Nova Scotia will take to the streets again this year to protest cuts to post-secondary education. This year, though, it's a Canada-wide event - the first since 2007.

The Halifax chapter of the march and rally is organized by the Canadian Federation of Students.

Gabe Hoogers, the Canadian Federation of Students representative for Nova Scotia, said students in other provinces were motivated by last year's strong turnout in Halifax.

"People saw the really big success in Nova Scotia last year and were inspired," he says.

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Last year, students faced snow and cold to get their voices heard. Photo: UNews

 As always, students are lobbying the province to freeze tuition fees, increase transfers to colleges and universities, and financially support graduates dealing with student loan debt. This year, however, brings a sense of urgency at both the local and the national levels.

The Government of Nova Scotia released a three-year memorandum of understanding in early January, signed by the province's 11 post-secondary institutions. The agreement allows for increases in tuition fees and cuts provincial funding to universities by three per cent for the 2012-13 school year.

The agreement comes even though Nova Scotia has the third-highest average tuition fees in the country. And according to the Report on the University System in Nova Scotia, presented to Darrell Dexter in 2010, funding for universities in Nova Scotia is almost as low as it was at the beginning of the '90s. A three per cent reduction in support will hurt the province's universities and students further, argue members of the Canadian Federation of Students.

The provincial government has removed the cap on tuition fees for students in medical, dentistry and law programs. This means that, while fees for most students will increase three per cent next year, tuition for these students can increase at an unregulated rate, in programs that already cost nearly $15,000 per year on average.

The same is true for international students who choose to study in Nova Scotia. These students already pay substantially more than Canadian citizens for the same education, but universities can raise these fees without limits. In 2013-14, the Government of Nova Scotia will also look at increasing fees for students who come to Nova Scotia from other provinces.

According to Statistics Canada, universities in Nova Scotia made 30 per cent of their revenue from tuition fees in 2009. The Canadian average was 20 per cent. Post-secondary institutions in Nova Scotia collected more than a billion dollars in total revenue in 2009 and more than $350 million from students in the form of tuition.

The Nova Scotia government also provides a lower percentage of its universities' total revenue than any other province in Canada.

"On a per-capita system, Nova Scotia gets the bad end of the deal," says Hoogers. "We're a small province with a pretty big student population, which means we receive proportionately less funding than other provinces.

But an author for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies says Nova Scotia should make use of that population and present itself as a hub of post-secondary institutions for the benefit of the entire province, not just its students.

While many students graduate from universities in Nova Scotia every year, a fair percentage of them leave for larger and more lucrative opportunities. All these recent grads, says John Kennedy, "may be the key to revitalizing the Atlantic Canadian economy."  And in a period of global recession, Atlantic Canada needs all the revitalizing it can get.

 The pressures on the universities to raise tuition, however, are considerable. A number of major financial issues have cropped up in terms of post-secondary education in Nova Scotia since last year's Day of Action.

  • Dalhousie's pension plan is underfunded by approximately $270 million, and the university may have to cut $50 million per year from its operating budget to make up the shortfall.
  • The Nova Scotia Agricultural College announced its merger with Dalhousie in May 2011, and is now beginning serious negotiations on topics such as budgets, property and assets, and human resources.
  • NSCAD has had to try to figure out how to manage its $2.4-million deficit and remain an independent university after a December report by Howard Windsor questioned its viability as a separate institution.

The Day of Action protests in Newfoundland and Labrador have succeeded in making lower tuition a provincial priority, according to a student representative there.

"Our campaigns and past Days of Action have helped us secure tuition fee freezes and reductions, the elimination of interest on student loans and the implementation of a provincial grants program that is expected to fully replace student loans in the next four years," says Jessica McCormick, a student at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the organizer for the province's Day of Action this year.

Since the first tuition freeze in 1999, the number of Nova Scotia students going away to Newfoundland for university has increased tenfold.

Marching and rallying will help "the provincial government [to] see the ability of students to mobilize," says Hoogers, and might prompt the government to keep the promises they made to students before they were elected. 

 

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