As the Alberta NDP change postsecondary, not everyone agrees it’s the right course
On May 5., 2015, the NDP was elected into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, winning a 54-seat majority led by Rachel Notley, who became the 17th Premier of Alberta. The groundbreaking election ended a 44-year PC dynasty and resulted in Jim Prentice’s resignation.
Notley promised as part of her campaign to make education more accessible and affordable for post-secondary students in Alberta. Her plan included placing a two-year tuition freeze on Alberta institutions.
In the last year, there has been dialogue about the state of post-secondary in Alberta and whether or not the NDP will follow through with the plans they laid out in their election campaign.
According to the Hon. Marlin Schmidt, Alberta Minister of Advanced Education, in the last year, the NDP has done the following to benefit post-secondary students in Alberta:
- Invested $76 million for various foundational learning supports, including $65 million for financial support for eligible Albertans who wish to attend academic upgrading or training.
- Placed a two-year tuition freeze on all post-secondary institutions in Alberta.
- Provided stable, predictable funding to post-secondary institutions, including a 2% increase in operating grants in Budget 2016.
- Contributed $240 million in funding for Student Aid, including $7 million in scholarships for Indigenous Students and $54 million in grants and bursaries to help reduce financial barriers.
- Budgeted $579 million for student loans for more than 77,000 students.
- Budgeted approximately $3 million to extend student mental health initiatives on campuses across Alberta.
Schmidt said that he thinks the NDP has done a lot to enhance post-secondary institutions for students in Alberta in the last year. “The tuition freeze was a big contributor to making sure that education is affordable for Albertan students,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt said that the NDP has provided predictable and sustainable funding to universities and colleges across the province so that they have the resources they need to deliver quality education.
The two-year tuition freeze will be lifted at the end of the 2017 school year.
“We are currently coming up with a strategy for exiting the tuition freeze. Part of it is making sure that tuition remains affordable and that the cost to students is predictable,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt said that the NDP is putting an emphasis on higher education in Alberta. “We see education as an investment and not a cost; we want the funding, tuition, and student aid that is available to reflect that belief.”
“We think that an educated Alberta will be a better place to live, and we’ll be transitioning Alberta from the economy of today into the economy of tomorrow,” said Schmidt.
The official opposition to Alberta’s NDP majority is the Wildrose Party, which claimed 22 seats in the 2015 election. According to their website, the Wildrose Party believes that “Alberta’s post-secondary system can be the foundation of our social and economic success for generations to come.”
On the Wildrose website, they outline some of their policies related to post-secondary students:
For example, they plan to review the Alberta student loan application process, invest in Internet-based learning for the purpose of opening up additional post-secondary spaces in a cost effective manner, and coordinate with all Alberta post-secondary schools to improve post-secondary transfer credit systems.
Mr. Wes Taylor, an MLA for the electoral district of Battle River-Wainwright who was elected into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in 2015, said that the Wildrose Party believes in making education more affordable.
“We support freezing tuition and fee increases to the rate of inflation. An indexed tuition cap is a predictable and sustainable plan that would financially protect students and post-secondary institutions from inflationary pressure.”
Taylor said that serious concerns have been raised over the NDP’s absolute tuition freeze for the next two years, as students fear they could face steep tuition and fee hikes once the freeze is lifted.
“I’ve talked to many students who understand how our plan to freeze tuition to the rate of inflation better protects them,” said Taylor.
Taylor said that the province needs to find a way to stabilize the cost of post-secondary education as well as remain sustainable.
“The NDP attempted to take action on the cost of tuition, but their approach was risky and ideological, especially given our province’s current economic situation.”
According to Taylor, there was an issue when “egregiously high” executive salaries were revealed. “While many of the executives do critical work, the NDP should have determined the merits of contracts on a case-by-case basis.”
Taylor said that Wildrose has been in contact with many Students’ Associations and Unions, and heard many of them say that the NDP government had previously indicated they would be included in the consultation process during the Mental Health Review, but were not.
“I’ve been disappointed by the NDP’s inability to launch new initiatives that match post-secondary programs and funding with high-need job areas. This is an area of innovation that Wildrose will tackle,” said Taylor.
Farshad Labbaf, a third-year Augustana student and president of the Human Rights Club, said that one of the essential steps Alberta must take in order thrive in the competitive global economy is to invest in all areas of education, not just post-secondary.
“I believe in eliminating tuition in public colleges and universities and capping student loans. The dark cloud of student debt is perhaps the biggest issue that has not been adequately addressed,” said Labbaf.
Labbaf believes that the NDP’s tuition freeze is a strong step forward in promoting affordability in academic institutions. Labbaf said that he thinks the next phase for the NDP is to focus on developing a long-term plan.
“I would like to see a framework that would aim towards eliminating tuition in government-run institutions as well as capping interest rates on student loans at an affordable price.”
There are still questions about what the NDP will do in the coming years, and whether or not they will stay in power with the next election taking place in 2019 or earlier.
“I hope in the next ten years I will no longer have to talk about students being unable to pursue their academic potential because of financial restraints or being stuck in an endless spiral of student debt,” said Labbaf.