On Campus

New Brunswick’s education error

Spending limited resources helps rich students as much as poor

This year’s award for Worst Spin by a Politician in a Post-secondary Performance goes to …. insert drumroll… Premier Shawn Graham of New Brunswick!

According to a front page story in last Wednesday’s Times & Transcript, the province’s Liberal government is considering scrapping a planned universal $2,000 grant for first-year N.B. university students.

The grant was a campaign promise when the Liberals won the 2006 provincial election.

The fact the government is giving post-secondary education a hard look as it searches for ways to save money isn’t a surprise, nor is it a scandal. What is shocking, however, is the complete ignorance shown by the Premier in addressing the file and his lack of understanding of how to effectively spend public funds in order to improve access to education.

The Premier claims he has “an $8-million budgetary envelope” to spend in additional funds for post-secondary access. The Times & Transcript quotes him saying that money would be better spent on a tuition freeze.

New Brunswick’s student unions are calling on the Premier to aim that money towards those who need it most by creating a debt cap in the province. Capping debt was a recommendation from the government’s Commission on Post-Secondary Education, which recommended a cap of $7,000 per year.

Graham rejected the idea point-blank, saying his government can’t afford it. “New Brunswick would have been the only jurisdiction in Canada to move forward on such an initiative,” he told Times & Transcript.

The provinces of Ontario, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador already have debt caps. The claim by Graham that New Brunswick would be the only province with such a cap is incorrect. Actually, using this as a measure, New Brunswick is lagging behind the other provinces.

Saying his government can’t afford to provide targeted support to students is incorrect as well. It’s not that he can’t do it, it’s that he prefers to provide the same levels of support to all students—from the richest to the most-needy—by freezing tuition and providing tax credits. Taking that limited pot of money and devoting more of it to lower-income students would make more sense.

This is another example of what’s wrong with post-secondary education politics in this country. Instead of good public policy, politicians try to win votes and get photo-ops from money that should be spent improving access.

Starting with this post, I will be tracking attempts by the provincial governments to save money during the recession by cutting post-secondary education. Doesn’t it feel like the early 1990s? Follow the tag: 2009 Recession Cuts.

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