Free tuition in other provinces virtually inevitable: student leaders

New Brunswick's free tuition plan just the latest sign of a trend taking hold across the country

Mount Allison University (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

Mount Allison University (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

HALIFAX – New Brunswick’s recent decision to follow Ontario’s lead by covering tuition for college and university students from lower income families has prompted student leaders to suggest it’s the start of a trend decades in the making.

“It means that (people) who are traditionally under-represented in post-secondary institutions … are being given more opportunity to access the system,” says Erik Queenan, chairman of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

“Students are thrilled to see this progressive model … The traditional barriers are being eroded.”

Queenan, whose group represents 250,000 students, says other provinces will be watching what happens in Ontario and New Brunswick.

“This is a really good opportunity for the rest of Canada to see the effectiveness of upfront grants and bursaries … The evidence that will come from these programs will show that grants are the most effective way to removing barriers to post-secondary education.”

In February, the Ontario government announced that as of the 2017-18 school year, it will entirely pay for tuition for students from families with incomes of $50,000 or less.

The new program also means these students should get enough financial support to cover books, ancillary fees and some of their living costs, leaving about $3,000 for the student to contribute to other cost-of-living expenses.

As well, half of Ontario students from families with incomes of less than $83,000 will qualify for non-repayable grants for tuition, and no student will receive less than they currently get.

Related: Why Ontario’s free tuition promise doesn’t add up

On Thursday, New Brunswick said it will provide upfront financial assistance to cover tuition for students from families with an annual income of $60,000 or less when they attend a publicly funded university or college in New Brunswick.

“We are doing this so university and college tuition can be free for low-income and many middle-class New Brunswick families,” Premier Brian Gallant said last week.

In recent years, enrolment in New Brunswick’s public colleges and universities has dropped while tuition and public funding has increased, he said. The new policy is aimed at reversing that pattern.

The 650,000-member Canadian Federation of Students called the Ontario move a “historic victory” for Canada’s students, saying support in growing for a nationwide policy.

“It’s excellent to see that there’s a trend forming across the country, where more and more provinces … are interested in talking about free education,” says chairwoman Bilan Arte.

“We certainly hope that serveral other governments follow suit … (But) we need to see some leadership in Ottawa.”

Arte says the federation would like to eventually see tuition eliminated for all post-secondary students, substantial increases for institutional funding and a move away from registered education savings plans.

While every province provides varying levels of support to subsidize the cost of post-secondary education, student groups have long complained that much of that assistance comes too late.

In Saskatchewan, for example, post-secondary graduates who stay in the province are eligible for a $20,000 rebate on their tuition over 10 years after graduation.

In Nova Scotia, Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan says the province offers one of the best student-assistance programs in the country: “The difference is, it appears that New Brunswick is paying upfront. We pay upon completion.”

Queenan says that’s the wrong way to do things.

“There’s been a big push to move away from tax credits, which have been proven not to be a progressive form of financial aid,” Queenan says. “No 17-year-old student is excited to go to university because they can get a tax credit in a few years.”

Jackson Doughart, a researcher with the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, says the right-leaning think-tank is opposed to eliminating tuition across the board — but targeting assistance for those in need is a good idea.

“Generally, those at the lower end of socio-economic status are the ones who do deserve to get more help,” Doughart says. “And we know that having a university education is a great way to bring people up.”

The trend toward more affordable higher learning experienced a setback last week when Newfoundland and Labrador tabled a get-tough budget that partially reversed an August 2015 decision to replace student loans with grants.

Still, there are other signs that a trend is taking hold.

The federal government’s spring budget increased the Canada Student Grant program by 50 per cent — from $2,000 to $3,000 per year for students from low-income families, and from $800 to $1,200 for students from middle-income families.

Manitoba NDP Leader Greg Selinger says he will turn student loans into non-repayable grants if he is re-elected premier on April 19.

Selinger has also promised to provide free tuition up to age 25 for students in or emerging from the child-welfare system, and to double funding for scholarships and bursaries.

And shortly after Ontario made its big announcement, higher-education departments in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador said their governments would be reviewing the Ontario system.

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