In Brief: In this pre-budget story, AIMS acting president Charles Cirtwill points out that a tuition freeze is not the way to help post-secondary students. He says the New Brunswick government should look at innovative policies to address student debt, population growth, and access to a university education. 

FREDERICTON – The Liberal government’s decision to temporarily freeze tuition rates at New Brunswick’s publicly-funded universities proves it isn’t listening to students, say student leaders.

New Brunswick Student Alliance president Justin Robichaud says government’s injection of $12 million into the four universities will only save most students about $250 if tuition rates continue to rise at the staggering pace of recent years in which annual increases ranged between 5 and 6 per cent on average.

He says the one-year budget item highlights the Liberal government’s decision to shut student representatives out of the working group that is still deciding what to do with the report of the government’s Commission on Post-Secondary Education, which was released last year.

“There were other ways that would have been much more efficient for the government to invest,” said Robichaud.

“Specifically, if we look at the cap on student debt, it would have been a better way for government to invest in post-secondary education, especially in this budget.”

Robichaud says a $7,000 per year cap on student debt- as it has been recommended by student groups and the government’s own commission on post-secondary education- would focus the funds on those who need it most and increase access to a university education.

Noting that only 40 per cent of a student’s expenses can be attributed to tuition, Robichaud said there is no comparison between $250 and the $4,000 savings achieved by a student receiving an $11,000 loan under the proposed debt cap system.

“It is much more targeted toward students that actually need it, and we can have a greater impact on those students and encourage students who would usually tend to not attend university,” he said.

While he hopes to see more support for the province’s post-secondary education system announced in today’s budget, Robichaud says the structure of the support reflects the Liberal government’s decision to allow university presidents to speak on behalf of students rather than including a student representative on its working group.

“Their idea of student financial aid is a tuition freeze, but basically it will increase funding to universities which is precisely what (university presidents) were looking for.”

The Liberal g overnment’s decision to freeze tuition rates ignores several recommendations in the controversial report on post-secondary education that was released last September.

Université de Moncton student federation president, St├ęphanie Chouinard, says the tuition freeze is better than allowing tuition rates to continue their meteoric rise next year.

However, as the freeze is a temporary measure she hopes it is simply setting the stage for more effective ways of tackling student debt, such as a cap on student debt.

“As a temporary measure, the freeze is acceptable, but it would be bad management of taxpayers’ money to invest each year in a universal measure that still leaves the less fortunate to indebt themselves at a pace of $11,900 per year through student loans,” said Chouinard.

Chouinard said if the province is serious about addressing a declining population it needs to address student debt with policies that will fundamentally help the situation.

“Students who are the most indebted are those who end up going West most quickly,” she said.

“The students who are most indebted, even if they stay in New Brunswick, are not able to enter the working market as quickly because they aren’t able to get a car loan, for example, or aren’t able to start a family.”

Jess Hamilton, student president at Mount Allison University, also sees the move as a stop-gap solution while the Liberal government develops a more comprehensive plan for post-secondary education.

“This is a way for them to at least prevent it from getting worse for students,” she said.

“We all have to take the realistic stance that it’s not going to be one magic budget that’s going to solve (post-secondary education) issue.”

Conservative MLA Jody Carr’s criticism of the budget item is less diplomatic.

“It does nothing to help student debt load. In fact, it is the status quo. Completely maintaining the status quo is not good enough,” said Carr.

“If the government was really serious about helping students they would start lowering tuition as recommended by the post-secondary commission.”

Carr says it is ironic that the Graham government is pushing through such a temporary solution when it spends most of its time focusing on the year 2026- the end goal of its self-sufficiency agenda.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says the Liberal government is following a trend that hasn’t proven very efficient in other Atlantic Canadian provinces rather than forging ahead with innovative policies to address student debt, population growth, and access to a university education.

“It’s the standard answer. Everybody else is doing it so I guess we better do it too. I think in this situation it is far better to find something that works than something everybody else is doing.”

“A better example is exactly what the students and what the commissioners were talking about when they talked about debt repayment, lowering the interest, lowering the payment on your debt to income contingent basis,” said Cirtwill.

A report released by Statistics Canada last fall ranked New Brunswick students as those faced with the highest tuition increases in the country.

The study suggested the average undergraduate tuition bill in New Brunswick is $5,733 compared to the national average of $4,524.

Similar studies suggest students are graduating with a staggering amount of debt — on average about $32,000 per student.

Students entering one of the province’s four public universities this fall paid $4,920 at Universite de Moncton, $6,720 at Mount Allison University, $4,570 at St. Thomas University and $5,482 at the University of New Brunswick for full-time tuition.