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#NSBudget 2015: Students get served a "Tuition-Free-For-All"

Complete deregulation of tuition fees spells trouble for "the education province"

by Rebecca Rose

[Photo: Miles Howe]
[Photo: Miles Howe]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Nova Scotia’s over-paid* and out-of-touch university presidents got what they wanted in yesterday’s provincial budget; they can finally hike tuition fees to high heaven.

The Liberal’s austerity-packed budget lifted the three percent cap on tuition fee increases for Nova Scotian students for one year. This leads the way for what the Canadian Federation of Students –Nova Scotia (CFS-NS) calls a “tuition fee free-for-all”. This “tuition fee reset” allows universities who feel that their tuition fees were artificially low due to the 2008 tuition fee freeze and 3% cap on increases, to hike their fees to the levels of the most expensive institutions in the province (and possibly to the levels of “rival” universities in other provinces). University presidents were quietly lobbying for this policy change since at least as far back as 2011.

The budget also indefinitely deregulates tuition fees for out of province, and graduate, students. This means that universities can increase these fees as high as they think “the market” (AKA students and their families) will bear without any government intervention. Out-of-province students include students from such wealthy provinces as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and the thousands of students from B.C. to Québec that we rely on to staff local businesses, volunteer in our communities, pay sales taxes and hopefully settle here when they graduate. Politicians love to wax poetic about Nova Scotia’s aging population and the need to attract and retain young people. This budget shows a complete lack of respect for both in-province and out-of-province students (and their families), who are already struggling with tuition fees and record high student debt.

In 2011, the Dexter government commissioned a report on Nova Scotia’s universities from a former bank executive Tim O’Neill. Predictably, the report recommended major cuts to university funding, tuition fee increases for Nova Scotian students and, drum roll, the deregulation of tuition fees for out-of-province students. (This report, and the NDPs decision to lift the three-year tuition fee freeze and increase fees by 3%, helped to make yesterday’s attack on students possible.) The threat of these dramatic measures is what drove over 2,000 students into the streets during a blizzard on February 2, 2011.

Another factor that lead to such a strong student push-back in 2011 was that the NDP government announced their plans to lift the tuition fee freeze and increase tuition fees by 3% the day before the scheduled Student Day of Action. The Liberals have learned from the previous governments’ mistakes and held off on the announcement until the day before the last day of classes. Students are entering exams and they are burnt-out (I actually saw a student curled up in the foetal position on the floor at the University of King’s College last week). Soon students will return to their home communities and provinces and to the (often two or three) jobs they need to work to pay for their education.

An opportune time for the Liberals to announce historic tuition fee increases.

In fall of 2014, the Liberal government ran a series of post-secondary education consultations. According to the CFS-NS 85% of Nova Scotians who took part in the public consultations were opposed to universities being able to set fees without government intervention and 60% said they would pay higher taxes if it meant tuition fee reductions. Years of public opinion polling also showed support for tuition fee reductions in the 80% range. Yesterday’s budget demonstrates a blatant disregard for what the public actually wants and needs regarding post-secondary education. This past February 4, hundreds of Nova Scotia students again protested for lower tuition fees and an increase to needs based grants. The not-so-quiet affair ended at Province House.

The Liberal's so-called public consultations on education happened on university campuses (Acadia and Cape Breton universities). University campuses are notoriously alienating for poor people, racialised people and for people from families who have yet to be able to afford to send anyone to university. Unsurprisingly the consultations were not held in communities such as Uniacke Square, North End Dartmouth, the Prestons, Beechville, Whitney Pier and low-income communities in rural Nova Scotia, where high tuition fees have compounded the devastating effects of racism and poverty.

This year, Cape Breton University made a public plea for tuition free post-secondary education, echoing what students (and low-income Nova Scotians) have been saying, and chanting, for years. Québec already offers tuition-free post-secondary education in the form of CEGEPs (pre-university colleges). Newfoundland and Labrador continues to boast the lowest tuition fees (even for out-of-province students, including Nova Scotians) in Canada. Internationally, Chile recently eliminated tuition fees (to be implemented in 2016). Reducing - and yes then eliminating - tuition fees is completely possible. Budgeting is about priorities. Yesterday, the Liberals created a new Department of Business, showing us exactly where their priorities lie.

Not shockingly, the Chilean government didn’t eliminate tuition fees out of the goodness of their hearts. Nor will Nova Scotia. Students in Chile began protesting in 2006 and started an eight-month long campus occupation in 2011. Students sustained the momentum for three whole years, and at it’s peak, 800,000 students and supporters took the streets. Several of the movement’s leaders were then elected to Chilean congress.

Post-budget, Nova Scotia students and their allies (including organized labour) will need to take the fight to their respective university Board of Governors meetings (often held during or after exams). And students have won victories in these most unlikely of places in the past. In 2009, students at Memorial University won the support of the provincial government, and thwarted the university’s attempt to increase international student fees. In 2011, international students at Dahousie University mobilized and forced the Board of governors to back off of a 10% fee increase (dropping it to 6%).

Yesterday’s Liberal budget was devastating for both students, and low-income Nova Scotians. But like the O’Neill report before it, this dramatic budget can serve as a rallying cry, for students and their supporters in the months, and years to come.

*In 2013-14 the five top earning university presidents made between $325K and $248K (at the “low” end). Former Dalhousie University President, Tom Traves, earned $442K.

(Full disclosure: Rebecca Rose helped to organize the Student Day of Actions in 2011 and 2012)

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