When the United Conservative government tabled its first budget back in October, it warned the budget would require belt-tightening by many in the province.
But it seems post-secondary students will have to tighten their belts more than most. That’s because universities and colleges suffered critical cuts that are sure to create hardships for current and future students alike.
First, most post-secondary institutions across Alberta saw cuts to their provincial grants of up to 7.9 per cent with the goal of reducing overall operating expenses by 12 per cent by 2022-23.
Second, as of Jan. 1, the government has allowed tuition to be raised following the end of a five-year freeze. Institutionally, post-secondary schools in the province can increase their tuition by up to seven per cent during each of the next three years, while individual programs can increase their tuition by up to 10 per cent per year over the same time period.
Third, the government plans to eliminate $225 million in education and tuition tax credits over the next three years.
Finally, students will pay more in student loans as the interest rate, which is currently set at prime, is raised to prime plus one per cent.
Calgary Journal spoke with four Alberta post-secondary students about how these budget decisions will affect them and their educations.
Coleson Proudfoot on Mount Royal University’s campus. PHOTO: KYRA BIRD
PROGRAM OF STUDY: SOCIAL WORK
When Coleson Proudfoot first heard about the Alberta budget and its post-secondary cuts, he was worried not just about his education, but about his job.
“I’m also employed by Mount Royal University,” he says. “I work for the Institute for Community Prosperity. It’s kind of an off-branch institute which, you know, could be susceptible to being disbanded altogether because there’s been institutes at Mount Royal in the past that have just dissolved from lack of commitment or funding.”
Although Proudfoot acknowledges that all students, including himself, will face financial strain due to rising tuition costs following the removal of the tuition freeze, he can still see a silver lining in the budget, at least for MRU students.
“[MRU] kind of got the better end of the deal. Everyone got cuts except for a few institutions. But the cuts in other places, like the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, they were huge compared to us. So, I think we got off pretty lucky,” he says.
In the budget for 2019/2020, MRU saw its provincial grant funding decrease by a little more than one per cent, or just over $1.3 million. Meanwhile, both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary saw an almost seven per cent decrease to their provincial grant funding, totalling over $44 million and $32 million respectively.
“There will be rollbacks, of course,” Proudfoot says. “But I don’t think we’ll see it drastically in terms of services and amenities provided by the school.”
Annie Gee, a social work major, is worried about her future. PHOTO: KYRA BIRD
PROGRAM OF STUDY: SOCIAL WORK
Annie Gee hasn’t always known that she wanted to study social work. Instead, she began her education by studying biology at the University of Alberta before discovering her desire to work in a more people-oriented profession. That’s when she was drawn to social work. After two years in Edmonton, she moved back to Calgary to pursue her diploma in the field at MRU.
Although she’s happy she made the decision to follow her passion, that decision is part of what made the recent provincial budget cuts so hard to swallow.
Gee says the ending of the tuition freeze and the interest rate hike on student loans makes it even more difficult if not impossible for her to consider furthering her education. This is made worse by the fact that she feels as though she has “in a sense wasted my tuition for two years being in a program I didn’t enjoy.
“I’ve already accumulated so much in student loans already and I just feel very discouraged from pursuing more studies beyond my diploma,” she says. “I feel like there’s a financial stress and it will create a burden for me that I feel like I don’t think I can get out of. I would love to move on to the bachelor level for social work, but I feel like, ‘Do I have the money to do so now?’"
Gee feels even more stress knowing she’s going into a profession that will also face hardships due to budget cuts in the social service sector. But she feels for other students who likely have it even worse than she does.
“I can’t [help] but think about the students who already barely struggle to keep themselves in school,” Gee says. “I would hate to see people just drop out of school and drop out of a program they’re very interested in or passionate about just because they didn’t have the means to afford it.”
PROGRAM OF STUDY: GEOGRAPHY
When Jessica Saigeon first heard about the cuts to post-secondary education laid out in the provincial budget, she didn’t feel immediate panic.
“Initially, I wasn’t too concerned,” she says. “Governments always make cuts and move money around and it hasn’t affected me enough to ever be worried about it.”
But she still gave the cuts some thought. She considered the fact that she’s spent five years in school, including some time in a program that ultimately wasn’t her passion, and began to realize just how much one change in particular is going to affect her.
“Being in my final year of school, the increased interest on student loans is definitely going to affect me the most,” Saigeon says. “I have about $80,000 of student loans behind me, which causes enough stress. Now that interest is going up I am very concerned for post-grad and I know I am going to have to work two jobs full-time for a couple years in order to stay on top of all my bills.”
Saigeon now sees the cuts as not only hurting students, but also hurting the province.
“The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow,” she says. “If we are cutting student funding and making it near impossible for people to attend university now, then the educated minds of Alberta are going to dwindle away.”
Frustrated, Saigeon has been contemplating leaving the province after graduation, taking her knowledge and skills elsewhere because of the way she feels about the current government and its policies and budget decisions, including its advanced education cuts.
“For the past couple [of] months, I have been considering moving to New Zealand after graduation on a working holiday visa, and now that the UCP is in power I want to move for more than just travel reasons,”
Saigeon says.“It is no longer a desire to just travel and work somewhere else. I fear living in a province that is run by someone who is so right-wing extreme and doesn’t care about the future of not only the provincial economy but the environment as well.
“I can’t wait to leave and escape what [Jason Kenney] is turning Alberta into.”
Sadiya Nazir, a member of student government, is most concerned about what the tuition freeze will mean for future education. PHOTO: KYRA BIRD
PROGRAM OF STUDY: BIOLOGY & POLITICAL SCIENCE
As chair of the Council of Alberta University Students and the University of Calgary Students’ Union vice-president external, Sadiya Nazir was part of the conversations the government had with post-secondary representatives prior to the budget being released. But being involved in those discussions with the ministers of advanced education and labour still did not prepare her or her colleagues for the changes that were announced.
“I was up [in Edmonton] for the budget when it dropped and we’re learning about all these changes. It was startling. We had no idea that a lot of these changes were going to be happening,” she recalls. “All of this together was very startling for student leaders across Alberta.”
Nazir believes the most devastating change students will have to endure over the next few years is one that was actually not surprising, but instead anticipated: the end of the five-year tuition freeze.
“Tuition is sort of at the crux of all of our conversations right now,” she says, particularly for students who work while going to school, whether it be full-time or part-time. “It is a change that affects them because they’re going to have to absorb this cost.”
“They’re going to have to make changes to their living arrangements and how they operate. Some students have reached out and told us that they will be looking for other jobs and potentially switching from a full-time course load to a part-time course load just to be able to afford their degrees.”
For her own part, Nazir says that she has been contemplating how she is going to navigate the rest of her education.
“Even though I only have about seven courses left, I know that I might, once my executive term is finished, have to potentially work a little bit more over the summer and maybe come back to school next winter to finish up my courses.”
It’s not only her current education that she’s worried about. Recent changes have also caused Nazir to reconsider her future education plans as well.
“For my undergrad, I have been able to rely on scholarships and things like that, my parents have supported me and my post-secondary and I’ve also been working part-time,” she says. “However, I know that I want to pursue a master’s or a professional degree.”
For now she says, “I will probably have to wait until I can afford it.”
- By Kyra Bird