HOT TAKE: Party stances on fees, funding, and student assistance

Tuition fees in Nova Scotia are the second highest in Canada, at an average of $7,218 per year, and the fastest rising in Canada, at 5.6% a year. This has resulted in students in our province graduating with the highest debt load in Canada, at $39,600, compared to a national average of $28,000.

High levels of student debt are an impediment to Nova Scotia’s economic growth. Relying on debt to finance education means that the full impact of high tuition fees is delayed until after graduation, as indebted graduates have less available funds with which to begin their lives. At a time when the province needs to encourage our graduates to buy a home, start a family, and pursue entrepreneurship, high student debt discourages all of these things. 

Student debt also impacts career choices, even among professional faculties such as medicine and law. The high upfront cost to obtain a post-secondary education is a barrier that can prevent those in need of financial assistance from being able to fully participate in the economy for upwards of 10 years post-graduation. All of these factors depress the economic contribution by graduates and lead to a stagnant economy. 

We asked all major parties if they supported:

  • Reducing tuition fees;
  • Increasing public funding;
  • Replacing student loans with upfront and needs based grants.

 

Here’s what they had to say:

TUITION FEES

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The Liberals have chosen to respond to the issue of tuition fees with a commitment regarding student financial assistance. It is important to understand that increasing levels of student financial assistance is not the same as reducing tuition fees. Tuition fees are an upfront barrier, while student financial assistance can reduce that barrier during or after the cost as been acquired. The most effective way to increase accessibility, however, is to eliminate the upfront fee and equalize immediate financial access. 

The NDP has committed to eliminating fees at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) for all students, and reducing university tuition fees by 10% over four years. This is an exciting and innovative prospect for students in Nova Scotia and across the country. In light of massive youth job losses and limited employment opportunities in this province, we should be investing in affordable skills training that benefits young workers and well as those adapting to a constantly changing labour market. The elimination of tuition fees at NSCC would also benefit university students who complete the first two years of their program in community college. The NDP commitment also includes a 10% reduction in tuition over 4 years. While we recognize this as a first step towards more affordable university education, a more aggressive tuition reduction strategy is needed to combat the student debt crisis in Nova Scotia.  In anticipation of this year’s provincial budget, it was our recommendation to reduce tuition fees by 10% in one year.

The PCs have committed to bringing tuition fees down to the national average. We applaud both the NDP and the PCs for committing to tuition-reduction strategies, however PC’s commitment begs many questions. The national average of tuition fees fluctuates every year based on provincial adjustments, which reveals the need for federal oversight and funding to regulate fees levels across the country. It’s not clear on what timeline fees would be brought down to national average, nor is it clear if tuition fees would be allowed to increase if the national average were to rise. 

FUNDING

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Since the mid-90s, tuition fees have skyrocketed as a result of cuts to public funding, and so any strategy to reduce tuition fees must include investment in our post-secondary institutions. 

The PCs are encouraging cutting administrative bloat as an alternative to new funding, and while administrator salaries do represent a disproportionate amount of university budgets, reductions to tuition fees without public investments represent a real cut to operating budgets and will detrimentally affect the quality of education.

The Liberals have simply referenced the existing Memorandum of Understanding’s 1% annual increase The NDP, by contrast, have called upon the need for a federal funding formula to increase available public funds to support post-secondary institutions. Joining students in their call for a federal Post-Secondary Education Act will be a crucial step in realizing an accessible system of post-secondary education in our province. Cuts to federal transfer payments to the provinces in the 1990s are the root cause of provincial reliance on tuition fees. We have also confirmed that the NDP would invest 68.5 million over 4 years to counter the 10% reduction in tuition fees. 

STUDENT ASSISTANCE

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In this case, each party has a unique position on how they would improve student financial assistance.

The Liberals are proposing to adjust an existing program – the debt forgiveness program – to increase eligibility to those who complete their degree in 5 years. Currently, this program will forgive up to 100% of your student loan, but only if you are a Nova Scotian student who completed their degree in 4 years. The Liberals have presented this program as offering “over $30,000 in non-repayable support,” however debt forgiveness is not the same as offering non-repayable grants. Grant programmes offer non-repayable student financial assistance immediately. Debt forgiveness, on the other hand, requires the student to acquire the debt for the duration of their degree, and it is only after the degree has been completed within the eligibility of the program that your debt might be forgiven. Under this system, students who do not complete their degree, or take more than 4 years to complete, or take a second degree receive zero support from the government. We believe that student financial assistance shouldn’t act as a reward for completing your degree in 4 years, or even 5 – it’s a necessary public service most effectively offered through grants. 

The PCs have proposed reintroducing the Graduate Retention Rebate, a programme cut by the Liberal Government during their term. This programme offered tax rebates to graduates of Nova Scotian universities who were gainfully employed in the province for at least 5 years after their graduate. While we support increasing funding to student financial assistance, this programme was proven to be ineffective, as less than 5% of eligible graduates utilized the rebate.  The funds allocated to this program in the platform would be much better spent on replacing student loans with student grants.

While the NDP have not committed to replacing student loans with grants, they have committed to increasing the amount of grant money available, and have cited the student assistance models in Ontario and in New Brunswick as best practices. Both of these provinces have recently invested in student grants programs which prioritize low-income learners, and claim to offer free education to those who make less than $50,000 a year. While students welcome these significant investments in grants programmes, they cannot replace a tuition reduction model that seeks to remove the upfront barriers entirely.  

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Regulation 67 prevents anyone on Income Assistance from benefitting from student financial assistance, suggesting that people who live in poverty are less deserving of a post-secondary education.

We applaud the NDP for committing to repeal this unjust regulation, and encourage the PCs to adopt a similar position.

The Liberals response to this question is troubling. The Career Seek program and Education to Work program were established as a means for learners on Income Assistance to access university or college, respectively. In order to be eligible for these programs, the student must be approved by their social worker and must prove that they require post-secondary education in order to find employment. Only 7 people have utilized the Career Seek programme since 2013, compared to the 1600 people who benefited from both income assistance and student financial assistance prior to the implementation of Regulation 67. Career Seek and Graduate to Work only exist because those on income assistance are not allowed to pursue a post-secondary education programme longer than two years. Instead of protecting these programmes, we encourage all parties to remove Regulation 67 entirely.   

 

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