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Tuition ‘adjustments?’ No, adjust our priorities

Last spring, Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government introduced an austerity budget. Citing the need to balance the budget, the government’s approach was to reduce spending while leaving taxes the same.

This may seem like good politics to some, but it comes with a human cost to the most vulnerable in society. Cuts came to eating disorder programs and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, social assistance rates were frozen for the second year in a row.

Nearly 2500 jobs in the film industry were lost following the elimination of the film tax credit. Students found out that their tuition fees would be deregulated for out-of-province and graduate students, and universities could make a one-time “market adjustment” in any program.

What that means is that universities could set tuition fees at a rate that universities might be charging had there been no regulations since 2007.

The negative consequences are many, such as record-level student debt, less access to education for low-income and racialized people, youth outmigration, lower quality academics, campuses in disrepair, basic research and social sciences being suppressed in favour of corporate-oriented practices.

After the previous NDP government cut university funding by ten percent and un-froze tuition to allow it to rise by three percent each year, austerity and all of its harms aren’t new for Dalhousie students. The Liberal government’s agenda is an acceleration of this agenda, and students are worse off for it.

The allowance for tuition “adjustments” came well after most universities had made their budgets for the year, so they’re being implemented this year.

King’s just recently approved a $1000 fee increase in the Foundation Year Programme. Saint Mary’s announced “adjustments” in all their programs, the harshest being a $1620 increase in engineering. Cape Breton University announced a 20 percent tuition hike.

Dal’s been quiet so far, but has hinted at “adjustments” in engineering, pharmacy and agriculture, noting that making the Truro campus’ tuition in line with Halifax’s could be a priority. That could be a $1400 increase.

What Dal will actually try remains to be seen, but we’ll get the first glimpse when the university’s Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) report is released in late December.

There are more than just tuition “adjustments” at play. The Liberals also permanently deregulated tuition fees for graduate students and out-of-province students (who pay $1284 more already).

To get a glimpse of what that could look like, when fees for law, medicine and dentistry, and international student fees were deregulated in 2011 under the old NDP government, a 25 percent fee hike in medicine and 36 percent hike in dentistry happened.

There’s more: last year’s budget was bad, too; while the Liberals did one good thing in eliminating interest on student loans (saving students roughly $800 over 14 years), the government cut the $50 graduate retention rebate.

Balancing the good and bad, there was a $34 million cut to student aid last year.

There’s really no other way to put this: the government is hostile towards students.

There is a bright side to all of this: tuition increases and student debt are entirely optional.

Newfoundland, a province very similar to N.S., has the lowest tuition in the country because there was political will to make it happen. Just this spring, they converted 100 percent of their student loans into grants. It happened under a Conservative government, and it happened because of persistent student action and the recognition that education is a worthy investment.

Nova Scotia can do the same: for the value of the graduate retention rebate they cut last year, we could turn all student loans into grants and (not or) reduce tuition fees by ten percent.

To get there, students need to get organized and speak out however they can. University administrators should stop being content to manage their decline and speak up for adequate funding, as well.

The situation we’re in is grim, but there are always alternatives. The need to challenge fee hikes this year is more urgent than ever before, so get involved. Your education affects your future — fight for it.

John Hutton is the Vice President (Academic and External) of the Dalhousie Student Union. To get involved with the campaign to reduce tuition fees, you can reach him at vpae@dsu.ca.

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