Tuition-freeze idea generates debate but no support
By Lawrence McMahen
Saskatchewan university students’ campaign for a two-year tuition freeze got no support from politicians or university leaders at a Jan. 27 campus forum.
While representatives of the provincial Liberals, the Saskatchewan Party, NDP government and U of S did express sympathy for students’ financial woes and offered ideas for helping out, they all said a tuition freeze isn’t the solution.
Undaunted, the U of S Student’s Union (USSU) will press ahead with its campaign. President Gavin Gardiner says a tuition-freeze rally and march on campus is planned for Feb. 9. It will be part of a “provincial day of action”, held with its partners in the tuition-freeze fight – the U of S Graduate Students’ Association, the University of Regina Students’ Union, and the Canadian Federation of Students.
The two-hour afternoon forum hosted in Lower Place Riel by the U of S Debate Society heard speakers from all three political parties and U of S President Peter MacKinnon voice concern about access for poor students and call for adequate funding for universities.
Graham Addley, NDP MLA for Saskatoon Sutherland, told the forum’s audience of 50 “the government doesn’t favour a tuition freeze”, and “in other provinces it has been shown to be non-sustainable.” At odds with that official government stance, provincial NDP delegates voted at their annual policy convention last November to support a two-year tuition freeze.
Addley told the forum that after the NDP proposed a few years ago that first-year university tuition in Saskatchewan should be free, “most people and students didn’t agree with that. They said give (the funding) directly to the institutions.”
He said the government believes students should bear their university costs “based on their ability to pay”, much like progressive income tax rates. That’s why, he said, Saskatchewan student loans “are distributed on a needs basis, and over half of them are non-repayable”.
And he noted that, while access for lower-income students is a concern, enrolment at the U of S has increased by five-per-cent in recent years.
Saskatchewan Party MLA Ken Cheveldayoff (Saskatoon Silver Springs) said the best move for students would be an adequately funded university sector. He said the Sask Party has pledged it would provide a five-per-cent annual funding increase for universities if it were government, and he said Alberta’s system of trying to limit tuition-fee hikes to no more than the inflation rate plus two per cent “is a laudable goal”.
“Tuition freezes don’t work and they put an undue strain on the system,” Cheveldayoff told the forum.
Liberal representative Grant Karwacki, an unsuccessful Saskatoon candidate in the 2003 provincial election, said access is the main questions, and many people “are feeling shut out of the university ... Access is in a crisis for low- and middle-income and First Nations students.”
He proposed three measures to help – increase scholarships and bursaries by matching money raised from private sources, have government fully fund fixed-cost increases like salary hikes, and help the University increase its own “revenue streams”.
U of S President MacKinnon told the forum that since it has the same costs as other medical-doctoral universities in Canada, it must charge national-norm tuition fees. The switch in recent years from the University’s previous policy “of charging some of the lowest tuition fees in the country” meant fairly large hikes, but that is levelling out now. And MacKinnon said that low-tuition policy “was bleeding us dry”.
He said he views the question of accessibility in a broad framework that includes the issues not only of adequate student aid to help those who need it, but also maintaining a high quality of programs and maintaining capacity in the University’s programs to accommodate those who want to study here.
He noted the U of S is taking action to help with access: All revenue from the new big-box retail development will go to student services and student aid. But he said the University needs to do more.
USSU President Gardiner said Saskatchewan is the only province outside of the Maritimes that has not regulated tuition at some point in the past decade, and it now has the third-highest rates in Canada.