Nova Scotia tuition squabbles miss the big picture

Why it’s time for drastic changes in how we pay for higher education

NO CAPTIONWhen it comes to their new premier Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia university students have lately come to feel like love-lorn girls plucking petals off of a daisy.

First came the news that McNeil’s Liberals would not charge students interest on their student loans, saving debt-burdened grads some $800 on an average-sized loan.

He loves me.

But then followed the announcement that the government was cancelling a rebate program that saw grads who stayed in Nova Scotia getting back up to $15 000.

He loves me not.

Government mandarins insisted that the rebate program wasn’t keeping students in the province as it was intended to, but it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the government cancelled one program and replaced it with a cheaper one. The Finance Minister even conceded that cutting the program “helped us on the revenue side” and cited provincial debt as part of the justification for axing the rebate.

Students have reacted with understandable anger, especially since many of them were relying on that rebate to help them make ends meet as they struggle with debt and the sluggish economy. And I sympathize with them. The move was a shabby effort in bean counting. It takes a steely amorality to cut a program designed to ease slightly the accumulated pain of previous cuts.

Still, despite the thousands of dollars taken out of the pockets of young graduates, I am struck by how small all these questions are. High tuitions and the mountains of debt they generate have been a well-documented problem for a generation now, and yet all our governments do is tinker, introducing programs here, cutting others there. Worst of all, the debates over these relatively trivial details distract us from the really big problems that are going unfixed. It is as though the roof of the house has fallen in and we are spending all our time getting the dust off the furniture.

Until recently, Nova Scotia students paid the highest tuition fees in the country, even as Nova Scotian families earned less than in other provinces. And so came a brief tuition freeze. But such freezes always thaw and students from Glace Bay to Wolfville are once again seeing substantial annual fee increases. Students at Acadia paid $6,802 in tuition and other fees this year—and more if they were from out of province. According to StudentsNS, fully 70 per cent of Bluenose students have to borrow to pay for university. But don’t worry, you’re going to save a couple hundred bucks on your student loans.

These are big complicated problems to be sure. If students don’t pay, who does? And where does the money come from? But solving big complicated problems is what governments are for. Indeed, that is, arguably, the only thing they are for. And there are jurisdictions that have made or are at least contemplating real reforms.

Some countries simply do not charge tuition fees. We hear constantly about how high fees are part of the “reality” in Canada, but why are they unnecessary in Denmark and Finland? Indeed, a strong case has been made by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that government-funded university education ends up largely paying for itself in the long run through more productive citizens.

Some jurisdictions have income-contingent loan repayment systems—and the case has been made for them in Canada, and I have argued for their consideration elsewhere.

Some have argued for a dedicated tax for university graduates.

No solution, of course, is perfect, but each of these seems much better than our current system of high fees and huge debts. In any case, my point is not that any one of these is the right move, but only that there are well-thought-out models for real reform and it’s time governments in this country started looking at them seriously.

Fix the roof. Then we’ll know you love us.




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Nova Scotia tuition squabbles miss the big picture

  1. You missed one, Todd. Federal funding for higher education is based on provincial population. This penalizes Nova Scotia for hosting excellent universities that attract lot of students from other provinces. Provinces who export students to Nova Scotia get to keep that federal aid. Nova Scotia taxpayers get to subsidize the education of these out-of-province students. Don’t get me wrong. We’re delighted to have them, and many end up staying and contributing to life here. But a per-student funding formula would be fair.

  2. Good article, but next time double check the spelling of Premier McNeil’s name.

    • Thank you for pointing out the spelling error. It has been fixed.

      Josh Dehaas

  3. Universal education, like universal healthcare, is vital in the knowledge age.

    Make it so.

  4. This article touches on something that has irritated me for a long time — how shallow the tuition debate is in Canada.

    Some of the comments I hear are:

    1. The tuition fees in my jurisdiction are higher/lower than the Canadian average and should be raised/lowered.

    Okay, well, an average is not a policy goal. It’s just an average. Who says all the other provinces, averaged out, are charging appropriate amounts for tuition fees? Not to mention that if a large province much higher or lower than the average such as Ontario or Quebec drastically changes their tuition fees to match the average, the average itself will change. Besides, you never hear politicians saying “our taxes are the second lowest in Canada… and that’s a bad thing! It’s time to raise them up to the average!”

    2. This tuition increase is higher/lower than inflation!

    Well, who decided that the current tuition level is the right amount? If tuition is too high already, then maybe a tuition freeze or reduction is in order, rather than an increase approximate to inflation. And who decided on the benchmark? Tuition fee increases have outpaced inflation in the past few decades. I’m sure if I take 1984 tuition levels and add 30 years of inflation, our current tuition levels in most jurisdictions would seem high.

    Manitoba, where I live, is one of the worst for wanting to cut off debate on this issue. They’ve passed a bill saying that tuition fees should increase according to inflation. That pretty much ends the debate right there — something that all our politicians are willing to agree to because they don’t want to have to hear from the demands of angry students.

    Now, I can’t really blame students and their organizations (student unions and their various federations) for not widening the debate. The terms of the debate are set by larger political forces than students. Between the growing neoliberal consensus and the complete lack of vision of what’s left of social democracy, there’s little room left for big, visionary changes in PSE or on any other issue. Political parties sound more identical than ever before. It’s getting almost impossible for me to tell the difference between the Conservatives and the NDP on tuition policy in my province. We’d never be able to accomplish something like the creation of our healthcare system today, because there’s strong resistance on the right and a lack of that sort of vision on the left.

    Outside of Quebec, it seems like most student organizations feel it’s better to argue for what’s seen as “realistic” in the current political climate — a tuition freeze here, some debt relief there, but no major changes in how we pay for university. It’s because their main focus is lobbying, and in that game, they greatly temper their demands to what is seen as realistic because they don’t want to overreach and get nothing when the politicians tune out ideas which are a break from the status quo. In places like Queben where there are these student organizations whose main focus is serious organizing and activism, they are willing to put forward ideas seen as quite radical because even if they get a tenth of what they want, it’s still something. I’d argue that’s a more successful strategy in the long run (see: Quebec’s tuition rates versus everyone else’s), but it’s not something that’s easy to accomplish.

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