Investing in our Future Benefits Us All
Column submitted to The Daily Gleaner
By Nate Wallace, Policy Director for the Young New Democrats of Canada
On Behalf of the New Brunswick New Democratic Party
In 2019, tuition fees at UNB Fredericton are set to skyrocket. Depending on the faculty, students might see flat rate increases by well over $1000. Premier Brian Gallant has agreed to ‘reset’ tuition fees at UNB in 2019 in the new memorandum of understanding with universities. UNB Fredericton’s VP Academic recently gave a presentation to the university Senate where over 100 students, including myself, staged a sit-in to protest. He said that this ‘reset’ will put tuition fees where they would be if there hadn’t been tuition increase caps and funding freezes put in place by the provincial government over the last two decades.
A lot has happened in the last two decades. In 1997, the Federal Corporate tax rate was 31%. In now stands at less than half that, at 15%. This led to big cutbacks in terms of transfers to the provinces, and a decline in public financing of universities and we’ve seen the drastic rise of tuition fees as a result. What this means is that we’ve seen the incremental shifting of costs once borne by the government, paid for by corporations, onto individuals. Instead of progressive taxation, we have flat and regressive user fees. Students of my generation are effectively being made to pay for years of corporate tax cuts through crippling student debt.
New Brunswick undergraduate students such as myself carry the highest average student debt in the country, at $35,200, which is 50% higher than the Canadian average of $22,300. We also pay the highest interest rates on that debt in the country. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, undergraduate tuition fees in New Brunswick have increased by approximately 20% since 2010. While the recent introduction of the Tuition Access Bursary (TAB) program & Tuition Relief for the Middle Class (TRMC) initiative does mean an increase in up-front grant assistance available for undergraduate students, the provincial government now spends $20 million less per year on student financial assistance than it did prior to the introduction of these programs. This financial assistance also does not apply to Graduate students, which we struggle to keep in the province.
Over my short lifetime of 21 years, there has been a slow transition of the University away from a public good that is financially accessible to the majority of Canadians, into elite institutions where rising tuition fees lock out the underprivileged from getting a higher education. Increasingly more complex regulation and financial assistance models as well as decreasing public funding requires revenue diversification, which has led to significant ‘administrative bloat’ at universities due to the overhead costs these bring. Rising fees lead to a decline in student enrolment, and universities now compete for an ever-smaller market as students begin to turn away from the prohibitive costs of a post-secondary education.
This leads to drastic consequences for all of us. There is a growing gap in the wage-earning potential between someone with a high school diploma and someone with a post-secondary education. New Brunswick already has the lowest household incomes in Canada. Rising tuition fees are effectively becoming a ‘tax on opportunity’ for New Brunswick families like yours and mine. They make our universities less competitive at attracting, training and retaining a skilled workforce, and this has consequences for us all. The parliamentary budget officer estimates that real GDP growth is expected to slow down to 0.4% beyond 2022 due to a shrinking workforce and slow productivity growth. This is far less than New Brunswick’s historical average real GDP growth of 1.9% a year. Increasing tuition fees will shrink our skilled workforce further, keep productivity growth stagnant, and seriously impact tax revenue and the provincial economy.
Brian Gallant’s plan to reset tuition fees after the provincial election sends my generation a message; he doesn’t really care about us. My generation, who is saddled with unsustainable debt, low wages and precarious work, deserves better. I am writing this because I believe that tuition fees aren’t just a student issue, its an issue that all voters should care about. We can stop the tuition hikes and start investing in our future. We can reverse New Brunswick’s decline by making this province the best place to study, work and raise a family. There is an alternative to the increasing corporatization of the university and a shrinking workforce. The NB NDP’s plan for post-secondary education will eliminate tuition fees at community colleges, reduce undergraduate university tuition by 25%, eliminate interest on provincial student loans and extend financial assistance to Graduate students. We can pay for it all by ensuring corporations pay their fair share, and reverse the tax cut Brian Gallant made to the top 1%. In the upcoming fall election, let’s send Brian Gallant a message back.