Finance Minister mum on potential tuition, grant increases

Finance minister Blaine Higgs listens to comments at a pre-budget consultation meeting last week. (Shane Magee/AQ)

Fredericton university students and professors urged the provincial government not to make cuts to post-secondary education at the budget consultation meeting last week.

“The returns on education are phenomenal,” said Joey O’Kane, president of the New Brunswick Student Alliance and vice-president external of the University of New Brunswick student union.

“If we want to see New Brunswick pushing forward to a real knowledge economy base, if we want to start moving ahead so we can be the next Alberta, so we can be the next Ontario, we really need to start investing in our youth, in our students, in our post-secondary education.”

The province is developing a four-year plan that will show students how much they will pay for tuition. The plan will also establish how much universities receive in grants from the province.

New Brunswick’s Finance Minister, Blaine Higgs, would not say whether tuition or provincial grants to universities would increase in the upcoming budget.

“I don’t come in here with any preconceived notions,” Higgs told reporters after the meeting.

“The process is to learn first and act later. That’s what we’re doing. So there aren’t any plans at this point, any specific plans that I could identify.”

Over 300 people were at the meeting to give their comments to Higgs about what should be cut or what needs more money in the March provincial budget.

Health care workers, gas station owners and early education workers made up many of the attendees who stood in the aisles waiting for the chance to speak at the microphone.

O’Kane spoke along with UNBSU president Jordan Thompson at the meeting. Both said the province should consider investing in post-secondary education as a means of retaining students and building the economy.

Higgs said it was time for universities in the province to do their share. Thompson agreed universities have to share the cost-cutting burden, but said it has had a negative impact at UNB.

UNBSU vice-president external Joey O'Kane stands with UNBSU president Jordan Thompson at last week's budget consultation meeting. STUSU president Mark Livingstone stands in the distance. (Shane Magee/AQ)

“What we’ve seen is professors’ positions not being filled, increases in class sizes, the political science department basically doesn’t exist this year…so universities are doing their share. What we need is government doing their share,” said Thompson, as those in the room applauded.

St. Thomas University students’ union president Mark Livingstone was also at the meeting but did not speak.

STU professor Matthew Hayes said people need to change the conversation about cuts.

“This conversation that the minister is speaking at us…is basically one in which we have to accept cuts.”

Instead Hayes said people should look at the reasons why New Brunswick is in the current fiscal situation. He proposed reversing tax cuts made by former premier Shawn Graham.

“Rather than saying, ‘Can we afford to have an adequate number of long-term care facility beds;’ rather than saying, ‘Can we [afford] decent post-secondary education, can we afford to offer children in primary and secondary school with learning disabilities sufficient help,’ I think we should instead be asking, ‘Can we afford to provide those tax cuts to the wealthiest people in New Brunswick?’”

After Hayes finished his comments, the minister took notes, but did not respond.

When asked after the meeting what the province could do to encourage students, Higgs said the government had to look at changing educational programs to better fit with what jobs are available.

“We’ve been spoiled for a lot of years. Change is hard but it can be motivating, encouraging and it can help us move forward,” Higgs said.

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