STUSU prepares for “budget day bomb”

STUSU president Mark Livingstone met with post-secondary education officials last Friday, but they didn't tell him much. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Students will have to wait for a “budget day bomb” to find out about changes to post-secondary education funding, St. Thomas University students’ union president Mark Livingstone said.

Livingstone attended a meeting last Friday with officials from the New Brunswick department of post-secondary education, training, and labour to discuss changes to funding and student financial aid programs.

The meeting was one of many as the government works towards establishing a four-year funding model for universities.

The agreement is expected to set how much universities will receive for operational grants. It could also cap tuition increases.

A four-year tuition schedule was an election promise by Premier David Alward.

Livingstone said the new funding agreement will have a direct impact on students.

“If the government does not provide the universities with enough funding that they need, then ultimately the students will have to pay out of their own pockets,” Livingstone said last week.

The Alward government has said it will cut the provincial deficit which is projected to be $545.7 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs has said to other media the public must want less in 2012.

Before the Friday meeting, Livingstone said he wanted to leave the meeting informed about what the government plans to do. But that wasn’t the case.

“We learned a few things, but we were certainly hoping to get a lot more information,” he said after the meeting.

“I was a little disappointed that it was more of an update than real information.”

He hoped to learn about possible changes to student financial aid programs and get a better idea what impact there might be on tuition.

“It is safe to say tuition will rise over the next four years,” he said.

He said the department was eight weeks behind on a review of student financial aid programs.

Livingstone said he doesn’t expect to get any more information until the provincial budget is released in March, in what he said could be “a budget day bomb.”

Figures from the department of post-secondary education, training and labour show a tuition freeze would cost the government $12-15 million per year.

In the March 2011 budget, the Progressive Conservatives ended a three-year tuition freeze, set by the former Liberal government, allowing universities to increase tuition by up to $200.

The budget also included a two per cent increase in funding for operational costs.

Livingstone said if this year’s budget doesn’t include an increase in operational grants, students could see their tuition increase by 10 per cent, or just over $585.

New Brunswick students already face the highest average tuition in the country at $5,853 per year.

Ontario technically has higher tuition, but a $1,600 provincial tuition credit for some students effectively means New Brunswick students pay more.

Twenty-eight per cent of university revenue comes from tuition and fees.

Livingstone said the government is looking at establishing performance indicators that would track how well universities perform.

Some areas that are expected to be tracked include graduation rates, enrollment, faculty research and post-graduate work placement.

Livingstone said he has been told the indicators won’t be tied to funding levels, but act as a political incentive for universities to do well.

He said the average student will be hurt if funding levels are cut.

“They’re going to have to pay more for the same, and in some cases when the university is being asked to make cuts, in some cases they’re paying more for less,” he said.

He added this makes a “university education less valuable, less affordable, makes it harder for people to go to school – you know, the classic work two jobs instead of one – and have to take on more debt.”

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