In at 2014 poll conducted by the Nova Scotia Post-Secondary Education Coalition, 60 per cent of Nova Scotians were reported as supporting higher taxes to make post-secondary education more accessible. But you wouldn’t know it from Thursday’s budget.

The budget makes changes to tuition policy, student assistance and university funding — changes that will ensure the pain provincial Liberals had been forecasting will be felt predominately by students.

Tuition Free-For-All

Take tuition, for example. The liberals announced that they would be allowing universities to make a one-time market adjustment to their tuition fees next year. It’s a pretty cynical move, says Jonathan Williams, executive director of StudentsNS. Rather than announce it at the release of the report on the public consultation on universities, they tried to bury an announcement clearly destined to be unpopular in the budget when it isn’t a budgetary decision.

Michaela Sam, Chairperson of the Nova Scotia Branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, says that they were told by officials of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education that the government would not step in to regulate the one time increase to reasonable level, and that administrations would be given considerable flexibility to behave responsibly. “It will be on the institution,” she says.

There is some small room for hope that institutions won’t take the reset as an opportunity for a tuition feeding frenzy.

Some institutions have already announced their projected increases for next year; yesterday, Dalhousie issued a memorandum to students announcing that the Budget Advisory Committee would not change its recommendation of a three per cent increase for 2015-16, and the NSCC Board of Governor’s approved a three per cent increase back in March.

With some universities maintaining the habitual increase, it seems unlikely that other institutions would much exceed this level, although there may be exceptions. Students at StFX, for example, are bracing for an immediate tuition increase of $500 as the university angles to correct what it calls a “tuition fee disadvantage” relative to other universities in the province.

After next year, tuition increases for Nova Scotia undergraduates will be capped at three per cent per year for four years.

But when it comes to out-of-province, international and graduate students, all bets are off. Tuition will be deregulated for these students, opening up the possibility of increasing the existing disparity in fees between local undergraduates and other students; currently, out of province students pay $1,022 more than local students, and international students as much as $8,950 more than domestic ones.

This change will also make Nova Scotia the first province in the country with this level of discretion over fees for Canadian students.

What’s perhaps most concerning about it, though, is not that each of these groups have had their tuition deregulated individually, but that they all have — in other words, says Williams, the ability to increase the level for one group makes it that much easier to increase the level for the others.

“If you’re an international student, the fact that tuition has been deregulated for out of province students should be viewed as a highly concerning development.”

Out-of-Province Bursary Eliminated

The budget also eliminated the $261 bursary for out-of-province students, saving the government around $3.2 million. Matthew Furlong, Communications Officer for the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers, says government officials told those in the budget lockup that they felt they didn’t foresee consequences to enrolment.

It’s true that the bursary was modest compared to that which local students were received, but at a time when universities across the country are facing declining enrolment — and are implementing their own measures to address it, such as the 30 per cent off Ontario tuition grant — it seems unlikely that eliminating the bursary and deregulating tuition won’t have an effect on the 30 percent proportion of students in Nova Scotia that come from outside the province.

Changes to Student Assistance

There will also be changes to the student assistance. Through the NS student loan forgiveness program, local students at local schools can have up to $15,000 of their loans forgiven, but the same forgivingness doesn’t apply to local students studying out of province, or out-of-province students studying here. By leaving those students out in the cold, says Sam, the government is betraying an utter lack of strategy for youth retention.

“What we’re seeing is a lack of any kind of strategy for youth and for students to be able to attract them to this province…not only are they not going to prioritize students and youth but they are going to make decisions that are going to be to the detriment of all of us.”

A Cut by Any Other Name

The budget announced an increase to university funding of one percent, from roughly $372 to $376 million, which might seem like something but is actually closer to nothing. Annual inflation in Canada is currently at 1.5 percent; this means the so-called increase is effectively a cut in funding. What’s more, university costs increase by four percent a year; Dalhousie’s costs, for example are projected to rise by $13.5 million in 2015-16, out of a budget of $354 million.

When this is combined with deregulated tuition, says Sam, it’s not hard to see where the burden of filling this funding gap will fall.

“It means that that lack of funding is made up for by students.”

But because tuition fees make up less than half of a university’s operating budget at a university like Dalhousie, fee increases can only do so much. The rest of the shortfall will be made up, says Furlong, by increased casualization in academic and support staff.

“The point is ultimately to replace the professoriate as a whole with flexible labour, so we can look for more of that.”

Accountability Measures

Ultimately, the changes in the budget are symptomatic of a system in which responsibility – in the sense of having to show even nominal respect for the well-being of another person – has been replaced by accountability, a denuded notion in which the numbers on the balance sheet are in every sense the bottom line.

In this context, it’s unclear what the government’s proposed overtures to accountability in the financial management of universities even mean.

“It’s extremely ironic,” says Williams, for the government to introduce legislation to enforce accountability while it simultaneously gives those universities more control over their finances than any other institutions in Canada.

“The government has said we care more about being on the side of university presidents than we care about being on the side of students… this is an anti-youth, anti-student government; we’re bottom of the pile for their priorities.”

Furlong says that while student and faculty groups were calling for accountability measures, these were focused on better oversight of the use of operating budgets to pay capital investments and administrative compensation. By making the discussion into a generic scheme for accountability to the taxpayer, he says, they’ve not only left the governing structure of the university intact, but also given the strategy a false legitimacy.

“They’ve taken these suggestions, completely distorted them and then attributed them to the people that made them in the first place.”

Budget Unsurprising

While the budget was a lot of things, it wasn’t surprising; that students and those who are precariously employed in universities will have their situation made unstable is par for the course in a culture of austerity. As the consequences for non-co-operation mount — whether that’s unemployment or student debt — it becomes that much harder to discuss or even imagine alternatives.

Short of refusing to cooperate with the neoliberal assumptions that have come to govern the funding and management of universities — which, as students in Quebec have shown, is a possibility – the  option for students, faculty and the advocacy groups that represent them is to make sure that in two years time the Liberals also feel some pain from this budget. Provided, that is, that by that point there are any students left.

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  1. “out of province students pay $1,022 more than local students,” I was not aware of this. Why discourage students from out of province, when we want young people to come here? Yes, there’s the fear that they may get their education and leave, but while they are here they consume local goods and services. Just like tourists, but here for years instead of days. And they might settle here. Seems like an overlooked opportunity for growth.