The costs of university education in Nova Scotia, as detailed in a new paper by StudentsNS.
The costs of university education in Nova Scotia, as detailed in a new paper by StudentsNS.

The debate over tuition fees often dominates the discussion over accessible post secondary education. Yet not everyone agrees that the best way to ensure accessibility is through the elimination of those fees.

On February 17, StudentsNS, an alliance of post-secondary student associations representing nearly 38,000 students from universities and colleges across the province, released the vision paper “Focus on Need: A Vision for Student Finance and the Student Movement.”

The paper examined the question of how to improve access to university education for the most disadvantaged through a targeted, grant-based system of student assistance.

Jonathan Williams, Executive Director of the association, points out that there are barriers to university education that can’t be reduced to fees.

“There’s a perception that if tuition is free then you have universal access and that’s not even remotely true. There are all kinds of other elements have to be addressed.”

Promoting the reduction or abolition of tuition, he says, ignores the high costs associated with university education. Even with free tuition, many students would still rely on financial assistance to cover the other significant costs associated with being in school.

Just as importantly, he says, abolishing tuition fees would incommensurately benefit higher-income students. By promoting tuition fees as beneficial to all students, he notes “you’re making the argument that you should spend just as much money supporting someone whose family makes $200,000 as someone whose family makes $20,000,” he says “and that’s not a position that we are going to carry forward.”

This is particularly important, he says, because the disproportionate benefit to students from high income families is exacerbated by other measures, namely the education tax credit and Canada Education Savings Grant, to which nearly $3 billion is allocated annually. These programs, says Williams, are fundamentally regressive and primarily benefit high-income families.

The paper suggests student debt is a problem, but argues that this can be addressed for the most burdened students by converting loans to grants.

In Nova Scotia, says Williams, things are already “dramatically better,” at least for students with provincial debt, due to changes in the way provincial funding is distributed.

Students who graduate in four years have their debt capped at the maximum possible amount for federal loans. Any amount borrowed above the cap is forgiven. Because students generally access provincial funding after they’ve maxed out the federal, provincial loans are effectively grants.

This doesn’t mean that debt levels haven’t risen, says Williams, noting that they’ve increased for the cohort with lower debt. But as a strategy, he adds, there is something to be celebrated in the changes to the provincial system. “If you want to put anybody’s debt down first then it should be the people with the most debt, so that’s progress.”

A new strategy

While Williams emphasizes that StudentsNS would not oppose free tuition if there was a societal consensus to pursue it, he adds that “if your primary interest is how to we help people get to post-secondary education that otherwise would not be able to, then [tuition] is not the issue.”

The paper closes with a call to action for students to capitalize on the opportunity posed by the 2015 federal election to demand a similar system for federal loans.

The paper represents the start of a dialogue with student groups across the country on how to push this message federally, Williams says, adding that while Students NS doesn’t have a formal strategy for the election, they’re hoping that by changing the terms of the debate, their message will resonate at the federal level.

“Part of the emphasis on grants over tuition is that tuition has been the emphasis for 30 years and we haven’t gotten anywhere,” he says. “So we’re really interested to see if there would be some uptake from federal parties.”

Changing the debate doesn’t mean ignoring the serious issues that remain with tuition fees – fees that, while capped at 3 percent growth, are still rising faster than annual inflation, and continue to impose a serious debt burden on many students.

But according to StudentsNS, the best way to address the circumstances of those most affected by those issues is through a system that acknowledges inequality.

“We think that this approach is kind of a new message,” Williams says. “And it makes more intuitive sense because it delivers more help to people that need it more.”

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