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Mixed budget news for students

Province increases base operating grants and financial aid

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Education in Alberta received $294 million in increased funding with $85 million earmarked for post-secondary in the Wed., Mar. 24 provincial budget announcement. While certain aspects of the budget were praised, student leaders felt key issues were still not addressed.

Post-secondary institutions will see their base operating grant increase by $44 million or four per cent. The student loan program will increase the borrowing limit from $11,300 to $11,600 or five per cent. As well, $6.2 million will go toward scholarships, bursaries and grants. Access to high-demand programs will receive $24 million and $13 million will assist apprenticeship programs.

In her speech in the Legislature, Finance Minister Pat Nelson announced the government would seize every opportunity to put the province on track financially for the 21st century.

"Our strategic plan is to be leaders in education and action on that commitment begins today," said Nelson in the education portion of her speech.

University of Calgary Students' Union President Jayna Gilchrist sees positives and negatives in the budget, which she believes is an improvement over last year's budget. She thinks the increases to the base-operating grants and financial aid will benefit students but she doubts the registered education savings plan changes will help low-income families.

"The increases to the student loan limit will drive students further into debt," said Gilchrist. "Although there are increases in some areas, it will take a lot more to make up for cuts in the '90s."

Alberta Learning spokesperson Josepha Vanderstoop believes student loans do meet the needs of students.

"With the student loan relief program, a lot of debt is forgiven," said Vanderstoop. "It demonstrates the generosity of the Alberta loan program."

Despite the spending increase, student leaders are concerned the $312 million tax cuts in property, personal income and corporate tax outweigh the education portion. Gilchrist feels the money could have been better spent on supporting Albertans and investing in the future.

Council of Alberta University Students Chair Shirley Barg echoes Gilchrist's sentiments.

"It shows the government is more concerned with corporations than students and other groups," said Barg, who added the financial aid increase would help offset tuition increases even though the government should try to decrease tuition. "Considering corporations hire students eventually, the government needs students here as much as they need corporations."

For many of those involved in post-secondary education, the base-operating grant increase was welcome news. According to Vanderstoop, the grant increase proves the province's strong commitment to post-secondary learning. U of C Vice-President External Roman Cooney believes the increase is critical.

"The gap between funding and increasing cost has made it a challenge to respond to the growth demands," said Cooney. "It takes the pressure off."

The increases to financial aid garnered some praise from all quarters. The U of C Faculty Association President Dr. Anton Colijn approved of the base operating grant increase but felt it would be "pretty tight" to cover the university's costs. He felt the new financial aid will help the whole university and, indirectly, faculty.

"It's an excellent idea for scholarships, bursaries, grants and loan limits to increase," said Dr. Colijn. "It leads to less worry of finances. And the less students worry about where their next meal will come from, the more they can concentrate on their studies."

Opposition party leaders see the budget as a pre-election move. Finance critic and Liberal MLA Kevin Taft said with the expected $4.7 billion in oil and gas revenues, the government could afford to decrease tuition.

"This budget sends the message again that debt is bad for government but okay for post-secondary students," said Taft.

New Democrat Leader Raj Pannu declared the government was trying "to play Santa Claus with the voters as an election nears."

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