With a provincial election looming in the not-too-distant future, the Alberta political climate is heating up. Both the Alberta Liberal party and upstart Wildrose Alliance are clamoring for voter support in the wake of Progressive Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach's Jan. 25 announcement that he will not attempt another bid for office. That same day, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was at the University of Alberta where she answered questions on crucial student topics such as tuition and debt forgiveness.
Smith, a U of C alumna, said she understood the hurdle debt creates for recent graduates.
"Many students are now graduating with on average $60,000 to $70,000 of student loan debt and it's just crippling them," Smith explained after the speech.
Her approach to debt forgiveness is a critical part of the Wildrose's post-secondary education platform.
"One of the things that we have been looking at is how we might be able to assist students at the end of their university career to be able to pay that debt back sooner, so they can get on with the rest of their lives," said Smith. "What we are considering is allowing some kind of forgiveness program for those students who choose to make their working career in Alberta."
While the specific details of the plan are still being ironed out, Smith did have some examples of the party's vision.
"You could do it through the tax system, where you would allow students to write off a certain portion of their debt for every year they stay working in Alberta," said Smith. "Another way of doing it... is to allow students to make a lump sum payment to their debt and have it paid tax free, in the same way you would make a contribution to an RRSP."
The Wildrose approach does not aim to reduce tuition. Smith argued the majority of debt accumulated comes from the high costs of living while going to school and students will benefit more from a program that helps them post-graduation. It is on this point that the Liberal's approach to post-secondary education differs.
"We were talking about lowering tuition back to its 2001 level and then freezing it at that point," explained Varsity and University area Alberta Liberal MLA Harry Chase.
The Liberal approach couples this reduction with the creation of a substantial endowment fund from oil and gas royalties to provide students with bursaries.
"We have the suggested possibility of more students attending post-secondary institutions," said Chase. "We believe the endowment fund process provides the stability that's currently lacking both for tuition and also for the operating costs for post-secondary institutions"
The Alberta Liberals' financial aid is designed to provide opportunities for all students entering their post-secondary careers.
The approaches outlined by both Smith and Chase would result in changes to the current system under Stelmach's Conservative party, a move welcomed by some members of the student population.
"There needs to be more support for student funding but, with that said, the whole system needs a re-evaluation," said fifth-year urban studies major Toby Bennett.
While Liberal and Wildrose policies differ in many respects, neither will come to fruition if the parties cannot endure the upcoming marathon campaign trail leading to a likely 2012 election.
"Tuition and debt forgiveness are definitely important issues, but they're merely a part of a much bigger picture," said Bennett.