Canadian undergraduate stud-ents are facing the smallest tuition increase in a quarter-century, according to a recent Statistics Canada report. However, student groups argue that even a small increase is a step in the wrong direction.
"At first glance it's something that looks positive compared to years before," said Canadian Alliance of Student Associations National Director Phil Ouellette. "But one cannot neglect to state these are increases upon increases and any increase has to be seen as negative."
The report noted students will pay an average of 1.8 per cent more for tuition than last year. The increase is the lowest since the 1.5 per cent increase during the 1978-79 academic year.
Alberta students will be paying the second highest rates of tuition in the country, following Nova Scotia. An average year of undergraduate studies in Alberta will cost students $5,125 this fall, up from $4,940 last year.
In what has been called a tuition freeze, Premier Ralph Klein announced in February the provincial government will pick up the tab for this year's tuition increase. However, Jen Smith, University of Calgary Students' Union Vice-President External and Chair of the Council of Alberta University Students said calling the policy a 'freeze' is inaccurate, noting tuition is on the rise whether the money comes out of students' pockets or not.
"You could maybe think of it as a discount you'd get a store," said Smith, adding the U of C Board of Governors made their decision to increase tuition this year before the Premier's announcement. "A better scenario would be the government rolling back that amount for good rather than covering it on a year to year basis."
ÂAlberta Advanced Education Minister Dave Hancock acknowledged the importance of looking at a permanent solution to the tuition question.
"That's the hundred dollar question, isn't it?" noted Hancock. "It's a broad question that we need to come to grips with. We're in the process of this review."
Hancock said the A Learning Alberta steering commission, which is currently reviewing Alberta's post-secondary system, will decide issues like tuition by a planned Minister's Forum in October.
CASA is lobbying for a national dialogue on post-secondary education with both federal and provincial levels of government involved, as well as a dedicated federal transfer fund for advanced education, said Ouellette.
"I think that's the way we're going to achieve dramatic change in a system that needs it," said Ouellette, noting the recent Council of the Federation conference in Banff may be a good first step. "It seems like now more than ever it's actually a possibility."
Smith also said she was optimistic about the potential for a new federal commitment to PSE, but said she doesn't expect major changes this year.
"Some good platitudes came out of [the Council of the Federation], but we haven't seen any action yet," she said.
Hancock disagreed, noting the federal government has planned a council of ministers later this fall.
"I'm not sure how you could move much faster than that," he said.
The Statistics Canada report also highlighted regional disparities in tuition, with the highest increases taking place in the maritime provinces and the lowest in Quebec. Tuition in Quebec has been less than half the national average since the late 1990s, due to a tuition freeze.
International students and graduate students both face increases significantly larger than their Canadian-born undergraduate counterparts. International undergrads will pay 6.7 per cent more on average, increasing their tuition to $12,587. Graduate students in Alberta face the largest tuition increase in the country, at 23.2 per cent, a rate significantly higher than the average for undergrads.
"It's kind of disheartening," said U of C Graduate Students' Association VP External Jennifer Reid. "Specifically at the U of C over the past couple of years some graduate programs have been hit with differential fees."
Reid said the new rise of differential fees for higher cost programs is directly detrimental to the federal government's commitment to increase graduate enrollment by 50 per cent by 2010.
"You can't hope to increase enrollment and keep racking up tuition fees," she said.
Hancock agreed, noting graduate students become future professors. He said the province has already allocated funding for new graduate scholarships.
"We have to put more focus on grad students," said Hancock. "That's certainly part and parcel of the discussion."
According to the U of C website, undergraduates here can expect to pay $5,147 this year on average.