and the changes made to it by Shawn Graham’s Liberal government. I wouldn’t be writing about this if it weren’t for this column written by Britt Dysart in the Telegraph-Journal praising the government’s improvements to the system. Not coincidentally, Mr. Dysart is the president of the New Brunswick Liberal Association and, also not coincidentally, several people take issue with his column – like Debra Lindsay, a history prof at UNB Saint John, who posted her thoughts on the Living in Interesting Times blog. And, I guess, me – posting my thoughts below.
First, Dysart says “few governments have acted as quickly and decisively on the file as the government of Shawn Graham has in less than three years.” To wholeheartedly believe this, I’d have to disregard the Miner-L’Ecuyer report. Commissioned in early 2007 and released that September, the report recommended creating polytechnics out of UNB Saint John, the U. de Moncton campuses in Edmundston and Shippagan, and the local community college campuses. The government dithered on this report amidst 6 long month of protest before finally shelving it, but many (especially in the UNBSJ community) still resent this government’s indecision. Graham, incidentally, then commissioned another panel before releasing an action plan that it still hasn’t fully acted on yet. But let’s move along.
Dysart says that “[t]he plan to restructure post-secondary education in New Brunswick will build a stronger, more affordable and more accessible system for everyone. The effects of this plan are being felt across the province.” He cites the doubling of the lifetime and annual tuition rebates for graduates working in New Brunswick, the tuition freeze, and the awkwardly-named Timely Completion Benefit. “The litmus test is not found in a partisan spin, but in how students feel about the changes this government has made to address their concerns,” he says.
Well, I am a student, I am not partisan, and I respectfully think the changes this government has made are bulls**t. The $20,000 tuition benefit for graduates hasn’t been used by many graduates because it’s basically a tax credit, meaning that to see the benefit, you have to earn enough money to pay tax – something few graduates living in New Brunswick have achieved over the three years of the program’s existence. And it’s news to me that this benefit is designed to make education more affordable. When former PC Premier Bernard Lord introduced the credit in 2006, he intended it as a population retention scheme – stay in New Brunswick and claim your tuition as a tax credit. Besides, this credit doesn’t give you money up-front to attend a university or college – one might say that without cash, PSE isn’t accesible to someone.
The tuition freeze is a good idea in theory, because it ensures that the up-front tuition cost doesn’t increase from one year to the next. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t increased its funding to the universities and colleges to replace the money that would have been gained from those tuition freezes. Universities have had to cut costs and services as a result and were left quite vulnerable to current economic crisis – a crisis which has shrunk their endowments. And less cash on hand may have an effect on these universities’ contract negotiations with their faculty unions. UNB, in particular, is trying to negotiate a new contract with its faculty, the old one having expired this year. A strike or lockout, like the one St. Thomas suffered under in 2008, would keep 12,000 students out of class – denying them access, as it were.
This brings me to the Timely Completion Benefit. Dysart accurately quotes Duncan Gallant, former St. Thomas Student Union president and current president of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, as saying the changes were “”the most progressive and comprehensive changes to student financial aid in New Brunswick’s history.” Dysart conveniently left out the fact that Gallant added that “there is still room for improvement” and completely ignored later statements made by the NBSA head, including “We are pleased that the
Government of New Brunswick is trying to limit the daunting student debt problem in our province, though we disagree with the requirement for timely program completion due to the myriad of reasons why this may be achieved.” The NBSA still wants an annual debt cap and wants doesn’t have much faith that the government will make allowances for students who can’t complete a program in four years for health or family reasons. I second the NBSA’s concerns about allowances (in spite of an appeals process) and also wonder why this program is not offered to students from other provinces who choose to stay in New Brunswick after graduation. And, again, it doesn’t address the up-front cost that is the biggest barrier to anyone trying to get into a university or college.
The part of Dysart’s column I most agree with is on infrastructure funding. For the most part, universities and colleges are in dire need of money for new building construction and old building upkeep. The community college campus in Saint John, for example, is far too small, in dire need of repair, and has been in that state for years. That this funding is coming through now is great, but government should have made this commitment years ago.
Then he talks about improvements to the community college system. I seem to remember the government committing to make the colleges independent of government, making their administration more like that of universities rather than high schools. I’ve yet to hear any more about how this will happen.
Dysart ends his column with a potshot at the Lord government and David Alward’s PC party, saying they failed to deliver on a promise to make the system more student focused. This kindly forgets that the tuition benefit was originally introduced by Lord, that the medical schools that the government are so proud of (one open in Moncton and another preparing to open in Saint John) are a consequence of agreements made by the Lord government, and that Dalhousie University nearly withdrew its vital medical school spots from Saint John because of the Graham government’s dithering first over the future of UNBSJ and then over a suitable building on campus.
Dysart ends, essentially, by asking his readers to look at results instead of rhetoric as New Brunswick moves towards next fall’s election. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think Dysart should take his own advice the next time he writes about post-secondary education.