Editorial Pages



Join us for a retrospective reading of the very first issue of The Voice, then known as The Paper. How much as changed, and how can a study of the past prepare us for the future?

Students share their exam stories.

NATURE NOTES: This summer, take some time to get to know some of the non-human inhabitants of our city. Read Zoe Dalton’s Critters In The City to learn more:

SCIENCE, CHEMISTRY, RESEARCH AND AU STUDENTS: Debbie Jabbour gains a new perspective on the important or research from attending the Annual Western Canadian Undergraduate Chemistry Conference in Regina, Saskatchewan


Last week I received a copy of a report by the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) titled, Generation Debt: An Investment in Education is an Investment in Alberta’s Future. This report was presented to the Alberta Members of the Legislative Assembly in April, and it represents the concerns of Post-Secondary students across the province.

Some of you may not be sure who CAUS is, and if so you are not alone. The organization has been around for several years, but has just begun making a significant impact in the past year. Your students’ union (AUSU) is a member of CAUS [and has been for 10 years], and by extension all AU students are represented by the group. AUSU’s own VP External Shirley Barg has been a member of the CAUS board for AU for two terms, and she provides AUSU with frequent updates on CAUS activities. [note: Shirley was just elected CAUS chair. Congratulations Shirley!].

The recent CAUS report is the most extensive and cohesive report that I have seen so far, and it contains a wealth of information pertinent to Alberta’s Post Secondary community. At 28 pages, the report is too long to reproduce in The Voice, but I will provide an overview of the information contained within.

Unfortunately the CAUS document, while providing extensive information on the university funding crisis and how it affects Alberta’s post-secondary students, provides very scant information on specific challenges effecting Athabasca University and its students. In the first section, for example, on the Government Funding of Alberta’s Universities, there is information detailing the funding issues of all three of Alberta’s other universities, but no specific data on Athabasca’s issues except where AU is encompassed under the umbrella of the Alberta Universities as a whole.

AU is, however, is highlighted in the special issue briefings section of the document, in the form of a special report which I will comment on shortly.

Despite the lack of AU statistics, it is an informative document which paints a very clear picture of the desperate situation of Alberta’s post-secondary students today. The length of the document is due to the abundance of evidence that education in Alberta is woefully under-funded, and the many ways in which the Alberta universities are struggling to provide quality education and retain faculty despite the Alberta brain-drain exodus of academics to the United States, and the poor incentives offered to Alberta professors.

Following is an overview of some of the information contained in the CAUS document – my comments are italicized throughout…


Government funding of Alberta’s Universities

Among the facts presented in the report are the following:

Provincial funding for all post-secondary institutions has gone up by 16% since 1996. However, this does not make up for the cuts in the early 90s. In fact, government expenditures on all post-secondary institutions have dropped 3% since 92-93. The per-student operating grant to the U of A has dropped by 29%. At the U of C, the per-student operating grant has dropped by 21%. Universities are educating more students with fewer resources. This is why class sizes have gone through the roof and quality of education is declining, as professors have less time to spend with students.

Student contributions to U of C and U of A revenues have gone from 12% to 24% in the past decade.

Tuition at the U of C has gone up 221% since 1991. At the U of A, it has gone up 215%. Compound inflation has been 22% over this time period.

Alberta’s universities are experiencing an enrolment crunch. The U of C has capped undergrad enrolment, and the U of A is scaling back new admissions. At the U of L, they are attempting to control the enrolment crunch by strictly enforcing all deadlines. Increases to the operating budget will help the university in dealing with this funding crunch.

The importance of the University’s general operating budget

The information in this section refers mainly to infrastructure and building maintenance costs. It does not mention electronic infrastructure such as that used by AU, but funding shortfalls affect electronic infrastructure as well.

Tuition and Alberta’s University Students

The information provided in this section is a bleak reminder of the astonishing increase in how much students’ must pay for their educations, and why tuition amounts are likely to continue to increase. The reference to differential tuition refers to the practice of charging higher tuition for programs which are more costly to provide and/or which provide graduates with greater earning power. The idea is that if you become a medical doctor you will earn more that many grads once you enter the workforce, so you can therefore pay more for tuition.

Government cuts to post-secondary have been made up by tuition revenue.

The province of Alberta has seen the largest increase in tuition fees in Canada between 1991 and 2001. (Statistics Canada, The Daily August 27, 2001).

Currently, Alberta has the third-highest undergraduate arts and science tuition in Canada

High tuition can be directly correlated to decreased accessibility.

According to Alberta Learning, 44% of recently graduated high school student cited high costs as their reason for not attending post-secondary education.

In Canada, people from low-income backgrounds are 2.5 times less likely to attend university than people from high-income backgrounds.

Differential tuition makes this situation even worse: Ontario universities have seen low-income participation decline by as much as 50% in programs where fees have been differentiated. The Universities of Calgary and Alberta differentiated the Faculties of Law and Medicine this year.

With rising tuition, students cannot make enough in the summer to pay for their own education. They must borrow and go into debt.

Public and Stakeholder Perceptions on PSE funding and Tuition

In a 2001 survey, 88% of U of A students indicated that tuition relief should be the top provincial priority. Tuition relief was ranked much higher than expansion of the loan program or more scholarships and bursaries.

A 2000 Calgary survey reported that 78% of Calgarians believed the government should increase funding to the U of C.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta passed two resolutions at their last convention: one calling on government to address the issue of rising tuition fees, and the other to ensure accessibility for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Alberta Student Loan Program is frequently cited as the answer to the post-secondary funding crisis. There are several problems with this approach:

:: Student loan programs cost a lot to administer – every dollar in student finance carries at least $0.50 in administration costs with it. Why not invest this money directly into the system?

:: The living allowance under the ASLP is constantly eroded by rising tuition. If a student is receiving maximum student loans, they still only get $730/month to live. As tuition goes up, the living allowance goes down.

In addition the report notes that the:

Average debt for students with loans in Alberta is $18,837. Differential tuition means students in Law and Medicine will be graduating with loans between $70,000 and $100,000.

The Social Effects of Student Debt

Debt adversely effects recent graduates’ ability to contribute to economic growth through investments, charitable donations, or even buying a car or a house.

Student debt exacerbates the “brain drain.” In Ontario, where medical school tuition has more than doubled, American health care companies are offering to pay off a portion of Ontario-trained medical students’ debt in exchange for lucrative contracts in the US. Canadian taxpayers subsidize medical graduates’ education, and the American public benefits.

The Canadian and Alberta Medical Associations have indicated that high tuition prompts graduates to forgo a rural practice or general practitionership in favour of an urban specialization, due to the financial constraints of high student debt.


The following section represents the recommendations that CAUS has made to the provincial government on behalf of Alberta University Students.

Alberta Student Loan Program: Part-Time Earnings Exemption

If students want to work in order to partially off set the costs of university, they may only earn $225/month before their student loans are clawed back. Eliminating this claw-back is one way the government can help student finance their education without having to turn to taxpayers.

The Council of Alberta University Students is recommending that the Province of Alberta eliminate the cap on in-study earnings, so that Alberta university students can access as many sources of funds for their education as possible.

Alberta Student Loan Program: Parental Contribution Requirements

What this section fails to mention is that a growing number of post-secondary students are mature students – older adults with no parental ties, and often families of their own. The notion of parental contribution becomes less relevant as the proportion of mature students becomes larger. As a married student in my thirties, I often feel ridiculous trying to explain to students’ finance why my parents are unable to contribute to my education. The very notion of parental contributions assumes that post-secondary students are minors, and not fully responsible for their financial situation. The fact that this is rarely the case is another reason why the parental contribution clause of students’ finance should be abolished:

85% of Alberta parents expect their students [sic] will attend post-secondary education, but only 25% actually save for it. If parents earn over $50,000/year, students may not access student loans. It is often middle-class students who are looking to private credit in order to attend university because of parental contribution requirements.

The Council of Alberta University Students is recommending that the Province eliminate the parental contribution requirement. Short of the abolition of the parental contribution requirements, CAUS is recommending that the province reduce the parental contribution requirement to two years after high school. Further, short of abolition of the parental contribution requirement, it should be altered such that parents or primary caregivers who earn less than $60,000 are exempted from the requirement.

Alberta Student Loan Program: Monthly Living Allowance under the ASLP

The MSOL [this acronym is undefined on the students’ finance website, but the amount corresponds to the living allowance for single students] is $730/month. This constitutes a gross underestimate of the actual costs of living and attending university, as the amount allocated for rent, utilities, food, personal care and miscellaneous expenditures does not meet most students’ actual costs of living in a university residence or maintaining another residence in the proximity of the university.

CAUS is recommending increases to the Monthly Living Allowance under the Student Loan Program.

Specifically, CAUS is recommending:

A monthly housing allowance – including utilities – that is increased to reflect the average cost of $500/month, or the average cost of living in university residences, whichever is greater.
A monthly transportation allowance to $100/month, in order to reflect increasing transit and parking costs.
A monthly food allowance of $300/month.
An increase to the personal care and miscellaneous monthly allowance to $300/month, in order to accommodate telephone service and internet access.
Yearly adjustments to the monthly living allowance in accordance with rising tuition and fees, rising utility costs, and average rents as calculated by the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation.
An increase of the total monthly living allowance to $1100/month.
Yearly consultations with the Student Finance Board in order to specifically discuss changes to the monthly living allowance and the real costs of education, including any move toward changing the monthly living allowance policy in favour of a “market basket” calculation.
The total Monthly Living Allowance should thus be raised to $1200/month

[This is a little confusing, as it’s not clear if CAUS wants the living allowance raised to $1100 a month, or $1200 a month. In any case, they are asking for a significant increase of at least $370 a month to reflect a more realistic living cost for Alberta students.]


Athabasca University’s Funding and Future

The final item in the special issue briefings section of the document is devoted to Athabasca University. It begins:

Athabasca University is one of the most unique post-secondary institutions in Canada, possibly even North America. AU provides distance learning – an opportunity for students with diverse lifestyles, backgrounds, and places of residence to pursue a university education. Indeed, many Athabasca University students are part-time, allowing Canadians to educate themselves while also engaging in paid or unpaid work. Indeed, many AU students are women with children, who balance childcare and other family responsibilities with university studies. Moreover, numerous studies indicate that commuting distance and rural background constitute a barrier to accessing post-secondary education. Athabasca University overcomes these barriers, rendering Alberta one of the only provinces to address the problem of rural accessibility.

The report goes on to refute the notion that AU is merely an online university, but it also notes that AU is dramatically under funded compared to the other universities due to its reliance on technological infrastructure. Since the government does not count technological investments as infrastructure upgrades, AU receives significantly less infrastructure funding per student than the other universities, and yet is expected to deliver the same quality of education. AU also receives much less funding per student because the government only looks at student numbers in terms of full time student equivalents, while AU has a large proportion of part-time students.

The report expresses concern that the Ministry of Learning has proposed alleviating AU’s funding woes by removing distance education courses from the 30% tuition cap legislation [which says that no more than 30% of the cost of delivering a course can come from tuition]. Removing this cap means that the prices of distance delivered courses can soar, and AU could charge as much as the market can bear. AUSU feels that “reliance on the benevolence of Alberta Learning or AU administrators constitutes a responsible tuition policy. Affordability and accessibility are undermined by ad hoc tuition policies. Moreover, as tuition increases, it starts to look increasingly like a user fee or a tax on public services. Taxes and user fees are regulated – the same should hold for tuition fees.”

For more information see the CAUS website at: http://www.su.ucalgary.ca/caus/alpha/whoarewe.html. I could not find the entire Generation Debt document online anywhere, but there is an overview of the information contained within on this website: http://www.generationdebt.ca/.

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