Canadian Fedwatch! News Across the Nation

Holy Crap

You’ve probably already heard that Alberta’s Premier Klein has announced (http://www.gov.ab.ca/home/index.cfm?page=988) that the Alberta Government will be covering the cost of any tuition increases Alberta universities need to make this year. In addition, the government will be re-working the Alberta tuition policy to make sure that education is affordable for all students. Personally, I did not see this coming while Premier Klein was still in office.

I certainly had some hope when I heard that Dave Hancock took the Advanced Education ministry, but this is more than I expected. Not that it’s all roses, of course.

Some organizations are declaring this to be a tuition freeze, which might be true if you happen to be a traditional university serving a traditional student body. But for Athabasca University students there are some subtle, but very important, differences.

The first is that though the government is paying any tuition increase the university makes, tuition is still increasing. When you remember that certain fees, such as those for extensions, are based on the amount of tuition, then even an invisible increase has an effect.

The second is that Premier Klein has promised to pay for the increase this year, but not any future year. Meaning that unless the tuition regulation they bring in makes significant changes, students for 2006/2007 may find a rather large surprise looming as the tuition amount jumps from what it was in 2004/2005 by two years worth of increases at once.

The third big difference is that Premier Klein doesn’t make clear whether this applies to every student’s tuition, or just those in Alberta. If the latter, then students outside of Alberta will still be facing the full force of any AU tuition increase. Considering that the majority of AU students are from outside of Alberta, this is definitely significant. We can only hope that the new tuition policy helps to moderate costs for out of province students in the future.

At least it’s a step in the right direction.

Rae Gets the Idea but Misses the Point.

Bob Rae has completed his Post-Secondary Review and submitted his final report (http://www.raereview.on.ca/en/report/default.asp?loc1=report)–132 pages of support for Post-Secondary education (or 65 pages if you’re reading it online) calling for sweeping changes in student financing, post-secondary funding, university autonomy and collaboration, and even in shaping the way people think about post-secondary education as an investment not just privately, but publicly as well.

The report almost reads like a summation of my columns over the past years, saying things such as “there is good evidence that education improves incomes and health; People who go to college and university are less likely to need social services or spend time in jail; Higher education is a critical underpinning to a better society; Spending on higher education, whether by the government, the student or the parent, is a good investment;” (pg 6) and “Tuition should not increase at all until the system of student financial aid is repaired. Access and affordability are critical elements in the tuition approach that will follow the end of the freeze” (pg 16).

However, beyond what I’ve already said, there are also some good ideas like a suggestion to implement a new system where low income students receive primarily grants and not loans, (pg 14) thus encouraging them to at least attempt school without having to worry about an unpayable debt load afterward. He also recommends a “First Generation Strategy” that is designed to market the benefits of post-secondary education to students right from the first grade, but with a particular target of those students whose parents haven’t had a post-secondary education (pg 42).

As for Distance Education, page 11 of the report (the online version, I should make clear that all my citations are for the html version of the report) starts with

“Distance education is key to the success of many students in Ontario who do not have access to a traditional campus. Online courses are effective learning methods for some students. One of the fastest growing campuses in Ontario is based in Northern Alberta. Its services are provided exclusively online. Athabasca University has signed dozens of “articulation agreements” with Ontario institutions… “

So he gets it. Here’s somebody in government who finally gets it, and he’s in a position to suggest real changes. Unfortunately, while Rae recognizes that distance education is a solution for some of the post-secondary access problems for Ontarians, he fails to use that knowledge in his recommendations.

This is where he misses the point. Not one recommendation involves increasing Ontario’s involvement with Athabasca University beyond increased usage of individual agreements. Agreements he’s already noted Athabasca has “dozens of.” Not one recommendation involves providing Ontario students with extra support for non-traditional education, even though these may be the only means available to them in their circumstances. Not one recommendation really involves anything about increasing the use of distance education to address the access problem.

How can you get it, and then ignore it? Perhaps he’s hoping that his other reforms will catch distance education as a side-effect. That with an increased focus on the quality of education and developing access for northern students, distance education’s benefits will become clear. But government’s have not capitalized on these benefits so far, so my confidence isn’t at an all time high.

In the meantime, students outside of Alberta continue to get the short end. Alberta won’t support them because they’re not in Alberta, and their own locales won’t support them because AU isn’t in their home province. It’s a horrible catch-22, and I think that until we see some federal involvement in post-secondary education, it will remain one.

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