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Despite ‘austerity,’ the Saskatchewan budget throws universities a small bone

Sophie Long
News Writer

The Government of Saskatchewan’s proposed 2012-13 budget was released recently, and while the first week of April will see the Legislative Assembly voting on a bill that includes changes to advanced education funding, it’s not clear that these changes will be enough.

For post-secondary institutes specifically, the changes include a $7 million boost for “financing sustaining capital” and $12 million earmarked to support operating costs at the universities and SIAST. This operating cost adjustment is down from last year’s $18 million increase. As well, it represents a two per cent total increase, half a percentage point below Canada’s current rate of inflation.

Before the budget was released, University of Regina Students’ Union President Kent Peterson spoke about what his hopes were regarding post-secondary.

“We are constantly being told by the provincial government that Saskatchewan is booming – so our position is, let's invest that money into colleges and universities so that low-income families, First Nations and Aboriginal people, single mothers, and all people can afford to get an education and participate fully in our economy” he said.

This message was certainly sent out to the provincial government through URSU’s events this year – both the Our Future is Now and the All Out campaigns demanded a freeze on tuition fees and action to mitigate and prevent student debt.

While action to freeze or reduce tuition seemingly doesn’t interest the Saskatchewan Party, the proposed budget earmarks $4.6 million dollars to create the Saskatchewan Advantage scholarship, which provides high school graduates starting in 2012 with $500 of tuition a year for up to four years. For minister for advanced education Rob Norris, this move shows the government’s goal of investing in future post-secondary students.

“Obviously, there’s a constant commitment to do everything we can to make sure tuition is affordable and remains so and that students have accessibility,” Norris said.

On the subject of the activism on campus this year, he said, “Those are constructive reminders of the efforts that students are making on a daily level and the efforts that their families are making. It’s always helpful to have that.”

The Saskatchewan Advantage program does not only promise the scholarship as an incentive to attend post-secondary school. There are three ways in which the budget encourages residents to go to school. The first is the Saskatchewan Advantage scholarship. Second, the government has $3 million invested in the Innovation and Opportunity scholarship. Thirdly, there is the graduate retention program, which offers a $20,000 tax credit to any graduate that remains in the province for seven years after the completion of his or her degree.

“I can’t think of another Canadian jurisdiction that has such a comprehensive funding model focused on students,” Norris said. “The main emphasis for us on this budget is about having that balance.”

The Advanced Education backgrounder makes several promises in regards to nursing students. One promise is to help graduate nurses and doctors get out of debt from the student loans. Another is to donate money to expand the number of seats at the registered nurse program and increase the number of nurse practitioner seats.

“Our first term in office, we made a commitment to increase the number of training seats for nurses by three hundred. This is about continuing to make sure we have the dollars available for us to live up to that commitment,” Norris said.  “As far as putting the incentives in place, I would extend it out to say that in the budget we wanted to focus on medical doctors, too.”

However, there are no budgetary promises made to any other faculty. Similarly, there is no mention in the budget specifically for Aboriginal post-secondary education.

The $7 million put toward capital projects at post-secondary institutions across the province include $1 million put towards building new facilities at the University of Regina. The money will support the planning for a new student residence, a daycare, and a parkade, which should make things much easier for those struggling to go to university due to rocketing rent prices and inability to afford or find daycare, and to resolve some parking problems. Norris says this represents a broader approach to university funding than simply this year’s tuition.

“In our first term, we kept more than one hundred promises, and what we wanted to was start the second term very strong and, with that strong and steady start, we want to make sure that we’re making the investments that count, but also focusing on sustainability,” Norris said

But NDP finance and education critic Trent Wotherspoon says the government is taking the wrong approach to post-secondary costs.   

“We’re growing as an economy, our population is growing, and we’re in a great position to support and invest in students. It would mean so much to our students,” Wotherspoon said. “Instead, we’re seeing a government that is going to be driving up the cost of tuition in a significant way.”

For Wotherspoon, the real issue is one of priorities.

“This is a government that’s spending millions of dollars to increase the number of politicians, that’s building a statue at the legislature, and certainly supporting the premier’s office in a big way but, at the same time, is making cuts and reductions and impacts on everyday families across Saskatchewan and certainly students are impacted in a negative way by this budget.”

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