The students’ advantage?

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2011-12 provincial budget comes with positives and negatives

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

It’s that time of year again – budget time. Aren’t you excited? Although the release of the 2011-12 provincial budget is an inconsequential event for many students, the budget plays a very influential role in our lives as students. After all, the budget lets us know how the government is planning to spend its money on post-secondary education to make our lives a little easier, hopefully. Thankfully, The Carillon has had the enormous pleasure of poring over all the dry numbers and government documents for you, and breaking down the more interesting matters into a package that wont take you four hours to read. And although the budget does increase the amount of money flowing towards post-secondary facilities, it would be a stretch to say that it will leave you feeling completely satisfied.

Post-secondary education has received a small funding increase from last year, approximately $18 million, and although it’s not a monster gain considering the total post-secondary budget is $609 million, the thought of more money pouring into post-secondary education is a welcome one. The 2011-12 budget does provide some excellent new programs to support First Nations and Métis students, as well as plenty of money for student loans, grants, bursaries, and the new Saskatchewan Advantage Scholarship, but there are several key issues that the budget handles undesirably. Many students will be disappointed to hear that the budget fails to provide satisfactory solutions to the issues of tuition control, on-campus childcare, and affordable housing opportunities.

First off, the good stuff. For years, according to Statistics Canada, the First Nations and Métis populations have been lagging behind the non-First Nations and Métis in terms of educational attainment and employment. The 2011-12 provincial budget tries to address this issue on several fronts. The 2011-12 Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration plan states that “with a young and growing First Nations and Métis population, it is essential that supports are in place to ensure an increasing number of First Nations and Métis youth are successful in post-secondary and enter the workforce.”

The government has allocated $7 million for an Adult Basic Education and Provincial Training allowance targeted at First Nations and Métis students, helping to make the cost of education a little lighter. The budget also gives $2 million to develop a new First Nations and Métis employment and education task force that is designed to close the employment gap. On top of that, there is another $2.2 million allocated to other initiatives with the goal of helping the First Nations and Métis population reach success in employment and education.

“We want to ensure First Nations and Métis people have every opportunity to succeed in the new Saskatchewan,” Rob Norris, Minister of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration, writes in The 2011-12 AEEI Plan document. “First Nations and Métis people will play a key role in maintaining Saskatchewan’s economic momentum now and in the years ahead.”

Next, and arguably the most imperative issue to students, is the matter of tuition. This was a hot topic in our recent URSU election. Many students, including our soon-to-be URSU president Kent Peterson, want to see an outright tuition freeze. Unfortunately, it seems like the government has other plans. The Saskatchewan 2011-12 budget has pledged around $24.6 million towards tuition control – an increase of $8.3 million. Their plan is to keep tuition increases down to three per cent, which would be a two per cent decrease from last year. However, this is a far cry from the outright freeze that most students wanted, and understandably many students are disappointed.

Peterson, who will become the URSU president on May 1, isn’t impressed with the government’s budget offering this year. “Two years ago tuition increased three per cent, last year it increased five per cent, this year it is projected to increase another three per cent,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a tuition freeze. Students are being squeezed from every angle; we are in an affordable housing crisis, utility rates are skyrocketing out of control, and we have no on-campus childcare commitment from the provincial government. All of that coupled with another tuition increase means that many people won’t be able to continue their post-secondary education, and more than that, it means that many people won’t be able to get here in the first place”

Although it seems like the chances of a tuition freeze this year are diminishing, Peterson and the other executives at URSU are planning to keep fighting for an outright halt in tuition increases when they take office.

“We would’ve liked to see one this year, just like we would’ve liked to see one the last year and the year before.  But this is a provincial election year, so we will be lobbying, starting May 1, for a tuition freeze, and we will carry that lobbying effort all the way through the campaign until Nov. 7.” 

If the government still doesn’t bite, the plan is to keep campaigning.

“If they still don’t pledge to freeze tuition, we’re not done yet. The new budget comes in March of next year and we will be campaigning for a tuition freeze all the way through the November elections until March when the new budget is released.”

While slowing the increase of tuition is a step in the right direction, it means that tuition will still be on the rise. Many students, such as Peterson, are withholding their ovations until they feel that the government has created a budget that makes students more of a priority.

Another problem that students want the government to address is the issue of affordable childcare. The U of R currently has two day-care facilities on campus. Last year, the provincial government spent roughly $780,000 on maintenance of the facilities and subsidies for the parents. Although more money is always welcome, the two day-care centres here at the U of R are full to the brim, and it’s not enough. Students with children need affordable spaces that are convenient for them, economically and geographically.

In this year’s budget, the government has allocated $4 million to “support development” of 500 new childcare spaces around the province, claiming that it will increase the number of licensed spaces by just over four per cent. Although the budget has promised to develop new spaces, which are much needed everywhere, the fine details are very foggy. “We don’t know where those childcare spaces are going,” Peterson noted. “We don’t know if they are going to be subsidizing private childcare providers, or if they are going to be public childcare spaces. We don’t know which cities are getting them, and even if Regina does get some of those childcare spaces, we don’t know if any of them are going to be on campus.”

Getting childcare spaces on-campus is only one piece to the puzzle. Those new spaces need to be affordable. Expensive on-campus childcare just creates a new problem. “Are [these spaces] going to be subsidized? Or, is it going to be just as expensive as anywhere else, forcing students to not only pay for the childcare, but then get another job just to afford it, even though the government is funding the space.”

Subsidization reduces the prices of childcare from around $500 a month to a much more student-friendly $150 a month. Obviously, if you are a student and a parent, subsidized childcare on-campus is a top priority. Currently, the waiting list for the two day-care facilities at the U of R is standing at about 300 people, 250 of them are students, and the other 50 are faculty members. During their peak times of the year, the day-care centres can receive around 20 to 40 calls per day requesting spots, and sometimes it can be years before something opens up. Sheila Pelletier, the director of one of the on-campus day-care centres, has put in a proposal to build 90 more spaces on-campus; she is hoping to be approved within sometime in the coming weeks. The need for more on-campus child-care couldn’t be more obvious, and hopefully, the government will recognize that.

Affordable housing is a key matter for many students on a day-to-day basis. Just like tuition and childcare, if students have to pay absurd amounts of money to pay for their living expenses, it means more time working and less time going to school, or possibly not going to school at all.

“There are three dimensions to this issue,” Peterson said. “The first is that we want to see some kind of rent control. We need to protect renters, many of whom are students, from overly burdensome rent increases. The second dimension is supply, there needs to be, on the whole, more affordable housing units. Ideally we want lower rent, but also, we need to make it easier for students to find a place to live. The third dimension is that we would like to see those affordable housing units built on campus so that it would then be incorporated into the U of R’s strategic plan and partnership with the provincial government to not only build those housing units, but to make them truly affordable.”

The government has provided somewhat of an outline for the construction of new housing units. The 2011-12 budget does provide private contractors with grants for each new rental unit they build, to a maximum of $5000 dollars. But the contractors have no incentive to make units that are practical to students. “While there are incentives for contractors to build rental units, there is nothing that makes them affordable, there is no definition of affordable, and there is no pledge whatsoever to have them on, or near, the University of Regina.”

The uncertain future of affordable housing is frustrating in and of itself. But when you take into account that the provincial government has essentially lined liquor vendor’s pockets with a massive tax break masquerading as subsidies for beer, the issue of affordable housing seems to be on the government’ backburner. “I think that it is shameful when a provincial government, who is running a surplus and refuses to freeze tuition, gives more money to private liquor vendors than to affordable housing initiatives.”

The government is planning to give around $5 million in subsidies to off-sale liquor vendors. The idea is that this will allow these vendors to lower the price of beer without feeling the sting in their pocketbooks. “But many vendors are saying that they are just going to take the subsidy and not lower the price of beer,” Peterson said. “So it’s basically a tax break for the private liquor vendors in Saskatchewan to the tone of $5 million. This shows you where the government’s priorities are, and we would like to see those priorities reversed.”

Failure to control the affordable housing crisis would have a devastating ripple effect for all students living on their own. The worst-case scenario would be unaffordable housing preventing students from making it to school in the first place. University is expensive and time consuming; students need affordable housing to help them along economically. “That is what we would like to see,” Peterson said. “We think that it’s not only doable, and financially responsible, but also socially responsible.  In the current economy that Regina find itself in, housing is a huge barrier to entry when it comes to post-secondary institutions. So we want to see those housing units on-campus so students can actually come here, live here, and learn here.”

Obviously no budget is ever going to cater to the needs of one group of individuals completely. The 2011-12 Saskatchewan provincial budget provides some extra cash to post-secondary, helping us to keep tuition to down to three per cent, providing money for scholarships, and new programs to aid First Nations and Métis students. But the budget also comes with a great deal of disappointment and uncertainty. Tuition will continue to rise, and there is still a big question mark on the key issues of childcare and affordable housing. Until those looming question marks are erased, there will be many students that come away from this budget unsatisfied.

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