Good news & bad news for post-secondary education

For many of us, summer practically wrapped up on Labour Day weekend. The fall season may not be here in fact, but it certainly is here in feeling.

With September now here, parents, children, teenagers, young adults, mature students, teachers and staff turn their minds to the start of the school year. Some parents are nervously seeing their children start school for the first time. Other parents are getting used to their children growing up to make the transition to university or community college for the first time. Other young adults (and some older ones too) are making their way to complete their first undergraduate degree or study within a professional, graduate or doctoral program.

Every step of the way, our educators and other staff – be they in public schools, independent schools, universities, community college or training institutes – are there to help and support our learners, from their early years to their grown up years.

In Halifax Citadel-Sable Island, we see this change every September perhaps more so than any other constituency in the province. If Nova Scotia is Canada’s education province, then by sheer number of educational institutions at all levels, Halifax Citadel-Sable Island is arguably Nova Scotia’s education constituency.

When it comes to post-secondary education, let’s start with some good news.

Labour and Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis announced Tuesday that the government will be fulfilling its election commitment to cover the cost of tuition for apprentices returning to the classroom for their technical training this fall.

This $1.3 million investment will help the province’s apprentices save approximately $900 as they work hard to complete training that is mandatory to be certified to work in their field.

Those of us involved in partisan politics have a responsibility to give credit where it’s due when other parties advance good ideas. Wouldn’t this be great if this became the norm in politics, instead of a rare exception?

Unfortunately, not all the news was good this week in post-secondary education.

Tuition rates continue to go up and up and up for Nova Scotia university students.

Nova Scotia’s students head back to school paying fastest rising tuition fees in Canada

Why is this the case?

It comes down to having successive provincial governments – first NDP, now Liberal – that since 2010 have not sufficiently connected provincial funding to making a university education more affordable for students.

The last two governments took different approaches – the NDP brought in the deepest funding cuts to universities in the last two decades, while allowing tuition fees to increase up to a certain level. The Liberals started to reinvest at a modest level for universities since 2013, but gave the institutions carte blanche to raise tuition without any cap (otherwise known as the market adjustment).

The bottom line for students is that neither approach helped them deal with the ever increasing up front costs to get that first university degree.

In this year’s election, the PC Party committed to bring back multi-year funding agreements with our universities that, through funding and accountability mechanisms, would bring tuition fees for Nova Scotia university undergraduate students down to the national average. Obviously, the party doesn’t have a mandate to implement this commitment in government, but to those who voted Progressive Conservative, should the party not continue to champion this policy if we feel it’s a good one for students?

PC Leader Jamie Baillie was a key person in Premier John Hamm’s office who helped quarterback stable long-term provincial funding agreements with our universities to, in part, make costs more affordable for students.

This approach ultimately led to John Hamm’s successor Rodney MacDonald delivering a tuition freeze, along with other pro-student measures when the PC Party was last in government.

You’ll see from the article that the policy was criticized at the time. Perhaps there was some validity to those criticisms.

But at least we had a provincial government that was prepared to use the power of the public purse to make the up front costs of tuition more affordable to students.

Rather than dismiss the concerns of university students, I hope Premier Stephen McNeil and Labour and Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis will take their cry for help to heart and come forward with a better approach to put an end to Nova Scotia having the dubious distinction of charging among the highest tuition fees in Canada.

We can invest in our universities and our students, while maintaining balanced budgets.

It’s been done before. We can do it again.