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Alberta NDP introduces a measure of fairness to post-secondary tuition

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt briefs student leaders about Bill 19 at the Legislature yesterday (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta).

Alberta's legislature returned to work yesterday as Rachel Notley's NDP government got the ball rolling with a bill that will keep a lid on post-secondary tuition and ensure foreign students don't get stuck with unscheduled tuition increases part way through their studies.

This may be a long way from what's really needed to strengthen our society and ease the crushing debt burden faced by students -- a national free-tuition program like those in many countries, combined with the recognition that international students are assets who ought not be treated as if they were cash cows.

And it's no guarantee some future government wouldn't go right back to tuition inflation and the debt trap for non-elite students in the name of fiscal prudence. That is the neoliberal zeitgeist, after all, and there's not much that can be done about it in a democracy except getting out to vote.

Still, Bill 19, the Act to Improve the Affordability and Accessibility of Post-Secondary Education, is no bad thing, taking reasonable steps to protect students that are within Canadian provincial jurisdiction.

And the story's marginally more important than that other staple of first-day legislative reporting: Who's Sitting Where? Hint: Now that he's minister of Service Alberta, New Democrat Brian Malkinson is sitting closer to the front. And now that he's been cast into utter darkness after being accused of ballot stuffing at a constituency meeting, former Conservative Prab Gill has been assigned to the legislature's time-out corner, the Independent benches.

Bill 19 gives the minister of advanced education the ability to regulate tuition and non-instructional fees, including those of foreign students, and to cap average tuition and apprenticeship fee increases to the Consumer Price Index.

International students must be told the entire cost of their education up front under the new rules, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt told a news conference after the legislation was tabled in the legislature.

"We need to make sure that students can afford to get a good university or college education, and that they have a say in the decisions that affect their education," Schmidt said in the government's news release. "That's why we did such extensive consultation."

Indeed, the real shocker was that the government consulted students, faculty and staff so extensively, Schmidt told reporters, that, "really, students wrote this bill." More traditional Canadian political parties only allow car dealers and other generous donors to political action committees to write their own legislation, of course.

More than 4,000 students, teachers and staff members responded to an online survey and took part in focus groups.

Other provisions in the bill, which will amend the Post-Secondary Learning Act, include confirming the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary as a university, allowing Red Deer College and Grande Prairie College to transition into universities without further legislation being required, and ensuring there are at least two student representatives on the boards of all public post-secondary institutions in the province.

The bill also gives the minister the power to "better define the mandates of the institutions in order to continue to encourage collaboration and innovation across the system," which could very well turn out to be the most important aspect of this legislation.

If passed -- which, of course, it will be, as the NDP has a majority in the House -- the changes will take effect on February 1, 2019.

Alberta's NDP: Still hiding its light under a bushel

Readers of this blog have been sending me notes all day asking why they can't find the recording of Premier Rachel Notley's speech to the NDP Convention on Sunday in Edmonton on Facebook or anywhere else.

I can't explain why, with an asset like Premier Notley, the Alberta NDP hides its light under a bushel. It's not a new problem. And it needs to be fixed.

In the mean time, I can offer readers a copy of Premier Notley's speaking notes from Sunday. This needs to be, as they say in Speech Writing School, checked against delivery. Notley's delivery, which was terrific, is in a video somewhere. Maybe eventually someone will get around to posting it somewhere where we can all watch it.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

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