The McNeil government is currently in talks with Nova Scotia's universities for a new Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement signed every few years to set multi-year funding levels and tuition fee regulations. Regrettably, the Liberal government is blocking students from participating in the talks. Students are key stakeholders in the university system and excluding those voices benefits nobody. Nova Scotians seem to agree. According to a Corporate Research Associates poll this year, while the majority believe that faculty and staff should be the ones developing standards, it is telling that 18 percent of Nova Scotians trust students to develop standards, compared to only 12 percent for university administrators and 11percent for the government.
It's easy enough to guess why students are being excluded from conversations about their future. The Liberals are preparing for austerity measures in the spring, while the administrators want to preserve their operating budgets. They can both be satisfied by shifting the costs onto students, but they face some hard truths: the situation for youth in Nova Scotia is reaching a critical point. Nova Scotian youth pay the third highest tuition fees in the country, graduating with tens of thousands in debt to an economy with a youth unemployment rate over 18 percent. Governments of all stripes allowed tuition fees to soar, but they all seem surprised that so many youth leave the province. Students, who actually experience the issues facing youth and post-secondary education, aren't. For our province's leaders, who payed for a year of school what students now pay for a single class, it may be hard to understand where the students are coming from. But the cold, hard data is there in front of them and action is needed.
The good news is that there's plenty we can do to improve the situation. Newfoundland and Labrador, a province similar to our own, made the decision in 1999 to make post-secondary education, and therefore youth, a priority. Tuition fees there have been reduced then frozen, and just this year they converted one hundred percent of their provincial student loans into needs-based grants. During that time, Nova Scotian student enrolment at Memorial University rose by over one thousand percent. We can have these great policies in Nova Scotia too. The McNeil government cut the ineffective Graduate Retention Tax Credit last spring, a $50 million program. That's enough money to do a Newfoundland-style grants program and still have enough left over to reduce tuition fees by ten percent. The government opted for minuscule actions that generate more headlines than debt relief, but it's not too late to improve their plan.
The message for government is clear: take urgent action to reduce the cost of post-secondary education. On the other hand, the message for students is also clear: since you're not at the table, you're likely on the menu. Contact your MLA and get involved with your student union because the government's not going to reduce tuition fees without being pushed.
John Hutton is an undergraduate student at Dalhousie, pursuing a degree in international development studies and economics.