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No cuts to education in provincial budget, university still faces financial challenges

The New Brunswick 2016-2017 provincial budget released on Tuesday contained no cuts to post-secondary education.

The Gallant government instead put a freeze on operating grants to universities, capped tuition rate increases to two per cent for in-province students and introduced the new Education and New Economy Fund.

The budget confirms Gallant’s earlier promise not to impose major cuts to education.

President Eddy Campbell expressed his relief but acknowledged that the university still has serious economic concerns. The freeze in operating grants given to universities, in addition to rising expense costs, means the university will be hard pressed for money.

“UNB is now building our own budget. We already face a potential operating deficit in this fiscal year of about $5 million.  With the operating grant freeze and tuition cap, I anticipate our deficit for 2016-2017 could be more than $10 million,” said Campbell in a letter to students and faculty.

“Our fiscal situation is really challenging. In a lot of ways it is similar to what the province is going through,” he later told the Brunswickan.

A freeze on the university’s operating budget doesn’t make budgeting much easier for the university, but it is good news compared to all the subsidy cuts that had been rumoured earlier in the year.

“Way better this week than last week,” Campbell said in response to the news of no new cuts.

Campbell said he’s looking to make further progress in lobbying and dealing with the government.

“We’re looking for more certainty, they may lift the funding freeze when performance based funding is further discussed.”

Performance based funding would have universities funded according to a set predetermined criteria. This could mean funding based on graduation rates, enrollment rates or a number of combinations or alternatives.

UNBSU vice-president external Travis Daley said that performance based funding can lead to unintended consequences.

“It could develop into a slippery slope, creating grade inflation which would cause more students to graduate, meaning more funding for universities,” said Daley.

Among other concerns for university students is the $22 million dollars rebate that was cut last year. Student advocates, including the UNBSU and the NBSA, have been pushing for the money to be reinvested into education.

Daley said that the money would preferably be focused on needs based grants.

Lindsey Handren, executive director of the NBSA, said in a press release that while the budget could have been worse for students, it certainly could be better.

“By freezing operating grants and increasing tuition, it is placing more of the financial burden of pursing a post-secondary education on students,” she said.

Handren noted that while New Brunswick students have tuition increases capped at two per cent, those from further away have no such protection.

While the province does set a cap on tuition increases, universities are not obligated by law to follow the province’s set limits. The province holds authority only as a major funder, not as a governing body.

St. Thomas University ignored tuition caps back in 2013, and ignored the tuition freeze in 2015. Both instances drew criticisms from the provincial government of the time but no backlash for the university.

Campbell said that while the UNB would certainly be taking the province’s tuition cap into consideration, it ultimately falls to the university’s board of governors to determine its tuition rates.

“Ensuring a strong future for UNB requires that we take steps to deal with this budgetary deficit,” Campbell said in his letter.

“We will do so over the next few years so that the change required is carefully considered, that our approach is measured and strategic.”

International students, and those from out of province will likely be shouldering tuition increases higher than 2 per cent in the upcoming years.

Although The Why UNB? campaign is aimed primarily at students outside the province, UNB communications director David Stonehouse said that the university had no prior knowledge that out of province students would not have tuition protection when they drafted the marketing campaign.

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