Candidates pledged to boost tuition affordability and increase mental health supports during a post-secondary policy forum at St. Thomas University on Sept. 18.

The event, hosted by the New Brunswick Student Alliance, invited each New Brunswick political party to send a policy expert or candidate to speak to their platform. Four of the five candidates for Fredericton South were present to speak to the small group of students. Absent were People’s Alliance candidate Bonnie Clark and Gerald Bourque, leader of the Keep It Simple Solutions party, which does not have a candidate in the riding.

David Coon, incumbent MLA for Fredericton South and leader of the Green Party, said he has heard in campus roundtables that there needs to be more mental health supports. Coon said a Green government would double provincial mental health funding and bring back the tuition rebate program.

Eliminated under the Liberal government, the rebate program provided subsidies for students who remain in the province after graduation. It has been replaced with free tuition for low-income New Brunswickers and sliding-scale subsidies for the middle class.

“That was a great first step towards the long term goal of eliminating tuition and making sure post-secondary education becomes part of the public education system overall,” Coon said.

He said later in the forum that the Liberal free tuition program needs to be improved, citing concerns about people who can’t qualify due to the mandatory credit check.

Liberal candidate Susan Holt said her party’s approach to post-secondary education centres around working with students and leaders on campuses. Holt said those conversations have prioritized eliminating upfront barriers to attending university or college.

“We heard from students that the tuition rebate program was too restrictive,” she said. “We want students to be able to go and do whatever they want.”

Holt responded to criticism of the free tuition program by noting that the government continues to listen and tweak the initiative and plans to do so going forward.

Liberal platform commitments include expanding that program, increasing the youth employment program and waiving interest on provincial student loans for those who stay in New Brunswick after graduation.

MLA for Fredericton South and Green Party Leader David Coon speaks during the postsecondary education forum on Tuesday. To his right is Liberal candidate Susan Holt. | Photo: Maria Nazareth Araujo

Holt said the Gallant government has already made universities commit to fixed tuition schedules through memorandums of understanding, and allocated $15 million over three years for experiential learning opportunities.

Progressive Conservative candidate Scott Smith criticized the Liberal government’s elimination of the tuition rebate program.

“We don’t have enough retention models to keep student here after they graduate,” he said.

Smith said the Progressive Conservatives have a “robust” strategy for increasing the number of psychologists available to students, including the potential use of some employed in the private sector. He said his party’s proposal to eliminate double taxation on rental properties would create more affordable housing, lowering rents and reducing debt for students. Property owners are currently taxed by both municipal and provincial governments on all non-owner occupied residential units.

NDP candidate Chris Durrant said his party would keep the Liberal free tuition program and expand it to include graduate students. Other platform commitments include reducing tuition by 25 per cent and eliminating interest on provincial student loans.

“I don’t care if you’re from a middle-class family or an upper-middle-class family, you don’t deserve to be taking on the debt burden that you are right now,” Durrant said.

The NDP is also proposing a carbon tax, expansion of provincial healthcare for transgender individuals and further Indigenous reconciliation efforts.

Durrant said the elimination of the tuition rebate program is resulting in less money being spent on students. However the NDP would not propose restoring the program since the New Brunswick Student Alliance has asked for “upfront help,” he said.

Approaches to sexual violence policies differ

New Brunswick Student Alliance Chair Brianna Workman asked candidates to explain their positions on provincial involvement in sexual violence policies at post-secondary institutions.

Holt said the Liberals believe their “best tool” to use is a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the provincial government and each university. There should be a standard that allows for flexibility at each campus, she said.

Smith said he strongly supports provincial legislation implementing an overall standard, but doesn’t like the MOU approach.

“I’m very wary of tying this in and using it as a bait-and-hook for funding,” he said.

Durrant said the NDP wants clear policies in place that a university can be judged on and held accountable to.

Coon said he began drafting sexual violence legislation two years ago, but stopped as universities at the time were working to put their own policies in place. He said he would like to see an evaluation of the current system.

Emily Blue, the executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, speaks during a panel on postsecondary education policy on Tuesday. | Photo: Maria Nazareth Araujo

New resources pledged to mental health

Candidates were asked how their parties would provide more mental health supports for students. Emily Blue, the executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, said the average wait time to see a counselor is two to six weeks on member campuses.

Durrant said he supports the concept of “e-mental health” and developing applications to help students with things such as mindfulness and meditation. He also said the focus needs to be on the other factors of mental health issues, including the “financial burden.”

Smith said the Progressive Conservatives want more of a strategy that caters to individual needs. A Tory government would hire more psychologists to address issues as early as possible, he said.

“We need to end the stigma around mental health,” Smith said.

Coon said he wants to remove the cap the province places on billing numbers for specialists. Fredericton is at its cap and the area still needs more psychologists, he said.

Holt said technology-based solutions are a good approach, and reiterated that she wants to work with campuses in addressing mental health issues.

Looking to learn more about the people running to be the next MLA for Fredericton South? Check out our detailed candidate guide.