New changes to the New Brunswick provincial government’s tuition bursary program means more students will have access to less financial aid.

The tuition program will now be available to those enrolled in private universities and colleges in New Brunswick, and the government plans to reintroduce a tuition tax credit. But there’s no new funding for the program, which means low and middle-income students will receive less support.

Trevor Holder, the minister responsible for post-secondary education, said the changes aim to “level the playing field” for students attending private institutions.

“This is about fairness,” Holder said. “Fairness that we believe did not exist prior to this announcement.”

The renewed tuition bursary program is an extended version of the two programs currently in place: the free tuition program for low-income New Brunswickers introduced in 2016, and the tuition relief for middle class families introduced in 2017. All students who were eligible under the two programs will remain eligible for financial aid. It is estimated 9,500 students will be eligible in the 2019-20 academic year, including 1,700 more from private colleges and universities.

As provincial and federal grants will no longer be enough to cover the costs of tuition, students currently attending university under the province’s free tuition program will face increased fees come September. Those from families with a total income of $60,000 or less will receive the maximum benefit, while middle class families will continue to receive bursaries based on a sliding scale.

The maximum provincial grant will now be $3,000 per year for university students and $1,500 for college students.

The province is also reintroducing the New Brunswick tuition tax credit and eliminating the timely completion benefit, which was received by only 281 borrowers at a cost of $3.3 million last year.

Students under the current free tuition program will not be grandfathered in, meaning some may have to try to complete their degrees at an unexpected cost.

“At the end of the day, we feel that based on bringing the tuition tax credit in, there would be more than ample ability to offset that [cost],” Holder said.

The tax credit will be retroactive for the past two years. An average of 48,000 New Brunswickers claimed the former tax credit annually between 2004 and 2016, according to the provincial government.

Liberal MLA Guy Arseneault said the changes will limit access to post-secondary education for low-income New Brunswickers.

“I think that free tuition program is out the window, let’s put it that way,” he said. “They’ve tinkered with it, but they’ve not added more money which is very disappointing.”

Arseneault said the government should have waited for a full review of the program and for at least one cohort of students to complete it before making any changes.

Liberal MLA Guy Arseneault speaks to reporters at the Fredericton Convention Centre on Tuesday following the announcement of changes to the provinces tuition bursary program. | Photo: Alexandre Silberman

Students concerned about ‘irresponsible’ changes

Emily Blue, executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, said her organization is opposed to the changes.

“We were strong supporters of those programs, they provided supports to students who needed it, where they needed it,” she said.

Blue said the NBSA has been advocating for an expansion of the original program to include part-time, graduate and law students, and eliminate the requirement of a credit check for the free tuition program. None of these proposed expansions have been included in the renewed tuition bursary program.

The University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus had 1,242 students enrolled under the free tuition program, and 323 under tuition relief for the middle class. St. Thomas University had 595 students benefiting from free tuition and 130 from relief.

At UNB, 29.6 per cent of students received help from the program, and 38 per cent at St. Thomas.

Brianna Workman, president of the STU Student Union, said she has heard from students who hadn’t considered going to university before these programs were put in place.

“That guarantee of free tuition if you come from a low-income family actually sends a really powerful psychological message,” Workman said.

Richard Du, president of the UNB Student Union, said the changes will negatively impact low-income students.

“These changes are concerning and can result in financial barriers to some returning UNB students in the fall,” Du said.

Blue said her organization is concerned for students currently supported by the free tuition program.

“The students who are eligible and received it this year will be eligible for the new program, however they will be receiving significantly less support which may impact their ability to return to school, and that can be pretty heartbreaking,” she said.

The New Brunswick Student Alliance is not in favour of expanding the program for private post-secondary institutions, which don’t have the same quality and government accountability standards as public ones.

Holder said there is no concern around the quality of education offered by private institutions as they are federally regulated.

“We’ve got a lot of New Brunswickers getting a high-quality education in private institutions and it’s time that they weren’t left behind,” he said.

The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour asked the NBSA and La Fédération des étudiantes et étudiants du Campus universitaire de Moncton to submit a written review of the current programs before the budget was drafted. All stakeholders asked for improvements to the free tuition program but were opposed to the addition of a tuition tax credit.

“It seems as though that feedback was ignored in this, because there was no one in the sector from students, to universities, to faculty that recommended rolling back the free tuition programs to implement a tax credit,” said Workman, who is also chair of the NBSA.

Blue said tuition tax credits tend to disproportionately advantage higher-income students and is not a form of debt relief. She said the NBSA had been asking for the elimination of the timely completion benefit with the funds going towards a new upfront debt-relief program.

The average debt for New Brunswick students with a bachelor’s degree was $35,200 at the time of graduation in 2010, according to Statistics Canada.

Workman said it’s “really disappointing” to see the program change before a full cohort of students could go through to judge its effectiveness.

“To eliminate [the timely completion benefit] without any plans to introduce something more effective, leaves New Brunswick students without any debt relief,” Workman said. “And that’s irresponsible, and that’s dangerous.”