With the cost of living skyrocketing due to high inflation, hundreds of university students and supporters gathered at the University of New Brunswick on Wednesday to protest surging tuition fees and the crippling debt burden they create. The rally, organized by the Canadian Federation of Students, called on governments to make post-secondary education truly accessible by increasing public funding and implementing free tuition.

According to the Federation, which coordinated day of action protests across Canada, average undergraduate tuition has more than doubled over the past 20 years when adjusted for inflation. At UNB specifically, annual tuition and fees now reach $9,205 for New Brunswick residents studying arts, a 113% increase from just ten years ago. The situation is even worse for international students, who face a tuition bill of $20,640 this year alone. 

With tuition rising much faster than wages or cost of living adjustments, the average student debt load upon graduation in New Brunswick has ballooned to an unsustainable $40,000. Statistics Canada data shows only Nova Scotia has a higher average debt load among graduates. Carrying such a heavy financial burden straight out of school traps many in a cycle of debt that delays life milestones like homeownership and starting a family. It also deters less affluent students from pursuing post-secondary education altogether.

Speakers at the rally blamed declining government funding for public universities as the root cause of tuition hikes. According to the Federation of NB Faculty Associations, provincial operational grants covered around 82% of university budgets in 1979-80 but have fallen steadily to just 56% by 2019-20. With less public money, universities have turned to tuition increases to make up the shortfall.

While the 2023 provincial budget included some increases in university funding and student financial assistance, critics say it is insufficient to remedy decades of chronic underfunding. According to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, New Brunswick spends $2,000 less per university student than the national average when adjusted for population. To make education accessible to all, protesters are demanding the government increase funding to cover full tuition costs and eliminate student debt.

The students at the rally intend to keep pressuring politicians to prioritize affordable learning as an essential public service. Only with free post-secondary education can everyone have a fair chance to develop skills and pursue careers regardless of their financial means, they argued.

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