Advocacy group says Alberta's tuition tax credit cut isn't a student issue — it's a provincial one
The effects of the government’s 2019 decision to eliminate the tuition tax credit are being felt now
Student groups and education advocates say eliminating the tuition tax credit makes the province's post-secondary schools less attractive to students, who are already leaving Alberta in droves.
In 2019 the government released its budget documents. As part of that package, the tuition tax credit was eliminated, but the change came into effect in 2020.
It was one of several cuts to advanced education as part of an overarching goal to decrease the amount of public funding to post-secondary institutions by 20 per cent over four years.
But then, the pandemic hit. Recognizing students and institutions would struggle, the government paused its plans to introduce performance-based funding for schools and temporarily froze interest fees for student loans.
Now, as the pandemic soldiers on, students and families are seeing the effects of the tuition tax credit cut in their 2020 tax returns.
Rowan Ley, chair of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), says eliminating that tax credit effectively represents a $200 million cut to student aid.
Frank Finley, the University of Calgary Students' Union President, said on top of tuition increases, students are facing more debt than ever before for an education.
"All this while students struggle to find employment due to the pandemic," Finley said. "Another incompetent move from this government that will only cause a brain drain from Alberta as students seek better prospects elsewhere."
Provincial student aid systems
According to a statement from the Ministry of Advanced Education, the tax credit was eliminated to put the province in line with other jurisdictions like Ontario and Saskatchewan, where a similar tax credit doesn't exist.
But Ley said that isn't a fair comparison.
"It's very misleading to say that this puts us in a similar situation as [other provinces], because those provinces have a very different student aid system," Ley said.
"Those tax credits filled a role in Alberta that is filled by needs-based grants in other parts of Canada and losing those means that we are now even further behind the pack in terms of affordability."
He added that CAUS has long advocated that money cut should be reinvested in needs-based grants.
While they would come at a similar cost, they are more focused on the students and families who need the most support.
"It falls the heaviest on single parents and on mature learners who are coming back to school," Ley said. "That obviously is a pretty significant injustice, that people who face some of the biggest barriers to getting an education have now had that barrier raised again."
Joel French with Public Interest Alberta said as it stands, students are paying more for less. He looks at the elimination of the tax credit as a compounding factor, with all the other cuts the province has levelled against institutions.
"Students are paying significantly more for a lower quality experience and less program choice," French said.
"Professors are in much less stable positions. And often they're moving on quite quickly. So we have to take this as a whole picture of really a government attack on the Alberta advanced education system and the future of our province."
While the pandemic has brought these issues into focus, French said if the province is looking to post-secondary institutions to help with diversification and economic recovery, investments need to be made.
Government says it has provided support
In a statement, Advanced Education press secretary Taylor Hides said the province has already made adjustments during the pandemic to help students and institutions get by.
"We recognize the pandemic has created new and different pressures for students and institutions," Hides wrote.
"To respond to the needs of students and post-secondary institutions during the pandemic, Alberta's government froze interest rates on student loans and has delayed the implementation of performance-based funding to allow for additional flexibility during this time."
Hides later clarified that the interest rates on student loans were frozen for six months in 2020, but that freeze is no longer in effect.
Ley doesn't see the issue as a student, or post-secondary problem. He believes it will affect the province as a whole.
"Eliminating these tax credits is not a good move when we are already seeing an exodus of young people from Alberta," Ley said. "This is an Alberta issue. If you're a taxpayer, you don't want to see all of those future taxpayers leave and shift that burden on you.
"If you're a parent, you don't want to see your kids move a thousand kilometres away for an education and never come back."
He's urging Albertans to look at the cuts, speak out and push back against them.