New Brunswick

University students face 'lose-lose' scenario after free tuition program scuppered

Many students who are mid-way through their degrees say the free tuition program was the reason they decided to attend university in the first place.

'It was like a short relief, where we all could breathe, and now we can’t any more'

Renée Arseneau is a second-year nursing student at the University of New Brunswick. She's not sure what the changes to tuition bursary programs will mean for her ability to stay in school. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Renée Arseneau wouldn't have gone to university if it wasn't for the free tuition program.

The second-year University of New Brunswick nursing student had taken a year off after high school to save money, and when the free tuition program was announced it meant her tuition was covered.

"This was one of the reasons that I stayed in New Brunswick and was planning to stay in New Brunswick after I graduated," said Arseneau, who is from Bathurst.

"Now it's like, what's the point? Why would I stay?"

The Blaine Higgs government announced a new program Tuesday, replacing the free tuition and tuition relief for the middle class programs introduced by the Liberals in 2016 and 2017.

The government also announced the revival of the tuition tax credit and the cancelling of the timely completion benefit, which it says didn't meet its objectives.

The provincial government is changing the tuition bursary program to give more students access to financial aid. But critics of the change, including Emily Blue with the New Brunswick Student Alliance, say it just stretches the same $19.2 million budget thinner, while including private institutions which she says are not always held to the same standards as public universities. 6:54

Arseneau worries she may have to get a part-time job to help pay for her tuition, something she said is challenging for nursing students to manage on top of their course load.

She has classes for eight hours a day, and on the days she doesn't have class, she's working at the hospital for free for eight hours as her clinical study, leaving evenings and weekends as the only times she would be able to work.

Lose-lose situation 

But those are the times Arseneau gets her schoolwork done. She said the program is competitive and students have to get high grades to stay in it.

"So it's a lose-lose situation if you have to get a job and your grades are affected and you can't stay in the program."

Arseneau said she already carries debt for other living expenses and may have to take out a line of credit next year. The tuition tax credit may help, but she said it's like "putting a Band-Aid on a dam."

"Conservative governments have a tendency to take programs that the Liberals have instituted and try to replace them with something else, and it's kind of like taking money from the poor and distributing it who knows where."

She wishes the government had given the program more time, so at least students like her who started their degrees with the bursary can finish school.

"It was like a short relief, where we all could breathe, and now we can't any more."

Megan Doyle, a third-year forestry student, said she wasn't surprised by the change.

"I've been waiting for them to cut it. It seems to be the way, every time a new government comes into place."

Third-year UNB forestry student Megan Doyle says the debt she now may be saddled with to finish her degree could drive her out of the province. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

So far Doyle's tuition for three semesters at UNB have been covered, but she's uncertain how much she'll have to pay for next year.

"The tuition access bursary is actually one of the reasons I decided to come back to school because I had graduated from a college program, I had been working [in Alberta] for the last six years."

Doyle said the Alberta government offered her a job as a forest technician, but she wouldn't be able to work up from that position without a degree.

Now she says her priority after graduating will be paying off her student debt as fast as possible, which may send her out west again.

"I want to stay in the province but I will probably have to look at Alberta again because there's a lot more opportunities and the jobs pay more."

Almost half of UNB Saint John students affected

The student council for UNB Saint John said almost half of their students will be affected in some way by the change.

Caitlin Grogan, vice-president external for the student representative council, said 30 per cent of students receive free tuition, and 47 per cent get some sort of tuition relief from the province.

Grogan said UNB Saint John has a high proportion of first-generation and low-income students. Many of them only came to university because of the free tuition program.

Brady Rimes is one of those students. The 33-year-old quit his job to go back to school to fulfil his dream of becoming a teacher. He is finishing his second year of his psychology degree thanks to the free tuition program.

Now he doesn't know if he'll be able to go back in the fall.

"I cried actually, to tell you the truth," Rimes said. "I just thought that the way the provincial government has handled this situation is very unprofessional. There's not even a talk of grandfathering people in. I was just shocked."

Brady Rimes is a mature student at UNB Saint John who received tuition funding from the provincial government. (Submitted by Brady Rimes)

Rimes said he feels the government doesn't take other expenses into account when it make decisions about student financial aid, like rent or the cost of books.

"I don't think they are thinking. They are just, like, 'Let's save money and we're going to cut people off here.'"  

He said he understands the government is trying to reduce debt, but educating people and keeping them in the province will help the economy in the long run.

"I don't know where my future in school leads, which is so sad to say that."

Grogan also benefits from the program but is graduating in May. If she had another year left, she'd have to come up with an additional $2,000 over the summer, she said.

Caitlin Grogan of the UNB Saint John student representative council, says a lot of students there are the first in their families to go beyond high school. (UNBSRC website)

She said the tax credit doesn't replace what was taken, despite the provincial governments assurances that it will make up for the amount lost in the bursary in most cases.

"Tax credits don't help students get through the door," Grogan said.

She also said announcing these changes during exam time puts students at a disadvantage, because they are either too busy to pay attention to the changes or so stressed about them their other responsibilities suffer.

"To them it doesn't matter what they get on their exams now because they are not able to come back."

About the Author

Angela Bosse

Reporter

Angela Bosse is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick.

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