New Brunswick

Students launch complaint against province over bursary program

Three students have filed notice they intend to sue the New Brunswick government over its Tuition Access Bursary program, which they say violates the rights of students at private colleges and universities, who aren't eligible for help.

3 students from post-secondary private schools allege conditions of bursary program are unconstitutional

Mike Murphy, a lawyer with Forté Law, says the Tuition Access Bursary program violates the rights of students who attend private colleges and universities in New Brunswick. (CBC)

Three students have filed notice they intend to sue the New Brunswick government over its Tuition Access Bursary program, which they say violates the rights of students at private colleges and universities, who aren't eligible for help.

Two of the students attend Oulton College in Moncton, which tailors academic programs to the job market, and the third student attends Crandall University, a Christian Liberal arts school in Moncton.

"The only way to deal with government when it has bad policy is simply to negotiate when the political gun is at their temple," said Moncton lawyer Michael Murphy of Forté Law, the lawyer for the students.

The notice was filed under the Proceedings Against the Crown Act, serving to inform the government of an impending suit.

The government's website says the bursary program was created through the education and new economy fund to increase affordability and access for New Brunswick students to public post-secondary institutions in the province.

Students from families with a gross income of $60,000 or less are eligible for up to $10,000 a year under the program.

Bursary program flawed

Each of the three students planning to sue would be eligible for the program except that they attend a private university or college, which makes the government program flawed, said Murphy.

"The overall design of the program is very sloppy," he said. "It's built on a political framework and not a good policy framework for education or for keeping young people in New Brunswick."

The notice, filed specifically against the attorney general and minister of post-secondary education, training and labour,  highlights exclusions from the Tuition Access Bursary program that allegedly go against the rights of students.

Erika Jutras, spokeswoman for the Department of Post-secondary Education, Training and Labour, said the minister is not able to comment on the issue, given pending legal proceedings.  

Notice points to exclusions

Murphy said the Tuition Access Bursary program, sometimes known as TAB, violates Charter of Rights protection against discrimination on the basis of age, parental status, and social conditions. 

The only way to deal with government when it has bad policy is simply to negotiate when the political gun is at their temple.- Michael Murphy

"To exclude private universities and colleges is to exclude a group of young New Brunswickers who have no choice but to attend a private institution …because the program's not available through the public sector and also, they cannot afford the longer duration of the public university or college," Murphy said in an interview.

Murphy said he has given the government every opportunity to respond and work through the legal matter.

After a notice was sent to Premier Brian Gallant last fall, the government promised a response by the end of November, and it never came, Murphy said.

"I know full well that government, this one, the past one and all governments, will talk you over the cliff," he said. "They will talk to you to the point of no return until you're out of time for this year and then they'll talk you through the next year."

Murphy said this latest notice is the next logical step in the pursuit of equality for all post-secondary students in New Brunswick when it comes to the Tuition Access Bursary program.

The application for a hearing will be filed in March, 60 days from the date that the notice was filed.

"There's a lot of people around this province that want to attend private universities and colleges because of their timelines, and we want to make sure they have an opportunity for this forthcoming year."

Association backs students 

The students' allegations about the provincial program have not been tested in court.

The New Brunswick Association of Private Colleges and Universities will support the three students however it can.

"As an association, it is our role to stand behind the students who attend private colleges and universities in our province–and that's what we're doing here," Dale Ritchie, president of the association, said in a statement. 

"We made it clear from the beginning that we were willing to negotiate and work with the province — but that hasn't happened. Sooner or later, someone has to take action — and these students stepped up to the plate."

Earlier this month, the association officially filed a complaint against the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour with the Office of the Access to Information and Privacy Commissioner.

The complaint alleged a failure to comply with a request for information on the Tuition Access Bursary program under right to information legislation.

Since May 2016, the association has been advocating their students be fully included in the bursary program.

"It's all in the hands of Brian Gallant," said Murphy. "He's the fellow who makes the decisions."

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