Emily Patterson is just finishing up her second year at St. Thomas University, another step in her path toward pursuing a teaching career.
Yet what should be a happy, carefree time heading into summer is instead being shadowed by uncertainty after hearing the news last week of changes to New Brunswick’s free tuition program.
“Honestly, I was kind of devastated when I heard the news,” said Patterson. “It makes all of my future plans uncertain.”
The Sackville student points out that the free tuition program helped make university a possibility for her.
“In a world where one needs a degree or an education to get a job that could actually support them financially, these changes are a huge mistake,” she said.
The Blaine Higgs government announced a new program last Tuesday which will replace both the free tuition and tuition relief for the middle class programs introduced by the Liberals in 2016 and 2017.
The government has said the changes will provide more students access to financial aid and will level the playing field by extending the previous programs to include students attending private institutions.
Critics of the change, however, say it just stretches the same amount of program funding thinner because there’s no new money coming into the program. This means, depending on the student's income and tuition costs, many students will get less than they previously would under the programs. Also among the changes is the elimination of the timely completion benefit.
Memramcook-Tantramar MLA Megan Mitton said the changes certainly raise concerns about how some low-income students who relied on the free tuition program will handle the increased financial strain. She said it will make it challenging for some students to return to finish their studies in the fall.
“At the very minimum, the students who are already enrolled and part way through their programs need to be grandfathered in for the timely completion benefit and the free tuition program in order to allow them to continue in their studies.
Mitton said eliminating the timely completion benefit means that there is no debt relief program left for New Brunswick students and feels it is cruel to make this change right before graduation.
“In the name of addressing the provincial debt for our youth, the government is shifting the debt and saddling individual students with more debt in a province that historically has the highest student debt in the country.
Mitton said the province needs to be making post-secondary education more accessible and affordable, not less.
“I think these decisions are a step in the wrong direction,” she said.
Mitton said Mount Allison students will feel the pinch the most. A student with a family income under $60,000 who was going to have their tuition covered in the fall of 2019 will now need to pay $2,025 that they hadn’t budgeted for and $8,100 more than anticipated for a full program. She said she has already heard from students who will not be able to continue their studies.
Patterson said according to the student union at St. Thomas, 65 per cent of STU students relied on the free tuition program and tuition relief for the middle class. So making changes to them puts countless students in a real financial crisis.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to continue my degree or where this money will come from. I can’t put that financial burden on my parents, they certainly have enough on their plate as it is,” said Patterson. “Thinking of all of this makes me feel sick to my stomach with worry and fear for the future.”
Patterson, currently working on a bachelor of arts with a double major in English and Spanish and a minor in sociology, hopes to follow up her first degree with a bachelor of education. But now, without even knowing if she can afford to finish her first one, a second one is a huge uncertainty.
“Which is so stressful and heartbreaking for me because I’ve dreamed of being a teacher since I started kindergarten. Removing this program is putting my lifelong dream on the line.”
The New Brunswick Student Alliance (NBSA) agrees the changes the government made are not what students need.
“The regressive changes made to these programs are going to have a devastating impact on New Brunswick's most vulnerable and marginalized students,” said Emma Miller, president of Mount Allison Students' Union and vice-chair of the NBSA.
“Not only this, but students who have commenced their programs anticipating the continuation of these tuition benefits for the remainder of their degrees, are going to experience significant financial challenges moving forward.”