In the labyrinth of government finances, understanding how budgets impact us as students can feel like putting together a 3D puzzle. Let's delve into the intricacies of the 2024 provincial budget and its implications.

Skip to our summary at the end for the highlights. 

Let's start with the glimmers of hope: the continuation of the 2% tuition cap offers a sliver of financial relief, albeit modest and restricted to domestic students. While this provides some stability, there are omissions in the budget that demand attention.

One of the key missed opportunities lies in the budget's failure to address the persistent challenges posed by inflation and previous funding cuts. As enrollment numbers climb, so do the pressures on the quality of education, mental health services, and financial aid. Despite the soaring costs of education and living expenses, government support remains meager and predominant in the form of loans.

“This budget overlooks the struggles we face with rising costs and doesn't do much to help us out,” says Chris Beasley, VP External of the University of Alberta Students’ Union. “Many of us are juggling tuition, groceries, and bills while feeling like we’re barely keeping our heads above water. And while the government has allocated some money for capital plan funding and seat expansion at other post-secondaries, it's not nearly enough to make up for what we really need, nor is it going to the right places to make an impact on students’ day to day. For every dollar of student loan debt that students can access, there’s now only five and a half cents of student financial aid available.”

The government's investment priorities seem glaringly clear: they're focused on areas that promise a direct return on investment, like student loans and capital funding. Meanwhile, crucial aspects including student financial aid, scholarships and awards, and targeted job opportunities for students remain neglected or stagnant. Mental health funding falls short of promised levels, raising concerns about accessibility as enrollment continues to climb. Scholarships and awards remain stagnant, failing to keep pace with escalating costs, leaving much to be desired in balancing financial aid with loans. This approach not only sidelines affordability and equity concerns but exacerbates the financial squeeze felt by students and institutions alike.
Here's a deeper dive into some key facts from the budget:

Mental Health Funding: The budget earmarks $10 million over three years for mental health professional spaces, starting with a $2 million investment in Budget 2024. However, this falls short of the promised $4 million per year that was cited in the Minister’s mandate letters, indicating a funding gap that could impact the accessibility of mental health services for students especially as enrolment grows and seats are expanded.

Student Aid: While the budget may boast an increase in scholarships and awards, that’s not what we’re seeing when we break it down by category. In reality, there are no new commitments allocated to scholarships. Other than the Heritage Fund (which provides financial support to students using profits generated from an investment portfolio), the government's funding commitments in the Scholarships and Awards category remain completely flat with 0% growth1. Meanwhile, the $69 million earmarked for needs-based student grants isn't just flat, it decreases by $100,000 despite increasing numbers of students. It fails to address the significant disparity between financial aid and loans, especially in comparison to our peer provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, who have a healthier balance between needs-based grants and loans. This has been a persistent and worsening issue for several years2.

Advanced Education: The cost of Advanced Education has “increased by $337 million”, mainly due to operating pressures at post-secondary institutions (PSIs) and higher costs for the Alberta Student Grant Program. Despite this increase, operating support for PSIs doesn’t appear to be keeping up with inflation, raising concerns about the long-term sustainability of educational funding.

Arts, Culture, and Status of Women: Another positive aspect of the budget is the allocation of $15.7 million annually over the next three years to fight sexual and gender-based violence, after significant advocacy from student leaders in Alberta on this file, totaling $47 million3

Focus on “Return On Investment” Categories: The significant increases in student loans and capital funding suggest the government is prioritizing investments where they can directly recoup funds. Student loans saw a notable increase of 17%, likely due to rising enrollment, indicating that the government is willing to finance education but only with the expectation of future repayment.

Neglect of Affordability and Equity: Operating support, crucial for maintaining quality and accessibility, has seen minimal growth. Heritage grants, funded from investment returns rather than new allocations, indicate a reluctance to commit additional resources. When considering affordability and equity, there's a noticeable stagnation or even a functional decrease considering inflation and enrollment growth. 

Overall Squeeze on Students and Institutions: In summary, the data suggests that students and post-secondary institutions are being squeezed financially. While investments with potential returns, like loans and capital funding, are prioritized, measures to address affordability, equity, and access seem to be on a flatline or even decreasing in real terms.

The absence of substantial investment in these critical areas underscores a missed opportunity to provide meaningful assistance to students facing financial hardship and other barriers to academic success.

But hey, we're not alone in this fight. Many student representatives across the province, including your UASU, are working for the benefit of students, pushing for better funding and support for students. So while the 2024 budget might not be what we hoped for, we're not giving up. We'll keep pushing for change and fighting for a better future for all students.

1 - Scholarships and Awards, 2023 Government Estimates (p. 23)
2 - The State of Postsecondary Education in Canada 2023, Higher Education Strategy Associates, Figure AB8, compared to Figures ON8, BC8, etc.
3 - Fiscal Plan A Responsible Plan for a Growing Province 2024-27 (p.85)

TLDR Summary:

  • The budget maintains the 2% tuition cap.
  • Missed opportunities include responses to inflation, previous cuts, and enrollment growth pressures, leaving students to face escalating education and living costs largely unsupported.
  • Investments mainly prioritize categories with a direct return on investment for the government, such as student loans and capital funding, while areas like student financial aid, scholarships and awards, Indigenous education, and student job opportunities remain stagnant or non-existent.
  • Operating support for post-secondary institutions and heritage grants show minimal increases, failing to keep pace with inflation and enrollment growth.
  • Affordability measures remain flat or even decrease, with concerns over an overreliance on loans rather than financial aid.