04/18/2013 01:38 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Post-Secondary Tuition Freeze Announced For 2013-2014

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EDMONTON - Alberta students will not only avoid paying more tuition next year, they will also not pay a mandated two per cent increase tied to inflation, Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk announced Thursday.

Lukaszuk, who is also deputy premier, said the province will provide the $16.5 million to post-secondary institutions instead.

He said the government didn't want students taking the brunt of seven per cent cuts announced in last month's budget to the operating funds for universities, colleges and technical schools.

"That will make education more accessible for our students, particularly from low-income families," Lukaszuk, accompanied by Premier Alison Redford, said at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton.

Redford's government has come under fire for cutting operating grants to the province's 26 post-secondary schools by $147 million. Lukaszuk is also getting pushback on a plan to harmonize clerical and educational programs to reduce duplication and save money.

He conceded he doesn't have the power to stop schools from making up any shortfall by increasing fees to students, but said he hopes that doesn't happen.

"We can only regulate tuition and inflationary cost of tuition," said Lukaszuk. "Non-curricular fees for things like sports activities and other additional services that may be offered to students at students' choice are not regulated by the government of Alberta.

"Those are fees levied by schools."

Schools and political opponents say the government's cuts are too deep and are coming too quickly without a good plan.

Doug Short, president of the NAIT faculty association, interrupted Thursday's news conference to invite Lukaszuk to sit in on a meeting to discuss staff cuts that could result from the funding reduction.

Lukaszuk declined. "I'm sure I will be briefed on the outcome," he said.

Short is also president of the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association.

He said afterward that NAIT is looking at losing 35 faculty jobs and having to cope with more students in classrooms and labs.

Short suggested that while the funding cut is a done deal, there is enough bloat in management ranks and in Lukaszuk's department to avoid forcing teachers and students to pay the price.

"There has to be a restructuring on the administrative side of our institution and also in the ministry as well. The bureaucracy and the hurdles that we have to go through in terms of programming has grown exponentially.

"That takes resources away from our classrooms, our shops and our labs."

NDP critic Rachel Notley said the $16.5 million the government is providing is a trifling amount compared with the $147 million being cut. Students can't help but suffer, she said.

"Today is really just a bait and switch non-announcement." Notley said.

"We still have the $147 million in cuts, and we still have students paying for it both in terms of immediate dollars and cents through the non-instructional fees, as well as through a reduction in quality and a reduction in access."

Liberal critic Kent Hehr said it's shortsighted to freeze tuition while entire programs are being axed to meet the $147 million in cuts.

"Given that the premier’s press release today said they will not be balancing the books on the backs of students, isn’t that akin to my grandma telling me not to take a leak on her shoes and tell her it’s raining?" Hehr asked the house in question period.

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