04/19/2015 09:00 EDT | Updated 07/08/2015 09:59 EDT

Nova Scotia tuition changes may be bold but not without consequences: expert

HALIFAX - Ariel Weiner was drawn to Nova Scotia for the first-year philosophy program at the University of King's College and because she wanted to live somewhere other than her home province of Ontario.

But the fourth-year classics and religious studies student said she might not make the same decision today after recent changes to Nova Scotia's tuition policies.

"I would definitely reconsider having come out to Nova Scotia," said Weiner, who moved to Halifax from Toronto in 2011.

"I just feel sorry for people that are entering their undergrad or are still in high school now."

Released last week as part of the province's budget, the policies include a one-time tuition increase at the universities' discretion and the deregulation of tuition for out-of-province and graduate students.

Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy firm in Ontario, is watching the changes with interest.

"It's always a brave decision for a government — and not necessarily a positive thing — to go to deregulation," he said. "It really does mean that they're not in control of the agenda. People will blame them for the outcomes, but they have no say in the outcomes."

At $6,440 a year, Nova Scotia already charges the third-highest average tuition fees in the country, after Ontario and Saskatchewan, says Statistics Canada.

One third of students come from outside the province, the highest rate in Canada, says the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. Another 16 per cent are international students.

Allister Surette, chairman of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, said schools understand the importance of out-of-province students. "No one is more concerned about that piece than universities," he said.

The government said the new policies are meant to narrow the tuition gap between different universities in the province, which has been widening since some were stuck charging a lower rate when a three per cent cap was put in place 10 years ago.

"It's an issue of fairness. It's an issue of balance," said Kelly Regan, Nova Scotia's minister of advanced education. She anticipates most students won't be affected by the adjustment, and said those affected will only experience increases of around $500 in their tuition.

Usher thinks the raise could even benefit students, based on the increased enrolment universities experienced in British Columbia after the deregulation of their fees in 2002.

"The institutions are going to be adding value to some of the programs," he said. "That's a good thing."

Surette, who is also the rector of Universite Saint-Anne in Church Point, N.S., said another reason for the change in tuition policy is to allow Nova Scotia schools to keep up with today's national and global market.

"It allows us some flexibility," he said. "We're all working in a highly competitive market now."

Regan said the market is what will keep universities from raising their tuition fees too high.

"Students are savvy shoppers," she said. "Universities have to be careful not to price themselves out."

While Usher agrees the market will keep prices down to a certain extent, he said the one-time increase might be bigger than the government bargained for.

"By making it a one-year process, in some ways they're encouraging institutions to go high quickly. I don't think they mean to do that," he said.

Usher suspects universities might raise tuition fees higher than they would otherwise, knowing they can lower them later if need be.

"It's not like gas stations," Usher said. "In institutions, you only get the chance to change prices once."

The most important thing is for universities to be transparent about where the money will be going, he said.

"There is uncertainty here for a lot of people, and uncertainty is scary," he said. "The faster that institutions can give some certainty to people about what deregulation's going to mean, the easier this is going to go."

As for Weiner, she's glad she's graduating this year.

"I'm very relieved at this point to be getting out of Nova Scotia, given what I see coming down the pipe in terms of tuition hikes in the next few years," she said. "It seems like it'll limit options for everyone else."

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