Let's push for lower tuition rates

Nova Scotia should forget ridiculous economic development schemes and instead invest in young people

Nova Scotia has had no shortage of snake-oil get-rich-quick schemes. Consider the allegedly humungous natural gas deposits off our shores, which were supposed to turn us into Alberta East---the actual reserves are so puny that production will dry up in a few years. Some consultants made some dough, I guess. Otherwise, meh.

Or, for a lesson in cynicism, thumb through the provincial economic development loan portfolios and study all the companies that promised thousands of jobs in return for government assistance up front, only to go belly-up a couple of years down the road.

Then there were those who insisted that if we just bankrupted ourselves to host the Commonwealth Games, construction companies would have enough business to hire us all as framers and drywall hangers, or some such.

My favourite get-rich-quick scheme, however, was the notion that, in exchange for free provincial land and $45 million in federal funding, we'd get a spaceport in Cape Breton, and locals could soon zoom off to Jupiter to spend our new wealth in Europan casinos.

Funny how news coverage of the demise of these pie-in-the-sky schemes is a pale shadow compared to the hoopla that greeted them. It's almost as if, after the fact, we're embarrassed about our naivity.

As well we should be---we should know better. Wealth doesn't often drop down from space or percolate up from the bottom of the ocean; rather, it comes from hard work and careful management of resources over time.

And from our fisheries to our forests to our farmland, Nova Scotians have done a shitty job of managing resources. But our most neglected resource is our young people: we've failed them at every turn. As a result, some fall into drug addiction and crime, and many more find they have to flee the province in pursuit of a living wage and a purposeful life.

Successfully addressing those problems will take decades. But one thing we can do now is to make it possible for students to gain a post-secondary education without assuming enormous debt.

The economic return of an inexpensive college education is far more tangible than the return from spaceports or phantom gas wells or economic development ministers making insider deals. Debt-free graduating students become the educated workforce valued by businesses. They begin their own companies, generating new business. They bring an artistic and social vitality that is essential for a healthy economy.

Four years ago, the Progressive Conservative government promised that Nova Scotia's sky-high university tuition rates would match the national average by the 2010-11 school year. In reality that meant freezing tuition increases and hoping (!) that other provinces would increase their tuition rates. But even that cynical strategy hasn't panned out, so for the past couple of years the province has additionally given a "bursary" payment to universities on behalf of in-province residents. That payment is $1,022 this year.

Busary payments will help those students who fit a tight set of restrictions---the recipient must have been a non-student resident for the proceeding 12 months---but they don't match the reality of life as it is for the many of thousands of young people who may have left the province to find work to save up for a college education back home, or for those who drop in and out of school as finances permit. And bursaries miss out-of-province residents entirely; it's a mistake to lose out on the economic potential of those newcomers to the province.

The new NDP government plans to up the bursary a tad (to $1,283 next year) and is embarking on a tax rebate of up to $15,000 over six years for those graduates who make their home in Nova Scotia. But college education is by its very nature a guessing game---and those entering a post-secondary institution would be foolish to map out their educational expenses based on expected earnings to gain a future tax rebate.

The NDP needs to quit the accounting games and get to the core of the issue---the government should simply lower tuition rates to an affordable level. The investment would be good for our young people, and good for our economy.

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