Minister pressed on why credit checks are necessary for 'free tuition'

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New Brunswick's minister of post-secondary education, training and labour has asked staff to track the number of students turned down for a tuition access bursary because of bad credit.

Students over the age of 22 must submit to a credit check before qualifying for the "free tuition" program, also known as TAB.

Don Arseneault, the minister, was asked about the requirement Thursday as a legislature committee studied his department's budget estimates.

"We have to be careful not to make a big policy change just like that," Arseneault told Progressive Conservative MLA Madeleine Dubé. 

The credit checks are a long-standing requirement of federal and provincial bursaries, according to Arseneault.

"These are not new rules."

Bursary, not a loan

Dubé asked Arseneault several times during the committee meeting to explain the need for a credit check when students are attempting to get a bursary, not a loan.

"Why do we need a credit check for free money that they will give?" she asked.

"For those more mature students, when they heard about the TAB program and free tuition, they thought 'Oh my God, this is my time, I can turn my life around.'"

The issue has also been brought up by the New Brunswick Student Alliance in meetings with Arseneault.

Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour staff will begin to measure the number of students turned away, but the organization representing students in New Brunswick would like to see more action, rather than measurement.

"We know there's a barrier," said executive director Robert Burroughs. "We know we can knock down this barrier, and I'm really unsure as to why we aren't putting our efforts into that.

"You can't continue to say that this is an accessibility program and a free tuition program and market it that way if there are barriers for certain students who would disproportionately try to access this program." 

In the first year of the program, 5,100 students received a tuition access bursary.

A rejection can be challenged

Last April, when the program was announced, the government estimated 7,100 students would be able to "immediately benefit" from the program.

But Arseneault said Thursday that "it will take two to three years" for New Brunswickers to fully benefit, and that students who were denied a bursary this year may be able to reverse the decision.

"Just because you got told you failed your credit check doesn't mean it just stops there," he said. "If we can sit down with you and you can elaborate and explain why you're in that situation, and if it's all legitimate, there's opportunities for that decision to be reversed."