Constant tuition hikes and declining government funding are squeezing Saskatchewan's post-secondary students, forcing many to work multiple jobs just to cover their bills, according to the University of Regina Students' Union.
The students' union recently commissioned the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to compile a report on the state of Saskatchewan's post-secondary education system, in conjunction with its "Fund the Future" campaign, which calls for increased funding, lower tuition fees and other post-secondary student support.
The student advocacy organization is concerned about what it says is decades of declining government funding and constant tuition hikes.
"It is literally becoming a crisis," URSU vice-president of external affairs Oghenerukevwe Erifeta told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.
The CCPA report noted that Saskatchewan's undergraduate tuition fees are higher than the national average.
According to Statistics Canada data, Saskatchewan has the second-highest tuition rates for an undergraduate degree in Canada — $9,232 for the 2023-24 academic year, compared to the Canadian average of $7,076.
The only province with higher university tuition rates was Nova Scotia, at $9,575 for the 2023-24 academic year, according to the Statistics Canada data, which was released last week.
Tuition in Saskatchewan has risen by 18 per cent since the 2019-20 school year, according to the Statistics Canada data, while the Canadian average rose by nine per cent over the same period.
In response to that data, the provincial NDP accused the Saskatchewan Party government last week of "hiking tuition while forcing institutions to make cuts to their staffing and programming."
High tuition rates are creating a brain drain, Erifeta said, with some graduating post-secondary students moving out of province to earn higher wages and pay off debt.
"We're talking about our future medical health professionals, our future businessmen, our future traders, our future mechanics," she said.
As well, many international students are returning to their home countries because they can no longer afford tuition in Saskatchewan, said Erifeta.
"If we keep sending students out of the four walls of school, we're jeopardizing the future of our province."
Mohammad Ali Aumeer, URSU's director of advocacy and campaigns, said he sees many students working multiple jobs to cover their tuition and bills, and also fears high costs will drive them elsewhere.
"If students only experience working multiple jobs and study as hard as you can and [do] not have supports … upon graduation, why not take a shot at Calgary, why not take a shot at somewhere outside of Saskatchewan?"
In addition to the tuition hikes, Aumeer said the quality of education and student life has suffered as funding has tightened.
"Non-academic spending on salaries is increasing and academic spending on salaries is decreasing" he said.
"The priorities just don't seem to be there, and it's impacting students on the ground with the quality experience they get in the classroom, but also on campus outside the classroom."
Minister defends government spending, limiting tuition increases
In an interview with CBC on Wednesday, Minister of Advanced Education Gordon Wyant defended the province's record on funding post-secondary education and support for students.
Wyant said the ministry received the student union's report Tuesday afternoon and was still examining the data.
"I was quite pleased really when it came to some of the things that that the report spoke to. Saskatchewan receives a greater proportion of funding from the provincial government, I think we're third in the country behind Quebec and Newfoundland."
Wyant said the government increased student supports by $9 million in the latest budget.
He said the report also shows Saskatchewan, "has been consistently higher than the national average when it comes to pre-student provincial funding expenses."
The province is entering its final year of a four-year funding agreement with post-secondary institutions. Wyant said talks regarding a future deal are ongoing, but said a four per cent cap on tuition in the current deal is among his priorities in a new agreement.
"From my perspective, I'll be insisting that the tuition cap continues to be a key part of that going forward. But I do want to point out that over the last number of years, we provided a significant amount of support for students."
Wyant said there have been $112 million in student support, student loans, bursaries and grants, and $47 million in tuition support."
Wyant said the government's graduate retention program is one-of-a-kind in Canada and helps students cover costs of tuition up to $20,000 if they live in the province and file a Saskatchewan income tax return.
"The students need to understand, and I think they do, that tuition is part of the investment that they make in their future. Being able to graduate from university, go into the workforce and become a contributing member of the economy through that employment, I think it's pretty important," he said.
"I think students need to be reminded of the fact that there is a job waiting for them when they graduate."