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Manitoba should still have among lowest tuition fees in Canada: commission

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WINNIPEG - Manitoba should strive to maintain lower-than-average post-secondary education fees and have the best student assistance in Canada as the province slowly lifts a tuition freeze, a commission recommended Thursday.

The commission, which looked at how a gradual increase in tuition will affect accessibility to education, concluded students should help pay for their post-secondary studies, but fee increases should be modest.

The province's NDP government froze tuition for almost a decade before lifting the ban last year in response to universities who said they needed the cash. Starting in the fall, tuition could rise by $150 for most full-time university students and by about $120 for full-time college students.

The government established the commission last summer to make recommendations on how to keep post-secondary education accessible while thawing the tuition freeze.

Commissioner Ben Levin said Manitoba should set its sights well above the national average when it comes to participation rates, tuition and student assistance.

"Improving the situation is urgent," Levin said in his report. "Manitoba needs more post-secondary graduates, a change that will require government action."

The province should be less focused on reducing tuition and concentrate more on ensuring students who need help get it, he said.

"Students ought to pay a share of the cost of their post-secondary education. The main reason is that individuals reap large benefits from this education. There is no justification for this personal benefit to be subsidized completely given the many other pressures on public expenditure."

About 60 per cent of Manitoba students don't have to borrow money to pay for their education, the report added. Most students who do borrow are able to repay their debts, it concluded.

Although Manitoba's tuition rates are among the lowest in Canada, Levin said "large and sudden increases" are not the way to go. Any increases should be offset by improvements in student aid, he said.

"Tuition fees can be increased gradually but should remain below the Canadian average. Manitoba's system of student financial assistance should be the best in Canada, with a particular focus on limiting maximum debt levels and preventing catastrophic situations."

While tuition slowly starts to rise, the government must also set participation targets that are above the national average, Levin said. It should help aspiring students overcome barriers such as housing and child care while making a special effort to reach out to aboriginals.

All told, the recommendations could cost the government $25 million a year. A provincial spokesman said Advanced Education Minister Diane McGifford will be responding to the report in the next few days.

The report was met by dismay from student organizations which had hoped it would denounce a tuition increase. The Canadian Federation of Students said other provinces such as Newfoundland, Quebec and New Brunswick are looking at tuition freezes.

David Jacks, Manitoba chairman of the student federation, said bolstering student aid is welcome, but will be of little use if tuition is allowed to increase.

"Allowing tuition fees to rise directly undermines the value of these new programs," he said in a statement.

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