A lack of federal funding means that up to 2,000 First Nations people in Saskatchewan who want to attend a college or university are being denied access, according to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
Speaking at public hearings on post-secondary education organized in Regina last month by CAUT, Danette Starr-Spaeth, interim executive director of the federation's education and training secretariat, said the Post-Secondary Student Support Program funded by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs provides only limited funding for First Nations students.
"We are in desperate need for additional resources for post-secondary education. The increases per year are too small and don't reflect the growth in demand. Last year, there was zero increase in the funding level. Student loans are problematic for First Nations people and we are reluctant to promote them," she said.
Starr-Spaeth also emphasized that tuition increases, particularly for professional programs, have put further stress on the already limited amount of funds available for First Nations students.
"The funding formula used for the student support program does not accommodate high cost programs," she said.
Student representatives who attended the hearing described the enormous financial burden they are being forced to carry, a burden that is turning some young people away from universities and colleges.
"Somebody asked me recently if we were approaching the point where someone who is academically qualified to attend university can't because of the costs. I told them straight out that we are already past that point and things have to change," said Derek Burt of the University of Regina Students' Union.
Sam Sankaran, chair of the University of Regina Faculty Association, agreed that accessibility is at risk.
"Inadequate public funding means only those who can afford the higher fees have access to an education," he said.
He added that low levels of public funding have also pushed many universities to reduce the number of full-time faculty members and rely more on contract academic staff.
"How many people know that at the University of Regina almost 25 per cent of undergraduate courses are taught by sessionals?" he asked. "These people are paid just $4,000 per course. They have to teach large classes, they have to prepare lessons, mark assignments, and be available for students and yet they have no access to the benefits that the general workforce takes for granted."
Sel Murray, manager of international program services at the University of Regina, accused some university administrators of looking for "quick fixes" in dealing with the shortfall in public funding and said their actions are resulting in a "backlash" against access to post-secondary education for the disadvantaged.
"There is a lack of representation on our governing bodies. This leads to considerations being made primarily from the point of view of those who are represented and seated around the table," Murray argued. "The result is a post-secondary system that is seriously limiting and rolling back access, that sees the disadvantaged subsidizing the privileged."
He also criticized the "internationalization" agenda now being promoted by many universities eager to recruit foreign students who pay higher tuition fees.
"The problem is we market our institutions not in an international context with the aim of adding variety to our institutions, but we market where we can find money and charge the highest fees the market can bear," he explained.
"What I've observed on our campus over the past number of years is a change in the population among international students. Where we've had international students in the past from a broad spectrum of a country, we now find international students as being the privileged and the wealthy."