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Trent Wotherspoon in the rotunda at the Legislature on budget day.

Saskatchewan universities and students will take a financial hit this coming year according to the provincial government’s newly released budget.

Base operational funding for all post-secondary institutions will decrease by five per cent, totalling a cut of $30.1 million. Overall spending by the ministry of advanced education will be cut by six per cent or $40 million.

The five per cent decrease is across the board for universities, technical and regional colleges.

“There was no differentiation between regional colleges, the polytechnic and our two post-secondary. It’s just a reaction to the difficult challenging times that we find ourselves in,” said Bronwyn Eyre, minister for Advanced Education.

While the general assumption is that cutback means tuition increases, Eyre says it’s up to the universities to make those decisions.

“We remain, when you look at first-year arts and science, in the lower half to lower third (of tuition rates) across the country. So we’ve maintained that and I hope it is maintained, but I think that there may be some move in that regard but that will have to be up to the universities,” Eyre said.

Eyre cited the government’s $8.3 billion investment over the past decade as sign of the government’s commitment to post-secondary education, as well as the current $649 million set aside for the upcoming year.

But that commitment doesn’t erase the fact that universities and their affiliated colleges will receive a total of $24 million less than what was forecasted for last year’s budget, while the loss for technical colleges rounds out at $6 million.

“That was a shock to us,” said Vianne Timmons, president of the University of Regina. “We knew we would have a reduction, but that is an enormous reduction considering we’re a growing institution.”

Timmons said it will be a tough fiscal year, especially with growing enrollment. As for what will happen, cuts to staff, teacher and professor positions, programs and increases to tuition are all on the table.

“We will definitely lose positions,” she said.

“Our goal and our principle is … (that) service to students will have as little impact as possible but with this budget, I think it will be felt deeply in our campus by all,” Timmons said.

In 2015-2016, the U of R received $111 million for delivery and development of post-secondary education. The U of S received $329 million. An estimated five per cent decrease in operation funding would mean a $5.5 million cut for the U of R and $16.5 million for the U of S.

U of S president Peter Stoicheff said budget reductions weren't unexpected but that the cut is worst in the university’s history.

“That budget will not define us,” he said. “We will not allow this to change who we are.”

Stoicheff said the last thing the university will look at are terminations and increases to tuition. "We are going to look at all our options,” he said.

“We will work extremely hard, and I hope (students) know that I’m genuine in this, in minimizing any impact on students,” Stoicheff said.

Len Findlay, chair of the U of S Faculty Association, said the government has put unfair pressure on universities. “They’ve shifted responsibility from themselves onto institutions absolutely invaluable in the renewal of the provincial economy,” he said.

Findlay said the operational decrease will strain labour relations between faculty and administration, and will put pressure on unions to work in competition. As for students, he said tuition keeps rising, making affordable access to education harder and harder for students.

“Instability and cutbacks are the very worst things that can alter the course of the university from a positive one into self-doubt, into anxiety,” he said.

“It’s an unprecedented decrease. It’s going to be very damaging,” said Ryan Meili, Advanced Education critic for the NDP. “It’s damaging when a government’s talking about the importance of innovation. Where does innovation happen? Much of it happens on our campuses.”

But it’s not just administration that will feel the crunch. Students will feel financial pressure, too.

The personal income tax credit for post-secondary tuition and education expenses are being eliminated effective July 1, 2017 in order to save $28 million in revenue in 2017-2018.

“You get a family that’s probably going to have to pay higher tuition,” said Meili. “So that’s going to make it harder for young families to succeed in getting their young people to school. And it’s going to mean that people are saddled with higher levels of debt for longer.”

“I know what a five per-cent cut in operational grants means for students. It means an increase in tuition,” said Jermain McKenzie, president of the U of R Students' Union.

McKenzie says some students will not be able to afford another increase. He says the biggest consequence of that increase is the way it affects students’ mental health.

“Students are really hurting, they are really stressed out,” McKenzie said. He said an increasing number of students are accessing the student union’s emergency bursary fund and using mental health services at the university.

“I think it’s quite ironic that the minister is saying that…we need to be moving away from an overreliance on the natural resource sector but yet we are not investing in our human capital in the ways that we should,” McKenzie said.

Cuts in other ministries will affect students as well. The Ministry of Economy is eliminating Student Summer Works in 2018, a program that creates opportunities with students with disabilities and Indigenous students to enter the workforce.

All totalled, post-secondary education and student supports will face a forecasted decrease of $43.5 million for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.