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Questions remain over Rutherford Scholarship delay last August

Why did Alberta government delay accepting applications for Rutherford Scholarship?
WATCH: There are still questions over why exactly applications for the Rutherford Scholarship - popular for Alberta post-secondary students - were delayed last summer. The government says it was a technical error; the Opposition says there's more to the story. Tom Vernon reports.

For first year post-secondary students in Alberta, applying for the Rutherford Scholarship — worth up to $2,500 — is almost a no-brainer. In 2018, 19,024 students received the award, totaling more than $39 million.

Applications typically open Aug. 1, but last summer that did not happen. Instead, the website told students they must wait until late fall.

READ MORE: Rutherford Scholarship applications on hold, Alberta students left with financial uncertainty

Internal documents, obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request, show the government was flooded with complaints from students and parents banking on the award, and a flurry of emails within the department as officials attempted to determine what happened, and to fulfill a request by Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides to get the scholarship online.

“Hi Rod, can you send me a copy of the briefing note on scholarships? Was it always planned that the scholarships would open late fall as part of the new system?” Nicolaides wrote in an email to Rod Skura, the deputy minister of Advanced Education, on Aug. 5.

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“Also wondering when Rutherford can be opened,” he followed up in another email.

The scholarship went live a day later, allowing students to file their applications.

READ MORE: Alberta’s advanced education minister says Rutherford Scholarship now accepting applications

Two days later, Assistant Deputy Minister Andy Weiler composed a “what happened” email as the department worked to put together a briefing note for the minister.

Department staff has pushed back the application date to late fall because the implementation of a new IT system was falling behind schedule.

“In May, June, July, IMT resources were impacted by contracts not being renewed or resources were diverted from this project to other government priorities,” the note read.

“Plan was developed to not post any scholarship applications on Aug. 1, including Rutherford, and communicate publicly that work was occurring on an IT system.”

Nicolaides wasn’t made available for an interview, but in a statement, his press secretary said the minister immediately took action when he learned of the delay.

READ MORE: Universities over-budget; need to freeze travel, hiring, hosting: Alberta government

The NDP says a text message released in the documents tells a completely different story.

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“Albertans deserve better than cuts, lies and cover ups,” said Sarah Hoffman, the NDP’s advanced education critic.

The text message exchange was between Nicolaides and his chief of staff Jesse Robertson.

“Good morning, quick question, who did you speak to in premier’s office who said not to open scholarships?” Nicolaides asked.

“Mitch Gray in finance. Because it’s part of the budget, we can’t release it yet,” was the response.

“It’s in black and white, there was a decision made in the finance minister’s office, or the premier’s office, to delay this,” said Hoffman.

“They should own that and stop lying to Alberta students.”

The UCP government rejects these claims.

“To be clear, the delay was never related to budget,” wrote Laurie Chandler.

“Rutherford is paid out of the Heritage Trust Fund, not general revenue.”

WATCH BELOW (May 3, 2018): Millions of dollars in scholarships are up for grabs, but many Canadian students are missing out because they think they won’t make the grade. Laurel Gregory reports.

Canadian students missing out on millions in unclaimed scholarships
Canadian students missing out on millions in unclaimed scholarships