On October 18th, 2021, Education Critic Barry Petten questioned the Minister of Education Tom Osborne on the massive tuition hikes and misspending at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN).
Petten stated, “our students rallied outside our building protesting government cuts to Memorial University of Newfoundland that will see massive increases in the tuition that many fear will force students to take crippling debt loads while living in poverty during their studies.” Petten asked Minister Osborne, “Why is government turning their back on students and allowing tuition to more than double?”
Osborne responded that “Memorial University came to the province back in April last year looking to double tuition in the province. At that particular point, we looked at the funding that we provided to freeze tuitions and felt it would be better to direct that directly to students. We put in place a new grant program, expanded the loan forgiveness program to help the families and the students of middle- and lower-income families of this province.”
Petten then said that MUN stated they had no choice but to drastically raise tuition due to the projected $70 million further cut from government over the next five years. He said that MUN also stated that they expect a 20 percent decline in enrollment when the massive tuition increases take effect. Petten asked, “how does throwing away the competitive advantage and tanking university enrollment help students of Newfoundland and Labrador?”
Osborne responded, “I can only speak the truth, and the truth is that we were approached by Memorial University a number of months ago… with a proposal to double tuition while the tuition freeze was still in place. We looked at that as I said and felt that if the Board of Regents and the university wish to increase tuition at the university, the tuition freeze funding was exactly for that purpose to freeze tuitions. If tuitions were not going to be frozen, the money could be better utilized in the forms of grants to ensure that middle- and lower-income families were not adversely affected.
Petten then stated, “So the Minister is basically passing the buck back at MUN.” Petten said that he disagrees that it has nothing to do with the government’s actions. Petten noted that he was in favour of the tuition freeze remaining in place as it was a much better process than tuition fees tripling.
Furthermore, Petten stated that an access-to-information request that they obtained reveals that the new President of MUN, Vianne Timmons, spent $55,000 on renovations on her office before moving in.
Petten also brought up the new master plan that MUN is embarking on, which includes a skating loop for the St. John’s Campus. Petten said that when he asked the Minister in the last session, the Minister said he did not know about the president’s lucrative $450,000 contract plus benefits, including personal fitness and tax preparation. Petten asked, “Does the Minister agree with the skating loop with tuition set to more than double?”
Osborne responded that the government not knowing was “precisely the reason that government are looking at modification to the Memorial University Act. We did say that we would provide additional autonomy to the university, but that comes hand in hand with additional accountability. We are looking at giving greater access to the Auditor General, which is not currently the case until section 38 of the Auditor General Act. We are looking at having Memorial appear before the estimates committee of the House of Assembly. That currently does not happen. We are looking at other measures to ensure accountability for the taxpayers’ money that goes into Memorial University.
Petten then asked why they did not change the Act months ago. He said that it keeps getting pushed down the road as the government does with everything else. Petten stated that he was on record of asking for the Act to be reviewed and that his party was all in favour and supported it. Petten then brought up the university’s estimated $5 million infrastructure deferred maintenance deficit, numerous reports of leaky roofs and lab safety issues. Petten concluded by asking, “Why does the Minister believe these office renovations are a higher priority? Why wasn’t this Act reviewed quicker than what’s been done?”
Osborne asked which way the wind was blowing and said that in the last session of the House of Assembly, Petten stated that a review should not be rushed.
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.