Access to post-secondary institutions results in a more educated and healthy population. It can lead to lower costs for the healthcare and prison systems. The provincial government is stuck in the mindset of what is best to do short-term, for economic reasons, rather than what’s best for the long-term well-being of the population.
Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) has been the most accessible university in Canada for many years, with a history of making access a priority due to its affordable tuition rates. But in recent years, the provincial government cut over $30 million in funding for MUN’s operating budget. As the administration does not want to give up their big salaries and the perks they feel entitled to, their immediate solution has been to increase revenue via student fee hikes.
Tuition for Newfoundland and Labrador students was frozen for a long time. However, in 2017, the administration implemented new fees, including the Student Services Fee ($50) and the Campus Renewal Fee ($50 per three-credit course up to a maximum of $250). The mandate of MUN to educate the people of the province was lost. We have moved backwards.
In 2019, the administration proposed a model of tuition that they referred to as a “progressive” model, where tuition will be raised for everyone, but there will be grants for students who cannot afford it. Essentially, it seemed to be the idea of taking money away from the more well-off students and giving it to less-advantaged students. It is not the university’s role to redistribute wealth in society. The main issue with their proposed model is deciding who qualifies for grants and who does not. There are already several cases where students do not qualify for student aid because their parents’ income threshold is too high. Therefore, they have to find other methods to obtain the money needed, such as working long hours. Some even opt not to attend university. Many students at MUN use the food bank because they are in so much debt due to tuition that they cannot afford to put food on the table.
On July 9th, 2021, in addition to the newly implemented fees, new president Vianne Timmons announced that the university will more than double tuition for new NL students who enroll in Fall 2022 from $2,500 per year to $6,000 a year. Current students will pay tuition at the current rate but with a four percent annual increase from Fall 2022 to 2025 until 2026, when it will be adjusted to the new level. This is despite Vianne’s promise to current students on May 3rd, 2021, that tuition will remain unchanged; she stated, “There will be no student who is presently enrolled in Memorial that will be compromised.” Vianne lied!
As a result of MUN’s decision to increase tuition, the government ended the 21-year tuition freeze by cutting the $68 million grant they provided the university with to cover the tuition freeze. Instead, they expanded the province’s grants and loans program, which will cost them significantly less at around $18 million annually.
The value of an undergraduate degree is now equivalent to what a high school degree used to be. Research by several sources states that over 70 percent of jobs now require some form of post-secondary education, with that number steadily increasing. Without the education necessary, people are stuck with low-paying, insecure employment, some even without sufficient wages to cover living expenses.
The idea of decreasing fees at MUN for the students of this province, even perhaps to the point of elimination, is not a radical idea and has existed in the past. In March of 1965, then Premier Joey Smallwood announced free tuition for those in the province. However, there were flaws in Premier Smallwood’s proposed plan.
Commentator Rex Murphy, who was involved with the student council at the time, gave a speech about the concerns that students had regarding the plan, which only included first-year students. According to The Gazette, “Mr. Murphy’s speech received much media attention, and Mr. Smallwood was asked to comment on the matter. Amongst cutting words for Mr. Murphy, he appeared to make a shift in policy, announcing that free tuition for second-year students was in the works. By October, the premier had established a plan which granted free tuition to all Newfoundlanders; students were even offered ‘living salaries’ which ranged between $50 and $100.”
An article in The Muse titled “JOEY’S DREAM – FREE TUITION” states that, on Tuesday, October 5th, 1965, Premier Smallwood announced his plan for free tuition in MUN’s gymnasium that was filled to capacity with students and faculty. It was also broadcasted to overflow areas, including the Little Theatre and Dining Hall. Premier Smallwood received a standing ovation and cheers.
Free post-secondary education is not a new idea nationally either; World War II veterans were given free tuition after the war years. Most places with free post-secondary education have done so through a federal initiative, like Sweden and Norway.
The federal government should be contributing more to education costs, and it needs to be a priority. Canada needs to introduce a more progressive tax system of income tax by putting an end to offshore tax havens, closing tax loopholes, and increasing taxation on the rich. Public services in Canada are in desperate need of funding, and everybody should be paying their fair share. While tuition costs are only one barrier, it is an important place to start.
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.