Post-secondary education under threat in Canada

All out rally at MUN St. John's Campus (Emily Bonia/The Muse)

The tuition freeze has been a staple in the education of numerous Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and has survived partially on the advocacy of individuals involved in student organizing. Today presented another example of student organizers demanded on Memorial University and the Government to ensure that postsecondary education (PSE) is accessible to all people in Newfoundland and Labrador, and students across the country.

2016 has presented some difficulties however to this task, with a secret tuition framework committee having been set up right here at Memorial University of Newfoundland. As we reported back in September the tuition framework committee ATTIP revealed that not only were a select few members of the administration meeting in secret to discuss the issue of tuition hikes, but that the administration had been spending exuberant amounts on things like search committee’s for VP’s and other wining and dining costs not normally associated with running a university.

The secret committee worked to ensure a way to avoid the policy processes that the university to avoid having to get public student opinion and support on their models or frameworks. Though, the committee itself wasn’t even sure on what to call their own discussions and potential policy changes with committee head and university provost Noreen Golfman having said, “There are cumbersome processes to observe to develop policy and at this time we are looking for a more nimble response to fiscal realities.”

It should come as no surprise to students that an organization such as the Canadian Federation of Students – Newfoundland and Labrador (CFS-NL) and Memorial University Student’s Union (MUNSU), is fighting against this kind of administrative secrecy, bloated salaries and expenditure, and the threat of tuition fee increases that many graduate students at Memorial University had just absorbed in the 2016-2017 academic year.

“Our generation collectively owes over 28-billion dollars in public debt, we simply can’t afford to take that on any longer.” says Alex Noel, Chairperson of CFS-NL,

“It’s a very political crucial time for students to be taking action. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we’ve seen over the last number of years that after years of investments in PSE we’ve seen cuts from our most recent government [to post-secondary education]. It’s incumbent upon us now to stand up and take action collectively and raise our voices to defend our system of PSE before it’s too late.”

While many involved in the students union both provincially and nationally agree that PSE deserves more funding, some are sceptical about the abilities of provinces to take on the financial burden of fully funding PSE.
“Tuition fee’s are high across the country and that’s very unfortunate” says Brendon Dixon, Burton’s Pond Representative for MUNSU. “ I believe in free PSE, I think everybody should be able to get the education they deserve without barriers.”

“The point where I disagree with our involvement, and I understand we’re a part of the national branch with CFS, is that currently we don’t have the economic ability to fund education. There’s just no money.”

While Prime Minister Trudeau appointed himself the Minister of Youth, he has broken many promises to students concerned about PSE since his election in October of 2015. Although Trudeau promised to redact the cap on the PSSSP fund, a fund helping to pay for the education of Indigenous students across Canada, Trudeau did not end the 2% cap.Such a decision leaves indigenous learners across the countries struggling to pay for an education that was promised to them.

The recently announced repackaged loan repayment package that now allows graduates of PSE to only start paying after they start making $25,000 per year has been suggested by many to be simply a restating of an old package and quite frankly not enough to satisfy or end the complexities of student life such as student poverty that many face, with special attention not being seen for international students who are not as fortunate to receive funding through grants or loans from the provincial or federal government.

However Gerry Byrne, Minister of Advanced Education for Newfoundland and Labrador however says his door remains open for more conversation.

“A lot of the students I know by first name because of my previous meetings with them, so I felt very comfortable to ask them to meet with us later today or in the future to discuss PSE funding in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

“I think the day of student action was a huge success, for everyone. Students were able to raise the issue of access to PSE, but this is something I feel is a success for us all, because by raising the profile of this discussion it creates the platform for an ongoing discussion, because there really does need to be one. “

Currently, Byrne said, taxpayers pay about $26,000 per student to help offset the rising cost of tuition and PSE here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Byrne cited that having a well-funded grant and loan system here in the province as well as a the country has afforded low-income and middle-income students the ability to access three times the tuition cost each year.

However the blame game continues on between both the university administration and the government, with each stakeholder blaming the other. When asked who decides the cost of tuition at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Minister Byrne said, “I can say with absolute confidence that it is ultimately the university who decides that. It’s only fair to say that they do so in consultation with the government, but it is the university that has the statutory authority and control over tuition fees. The government’s role in this is to work with the university to meet some needs, and we do this by funding the tuition freeze with about $52-million this year.”

Byrne says, that while they help they are not involved in the decision-making part of the tuition cost and that the government had no prior knowledge of the tuition framework committee conversation.