Memorial’s Tuition Thaw Leaves Students in the Cold

In just a few short months, a new university semester will kick off. While many students strolling through Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador’s campuses on either coast of the island will be returning students, counting down to the last classes they need to finish up their degrees and start their careers, a number of them will be new students.

Sometimes you can spot them from how they are whipping their heads around, looking at the unfamiliar buildings and trying to make it to class on time—or navigating the library, wandering the aisles to find the right section.

But in the fall of 2022, they’ll have an extra burden to shoulder: a financial one.

That’s because the tuition freeze that made the university one of the most affordable in the country has ended after 22 years. It undoubtedly helped thousands of students get post-secondary education with less debt. Back in May 2021, Premier Andrew Furey’s Liberal government announced it was phasing out its annual $68.4-million subsidy that helped keep those tuition costs low. As a result, last July Memorial University announced it was ending the tuition freeze.

In this three-part series, The Independent takes a closer look at the end of the tuition freeze. Part One explores how those increased tuition costs will hit new (and returning) students—as well as how non-tuition costs to live and study at MUNL have been steadily rising for years, in some cases far beyond the rate of inflation. Part Two looks at the political and economic reasons why the tuition freeze is ending now, and whether that decision was driven by the provincial Liberals or Memorial University administrators. Finally, in Part Three, we look at the history of the tuition freeze, what it meant for students (and the province) over the last 22 years, and what it will mean to see it eliminated.

The End of the Tuition Freeze

Previously, a four-year undergraduate degree for a local student cost $10,830. But when the tuition hike comes into effect in September 2022, it will cost $25,480—an increase of 135 percent.

International students will also be feeling the pinch to their pocketbooks too. In the fall of 2021, they paid $48,680 for a four-year degree, which will grow by 74 percent to cost $84,930.

Students who were already enrolled in Memorial in the 2021-2022 academic year will get some breathing room but will see a four percent increase over the next few years, when in 2026 they will be paying $702 per course.

Canadian students from outside this province will also see the price creep up. In the fall, the cost per course will be $343, rising by four percent over the next few years until it matches $702 in the fall of 2026. Meanwhile, international students will pay $2,340 per course in the fall of 2026.

So to go from $255 per course in 2021 to $702 in 2026 will result in a 175 percent increase in five years.

When the news of the tuition increase was announced, Memorial argued it still remained the most affordable university in the Atlantic region.

“Adjusting tuition fees was not a decision that was made lightly,” President Vianne Timmons said in a statement on July 9, 2021. “This change is necessary given the provincial government’s planned $68.4-million cut to the university grant over the next five years, effectively ending government support for the tuition freeze.”

Of course, these numbers are all old news. But they are going to have an impact for years to come on the province and its citizens.

During the 1990s many Canadian universities were raising the cost of tuition. But in 1999 a tuition freeze was established by the provincial government. In those 22 years, thousands of students have availed of the lower tuition costs and there’s no doubt it made higher education more obtainable for people in this province and beyond.

But that controlled cost for tuition only tells a portion of the story of what it costs to attend MUNL. While tuition has been stabilized, the additional costs that come with a university degree have only been getting higher.

Education Interrupted

On a cold, blistering March day, I logged on to Facebook Messenger for the first time for a meeting with Mae Dalton-Summers. She’s active in the local arts scene and an organizer behind the Sci-Fi on the Rock convention. (I’d previously interviewed her about costume making.)

On this day, I’m talking to her about the tuition hike.

Dalton-Summers attended MUNL from 2004 to 2009, majoring in business and a lot of classics courses. As a student she always worked, she said, holding down multiple jobs so that it was possible to pay for classes and living expenses. There were times she worked 50 hours a week, taking a few courses each semester to make it work. But it came with a cost that wasn’t always financial.

“It’s just burn out; you’re working 50 hours a week and doing four and five courses so I clawed it back to two or three courses,” she said.

Then in 2009 she lost two of her grandmothers a few weeks apart and decided she needed to take a break from university. “So emotional burnout. Financial burnout, physical burnout. So I’m going to take a break. Which is a terrible idea because then you have to try and go back.”

Mae Dalton-Summers. Photo: Kit Sora.

Just two courses shy of a degree, she’s tried to go back to MUNL twice in the past. But she hasn’t been able to sign up for those courses because they’re required courses; they fill up fast and preference is given to already enrolled students, she said.

Now those two courses will cost Dalton-Summers $1200—not including additional enrollment fees.

“It’s going to cost me more to finish these two courses than it did an entire semester when I started,” she noted.

After Dalton-Summers left MUNL more than a decade ago, she started a job in retail and launched a side photography business, but sees the benefit of having her degree in hand. In her post-university career she’s gained experience in marketing—but when it comes to applying for jobs that will further her career, she said she’s passed over by people who hold that credential.

“I’ve had interviews with jobs and they were like, ‘But where’s your paper?’ So right now I’m in this position where I’ve got all this experience but it just takes someone with a piece of paper to knock me out of the running.”

As for the sharp increase in tuition, she feels that the cost couldn’t be controlled indefinitely but wishes that if the cost had to go up, it could have been a slower roll out rather than expecting people to suddenly pay twice the anticipated amount.

A Hefty Burden For Out of Town Students

While the suddenly skyrocketing tuition has left people scrambling to figure out how they’ll pay for MUNL in the fall, the associated costs to attend university have been creeping up for years.

If you’re a student from the city and were able to keep your accommodations at Chez Parent, you were likely able to keep the cost of a degree down. You didn’t have to find an apartment, meals were included at home, and you might have been able to get a ride to and from campus—or you availed of a bus pass or had access to a car. Suffice to say, the tuition freeze really benefited students who lived in St. John’s.

But previous MUNL course catalogs show that the cost for on-campus accommodations and the meal plan have consistently been on the rise. And those costs have definitely hit students who had to pack up and relocate their lives—sometimes hundreds of kilometres away—to St. John’s for most of the year over several years.

The Breakdown: How Students Have Been Paying More (Without Raising Tuition)

For simplicity’s sake, I’m looking at full-time undergraduate students; not graduate students or those enrolled in co-op programs or nursing, who all have different costs for courses. I’m also sticking to St. John’s campus numbers too, so not calculating the costs for the Grenfell campus, Marine Institute, or the College of the North Atlantic.

These numbers are also for Newfoundland and Labrador students, as different prices for other Canadian students have been introduced in recent years, and international students pay additional costs on top of higher tuition.

A (double occupancy) Room With a View

Attending university often has students packing up and moving to a new city, and that means they have to find a place to rent for most of the year. Often the most convenient option is to apply for on-campus accommodations, which comes with a layer of convenience when you live where you study. That’s not even looking at the cost of packing up and moving into the city, which could mean an airplane flight, a trip on the DRL bus, or arranging a ride.

Huddled together near the easten edge of the St. John’s campus is the nine-building complex known as Paton College, tucked behind the Gushue Dining Hall. It’s secluded within a canopy of lush trees and often feels like it exists in its own bubble. All the residences are more or less uniform in design, though they come with the names of illustrious individuals who were early benefactors of post-secondary education in Newfoundland and Labrador, like Lord Rothermere, and have distinct patina green roofs, like the aged copper on Parliament Hill. It’s all very collegiate.

Barnes House at Paton College on the MUNL St. John’s Campus. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten.

Construction on the complex began in 1962 and had mostly wrapped up by 1968. According to the MUNL website, Paton College was renovated in 2015 and the buildings have a mix of housing styles, including one room and double rooms that can house about 100 students. The double occupancy room is always cheaper than the single room, so that’s what I looked at over the years.

According to MUNL in 1998-99, a student renting a double room at Paton College paid $672 per semester. That price tag stayed steady for a number of years but if you leap ahead to 2007-2008, suddenly the same double-room would set a person back $1,056—a 57% jump from ‘98.

In 2010 that room had creeped up to $1,087 and in 2014 it was $1,387

If you checked in again—after the renovation—in 2016, the same room now cost $1,947, though that price is still stable for this coming fall. The cost for accommodations has been kept static since 2016 as part of MUNL policy.

Still, that’s a 189.7 percent skyrocket in price in the same double room since ‘98.

According to the Bank of Canada that 1998 cost of $672, with inflation, would be $1,106.22 in today’s dollar. And remember, wages haven’t kept up with inflation.

Moreover, that’s just looking at the historically lowest cost accommodations available to MUNL students. The university has added other accommodations, like Macpherson College, which will set you back $2,591 for a single occupancy, two bedrooms per suite.

Last year CBC reported the demand for on-campus housing was so high they were filled to capacity, leaving some students looking for places to live elsewhere in the city. At the time director of student residences and ancillary operations at Memorial Bruce Belbin estimated there were 150 people on the waitlist for campus housing.

Housing on campus is first come, first served.

Others have also sounded an alarm over the lack of student housing in St. John’s.

Montreal-based real estate developer WerkLiv is interested in constructing three Apartment Buildings with 205 units and parking at 6 Lambe’s Lane, a stone’s throw away from the Aquarena. However, it’s unknown what the price per unit will be and if it’ll be comparable to MUNL campus options.

Some councilors have welcomed the proposal, like Cllr Ophelia Ravencroft, whereas Cllr Sandy Hickman voiced concern that this new development would take away from filling Memorial University’s existing accomodations and the people who rent out their basements to students.

On August 6, 2021 MUNL VP of Administration and Finance sent a letter to the City listing numerous issues it had with the potential WerkLiv development, including that it would be competition for its residences.

“As you are aware, Memorial’s residences were built and operated with tax payer support and as a not-for profit, we strive to offer reasonably priced, high-quality accommodations to students at cost recovery for annual operations,” the letter reads. “A [for-profit] development of 205 units (and currently unknown total inhabitants) may impact Memorial’s ability to maintain its current business model.”

On Feb 16, 2022 MUNL’s official twitter account sent out this message on its stance on WerkLiv:

“Memorial is fully supportive of affordable student housing and does not oppose the Werkliv [sic] development. We asked important questions last summer during the public consultation. Werkliv was open to hearing our concerns. Since then, we’ve had positive discussions with the company.”

At the May 16 council meeting the project was unanimously approved—including by Cllr Sandy Hickman, who had been the sole holdout previously. He pointed out that Memorial University had been quiet about its past objections to WerkLiv. 

Meals To Go

If you’re living on campus, you need to eat and a meal plan at the dining hall is required, though there are some options of what plan students select.

In 2000-2001, the 19 meals per week semester plan cost $1,278. That same meal plan in 2007-08 had gone up to $1,677. And in 2010-11 again, the 19 meals per week was up, this time to $2,015—that is a 57.6 percent increase in cost in a decade.

Gushue Dining Hall at Paton College on the MUNL St. John’s Campus. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten.

Looking at the same meal plan for 2014’s fall semester cost $2,300, and it now came with $200 flex dollars which could be spent at some of the on-campus cafes.

In 2015-2016, it had gone up to $2,325 with 200 flex dollars for a semester. In 2016-2017, that cost had jumped to $2,395 with 200 flex dollars. In 2017-2018, the cost had increased to $2,515 per semester with no mention of flex dollars in that year’s calendar.

MUNL has since stopped offering the 19 meal per week option. Instead, there is now a 5-day unlimited meal plan that costs $2,640 and $200 flex dollars.

Calculating for inflation, the $1,278 weekly 19-meal plan from the year 2000 would now be $2,025.87 as of June 2022.

As of 2013, the MUNL contract food service provider has been Aramark, which includes its residential food services and five locations on campus. In the past, there has been outcry from students that the food served to them has been “slop”, followed by demands to improve its quality.

Aramark declined to speak with The Independent on the reason behind the meal plan price increases, and directed comment to MUNL.

MUNL student residences & ancillary operations director Bruce Belbin explained over email to The Independent that “rates do go up annually as part of the contract agreement and reflecting annual expenses, but can only do so in written advance and our approval and no more than once a year.”

There is a calculation used to adjust the meal plan price, which takes into consideration the increase in the food component of the Consumer Price Index (45 percent), the actual or projected salary increase for bargaining unit employees (45 percent) of Aramark, and the actual or projected salary increase for management employees (10 percent) of Aramark.

“Generally we leave any price increase for annual review via the company, they propose. We won’t ever increase any fees and rates unless absolutely necessary, keeping our students in mind, as in this case as a contract there will be annual increases because of costs, but usually within cost of living numbers. (…) If it was ever beyond that then we would negotiate to maintain a reasonable figure,” wrote Belbin.

Again, even accounting for inflation, you can see the trend for the same product going up in cost—a cost students from outside St. John’s are more likely to pay.

Recreation: Worth Its Weight?

All MUNL St. John’s students have to pay a rec fee; whether or not you use the on campus gym and sports facility The Works.

In 2007-2008 the fee was $40 per semester but by 2010-11 it had inched up to $51.80; a 29.5 percent increase.

A few years later, in 2014-2015 it had creeped up to $56.86. In 2015-2016, it cost $57.94, only to go up in 2016-2017 to $58.18. In 2017-2018, it was again just a tiny bit higher at $59.76. In 2021-2022 it set students back at $62.98 per semester.

While it may not seem like a big jump to go from $40 to almost $63, it still shows a steady trend for costs increasing. It’s also a 57.4 percent jump in that timespan between 2007 to 2021.

And once more, $40 in 2007 would be $53.69 in today’s figures.

It’s also worth noting that the recreation complex was never even supposed to have fees. Initially this was meant to be at no additional costs to students through a fundraising campaign in the late 1990s (the Opportunity Fund). But in 2001 the university shifted gears and announced a rec fee.

Front page of The Muse, 12 October 2001. (Screencap of the Memorial University Digital Archives.)

As a result, in October of that year students protested at the St. John’s campus’s clock tower.  Some of the students who spoke with The Muse at the event were frustrated with the fee, with one saying, “There is going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to take advantage of the facilities; so what is there forty dollars going towards?” Another said she simply couldn’t afford the additional fee and was already strained financially.

Later that month The Muse reported that there was even some light poster-related vandalism when some unknown individual(s) tore down posters supporting the rec fee.

At the time, MUNSU vice president external Chris Vatcher told The Muse, “I think [the poster removal] goes to show that students are… outraged by the way they’ve been treated by the university, in the planning of this Field House and the implementation of a mandatory fee. I think a lot of students feel cheated by the university.”

Some Additional Fees Required

When you look at previous MUNL calendars, it will sometimes give an estimate for how much students will need to put aside for books. For instance, in the 1998-99 semester it advised students to have $350 budgeted for books, but the calendar stopped advising that years ago. (We’ve all bought books for one class that pushed the $300 dollar threshold.)

There are also the student organization fees, and while they don’t go to Memorial, they are still required. These student fees are subject to vote by all student organization members, meaning students can determine how much they’re willing to pay.

In 1998-99, that fee for the fall semester was $176 in total and included the Student Health Plan ($81), student union fee ($25), and Canadian Federation of Students’ Fee ($3, though only paid once a year), dental plan ($65) and the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Students’ fee ($2).

Checking in around 2007, these fall fees amounted to $192.64: Student Union fee ($35), Canadian Federation of Students’ fee ($3.82), Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador fee ($3.82), Media Fee ($4), Student Health Plan ($81) and Dental Plan ($65)—though students can drop out of the student health plan and dental plan.

In 2010-2011, that had jumped to $197.12, which was made up of the Student Union fee ($39.10), Canadian Federation of Students’ fee ($4.01), Canadian Federation of Students – Newfoundland and Labrador fee ($4.01), Media Fee ($4), Student health plan ($81) and Dental Plan ($65).

Those student organization fees went up in 2014-2015 to $201.51. In 2017-2018, that was now $205.14.

For 2021-2022, student fees were $242.22—the driving factor in this increase is the jump in the cost of the student health plan ($102.50) and dental plan ($77.50).

Bearing the Burden of All These New Costs

When Mae Dalton-Summers first moved from her hometown to take on-campus courses in St. John’s, she said she lived in a three-bedroom apartment she shared with her two sisters and paid $675 a month. Since then, the cost of living has gotten more expensive. Today the same amount wouldn’t be able to get her a one-bedroom apartment.

A 2018 Royal Bank of Canada report, The Cost of Credentials: The shifting burden of post-secondary tuition in Canada, noted that in that year, tuition fees had hit a 28 year high, and those high costs ended up becoming burdens for years to come.

In addition—barring Quebec—since 1982 tuition costs across the country had risen faster than inflation. Governments had also been cutting back university support since the 1990s.

Statistics Canada also reported that tuition fees for degree programs increased in 2020-21:

“Nationally, students enrolled full-time in undergraduate programs will pay, on average, $6,580 in 2020/2021, up 1.7% from the previous year.”

For comparison, under MUNL’s new 2022 tuition regime, students will pay around $6000 per year.

Minister of Education Tom Osborne wasn’t available for an interview, but did respond to questions from The Independent in an email statement.

Tom Osborne. (2019 File Photo.)

“There are no plans to reinstitute the tuition freeze funding. Prior to Budget 2021, Memorial came to us with a plan that would have seen tuition increase while the tuition freeze funding was maintained,” Osborne wrote. “This obviously went against the purpose of that funding, and so it prompted our decision to eliminate that funding over five years while redirecting funding toward student financial aid and the introduction of a new Tuition Relief Grant.”

He also said that MUNL still maintains its spot as one of the most affordable universities in the country while still being heavily subsidized. He added 79.1 percent of MUNLs operating budget came from government grants in 2018, where the Canadian average was 46.9 per cent.

“While Memorial has made the decision to change tuition this coming September, we have maintained our plan to reduce the funding over five years,” Osborne wrote. “Memorial University’s Board of Regents has sole authority to set tuition rates at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and questions regarding the speed of the change should be directed to them.”

According to a press release, the need-based Tuition Relief Grant is for in-province students who are below certain income thresholds and are eligible for “total forgiveness” of loans at graduation. It will be available this August and provide eligible students with assistance of up to $3,450 per academic year in the form of non-repayable grants.

However, there are strings attached.

One of the requirements for the program is that the student complete at least 80 percent of a full course load each semester or academic year.

If a borrower doesn’t graduate, they have to repay all of the federal and provincial loans they borrowed. If the student transfers to another school or second institution, they might also have to repay the loan. 

“If a student is able to transfer credits and continue the program at another post secondary institution and complete the program the debt forgiveness program would apply to the transferred credits,” wrote Minister Osborne.

But why is this happening now? And who was driving that decision?

Find out in Part Two of The Independent’s in-depth coverage of the rising cost of an education at Memorial University.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

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