Tuition Thaw, Student Debt, and the Future of Memorial

On the afternoon of September 15, 1925 the first post secondary institution in the Dominion of Newfoundland was formally opened in St. John’s, with Governor William Allardyce presiding over the ceremony. There were so many people in attendance, The Evening Telegram reported at the time, that there wasn’t enough room for everybody in the hall “and seats had to be placed in the balconies which overlooked the Hall from the corridor on the upper floor.”

Watching the pomp and ceremony unfold were also Lady Allardyce, Newfoundland’s Prime Minister Walter Monroe, the Colonial Secretary, and other representatives of the ruling elite like the Bennets, the Chief Justice, Lady Horwood, and Lord and Lady Outerbridge. The college was made possible through a contribution through the Carnegie Corporation in New York; it not only provided funds to get the college off the ground but would also chip in funding over the years.

The reporter observed that the college’s two years of schooling, carried on out of high school, would allow local students to continue their education and prepare them for further study abroad and enter Canadian and American universities as third year students.

Today, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador has a sprawling centrally located St. John’s campus, the Grenfell Campus in the west coast city of Corner Brook, an emerging Labrador campus, and a satellite school in Harlow, just outside of London, U.K. It’s also flirting with the idea of adding a law school to its repertoire. (Though the provincial government put a temporary halt to any expansion plans in its May 2021 budget.)

The small Memorial University College that opened on Parade Street marked a first for Newfoundland, where previously people had to leave the Dominion to get a post-secondary education. But it also served a special function, which can be found in its name: memorial. It served as a way to honour the dead from the Great War, which was still fresh in the public’s memory, as a living memorial. After the Second World War, the university included those latest soldiers who had served.

After Confederation with Canada in 1949, the college achieved university status in August of that year and was renamed Memorial University of Newfoundland, with the additional “and Labrador” tacked on in May 2021. With overcrowding at the Parade street campus, the university moved to its current campus on Elizabeth Avenue in 1961.

In October 1965—a month before a federal election—then-premier Joey Smallwood announced his intention that tuition would be free for students from this province. He said starting in the 1966-67 academic year, the government could be covering tuition, as well as a living allowance. His ambitious declaration was met with cheers from students, reported The Muse. But the program didn’t last three years before it was abandoned.

Memorial University College on Parade Street in St. John’s, under construction in the 1920s. (Photo via The Rooms archives.)

When Memorial was initially opened on Parade Street, having such an institution in Newfoundland and Labrador was thought to be a fitting memorial to those who had served and died, because accessible higher education would benefit the whole country.

But if tuition is priced so far out of the student’s hands—if they have to dig into debt and start their adult lives owing several thousands of dollars that impair their job prospects and quality of life—what does that mean for that original intention?

In this three-part series, The Independent takes a closer look at the end of the Memorial University tuition freeze. Part One explored how those increased tuition costs will hit new (and returning) students—as well as how non-tuition costs to live and study at Memorial have been steadily rising for years, in some cases far beyond the rate of inflation. Part Two looked at why the tuition freeze is ending now, whether the province or the university is driving that decision, and the political vision guiding it.

Finally, in Part Three, we’re looking at what the tuition freeze meant for students (and the province) over the last 22 years—and what it will mean to see it eliminated.

History of the Freeze

Getting the tuition freeze was no easy matter. It was the result of a major student-led movement.

Memorial’s student newspaper The Muse kicked off its first issue of 1999 with a call to attention over “the plight of post-secondary students in Newfoundland and Labrador.” It was a piece called “Open your eyes, Liberal government!” by a young student activist named Dale Kirby.

Kirby—then chairperson for the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Students—argued that since the Liberals had taken office in 1989, “funding for post-secondary education in this province has been reduced with each yearly budget. Tens of millions of dollars have been cut from grants in aid, tuition has increased by over 150 per cent since 1989, and the average student debt has tripled.”

He cited reports like the Department of Education’s Post-Secondary Indicators ‘98 that stated “The effect of the elimination of provincial grants for post-secondary study has led to an increase in the average annual amount borrowed by students. Compared to 1993-94 when grants were available, 1994-95 average loans increased by approximately 100 per cent for Memorial University Students, 75 per cent for public college students and 170 per cent for those studying at private colleges.”

Students in this province had also been shown that they found it harder to pay back loans. In the pages of The Muse, Kirby thundered: “These are the facts. Our students are facing hardships that will last long after their graduation.”

He then called on the students’ elected representatives to pressure the government to address these concerns, adding that education has been consistently shown to be a worthwhile investment.

Kirby went on to have a tumultuous career in provincial politics and is now a professor at Memorial University’s Faculty of Education.

Funny enough—a day before Kirby’s op-ed was published in The Muse—the Liberal government of the day did bring in a financial boost to the university for a tuition freeze.

Front page of The Muse, 22 January 1999. (Screencap via Memorial University Digital Archives.)

On January 14, 1999, it was Brian Tobin—on the eve of calling a snap provincial election—who announced the government would increase the operating grants for Memorial and the College of the North Atlantic. It was a commitment of an additional $7 million to MUN, which increased its operating budget to $106 million.

“We have increased the operating budgets of these institutions in the hopes that it will allow both the university and the college to freeze their tuition levels for the next two years,” Tobin said in a press release.

“The student debt load ratio is a national concern,” the premier continued. “The funding measures we have announced today will go a long way in addressing both the needs of the students and the needs of our public education institutions.”

Foote—decades before she’d become Lt. Gov—said: “This additional funding should facilitate a freeze on tuition rates, thereby eliminating the uncertainty generated by rising tuition costs that students have had to cope with every year.”

Kirby was also quoted by The Evening Telegram’s coverage of the tuition freeze announcement, arguing the government’s financial support didn’t go far enough.

“We needed funding restored to pre-1994 levels. This announcement today is not groundbreaking at all,” he said at the time. “We needed about five times the money announced today,” calling $12 million a pittance. “It’s like we should be saying to the government, ‘thanks for stealing less.’”

(In response, Tobin called Kirby’s comments “ridiculous, disappointing and, I would say, politically motivated.”)

Over the next few years, the cost of tuition was controlled and massaged into something that looked affordable. When Roger Grimes took over the government reins from Tobin, he too tackled tuition, lowering MUN tuition fees—25 percent over three years.

Now, this wasn’t done out of benevolence but done in the face of mounting public pressure to control the cost of post-secondary education. At the time, Tobin was apparently quoted as saying “the students made it impossible for me not to freeze tuition fees.”

Keeping Tuition on Ice

When the PCs came into office, they also carried on the freeze policy, as well as building on it by expanding the post-secondary employment program. In fact, they’d cut provincial loan interest, and create and grow a non-repayable grant program. All the while, they pressured Memorial to backtrack efforts to raise fees on international students.

However, the status of the freeze has hardly been enshrined and safe. Over the years it has been threatened, but it has held on—but always hung on government’s financial support. In 2015, Paul Davis’s short-lived administration slashed $33.6 million from the operating grant and $14.7 million from the capital grant, as well as cancelling its commitment to a $1.1 million strategic initiative.

Paul Davis. (2014 File Photo.)

In July 2015 Memorial’s board of regents voted to increase tuition by 30 percent for graduate students, sparing international undergraduate students. Then-president Gary Kachanoski even said in a statement: “next year, if there are further reductions in government funding, further tuition fee increases and budget cuts will have to be considered.”

You can see how tenuous the tuition freeze has been in the last few years.

At the time, student organizers and some staff vowed to keep fighting to protect and even go further with protecting the freeze.

Back in 2013, The Globe And Mail hailed the tuition freeze and the good it had done for the people of the province. Journalist Jane Taber argued “lower tuition means lower student debt, so many students are not enticed to move away after graduation.”

The government of the day certainly saw the benefits they were reaping. Commenting on the situation in NL during the time of the freeze, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Advanced Education Joan Shea told the Globe “we were in a very serious deficit position. We wanted to make sure in order to move this province forward we needed our young people to be educated, and we felt that an investment in education could not go wrong.”

Taber also noted that other Canadian students came to Memorial for its tuition and ended up staying.

Shea made the link pretty clear: “We have a declining birth rate and aging population and we also have less and less students graduating every year from our high schools… we are not having a declining enrolment in our postsecondary school institutions.”

Nine years later, it seems that is no longer seen to be good for the government.

A Tuition Freeze Advocate Becomes a Tuition Freeze Opponent

Former student crusader Dale Kirby would go on to obtain a PhD and serve in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly from 2011 to 2019. Following a dramatic ousting from the NDP in 2013, he joined the Liberals and became Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development in the Dwight Ball government from 2015 to 2018. He was later expelled from the Liberal caucus, and ended his political career sitting as an Independent MHA.

Kirby did not respond to repeated requests from The Independent for comment.

However, he recently wrote an article in University Affairs titled “Can lower tuition fees grow a population?” In it, he set out to tackle what was commonly held as one of the goods brought about by lower tuition: that it brought people to the province and they set down roots here and stayed, thus boosting the population.

“Over the 22 years that Memorial’s tuition freeze has been in effect, many justifications for its continuation have been provided by its supporters, though there has been little study of the impact for the university, its students, and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which has subsidized it,” Kirby wrote.

Dale Kirby. (2016 File Photo.)

His research, which started in 2010 to look at why Maritime students chose to enroll at MUNL, found many were lured by the lower cost of tuition. They also cited program availability and MUNL’s reputation. In 2020 he said the research followed up with that Maritime cohort to find out how they fared at university, if they stayed in the province, and identify why they might have stayed and others left.

Kirby added that the results of this 2020 study were published in the Canadian Journal for Educational Administration and Policy and he argued that his findings show that the notion that MUNL’s tuition entices people to stay and help grow the province is just a myth.

“Any contribution to the population growth would, in fact, appear to be minimal,” he argued.

The study found that many of the Maritime cohort left after their first year of studies, and 78 percent of these students had left the province in the 10 year period. The portion who stuck around did so for employment, education, other wellness factors like health, and to stay near friends and partners. He said those who left cited employment opportunities, the cost of living, and wanting to be closer to friends and their family.

“These follow-up study findings should serve as a cautionary tale,” Kirby concluded. “Contrary to the often repeated claim that, as a result of lower, frozen tuition fees, out-of-province Canadian students were staying in Newfoundland and thus helping to provide a bulwark against population aging, the results of the follow-up study do not support such a notion. Because of attrition, nearly half of the students in the 2010 Maritime student cohort did not graduate from Memorial. Many of them returned home without completing a credential and compared to the national graduation rate, these students significantly underperformed.”

Reading through the published research paper, it should be kept in mind the original 2010 cohort he followed had 279 students and only included those who had physically relocated to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to pursue full-time on-campus studies. That meant students who were taking distance education courses weren’t included. Of that 279 students, only 140 individuals completed the followup 2020 survey.

While Kirby’s study seems to be aimed at lamenting the use of tax dollars to subsidize the wasted education from out of province students, the number of Maritime students don’t make up a large portion of MUNL students. By the study’s estimation, in 2010 approximately 10 percent of students— or 1414 students—were from the Maritimes, out of an entire population of 14,143.

MUNL is still by and large the university of choice for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. So the tuition freeze has overwhelmingly been to locals’ advantage.

Rising Debt Dissuading International Students

This all comes at a time when the provincial government is both hoping to attract and retain skilled workers, so the hike might seem like a slap in the face.

Students will now emerge from MUNL with a four year bachelor degree saddled with more debt, and could in turn push off major life events like buying a home or having children. If they need to pay off a bigger chunk of debt, job offers might call them off to other provinces, and they might never return.

Gaayathri Sukantha Murugan, former councillor at large with the Grenfell Campus Student Union and currently representing the union provincially at Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador—who the The Independent spoke with in Part Two—said that with inflation and the lack of employment opportunities, it’s hard for international students to make that much money to afford the basic necessities. And in fact, it will be harder for average people to cover the higher tuition—noting NL is still not a wealthy province when compared to others. 

“And we do have an aging population so for a province that wants to try and keep people here, they’re not really giving people options or opportunities or the support necessary to stay,” she said.

Murugan said students come here for the lower tuition, which is what also attracted her to the university in the first place. “And I’ve talked with a lot of other people and they said the same thing. And I feel like kinda privatizing education and making it elitist is not the way to go. Especially for it being the only university in the province, a lot of people even inside the province itself aren’t necessarily going to be able to afford this increase.”

Murugan said students, especially international ones, saved money for the upcoming semester with a certain expected amount in mind, only to have that thrown out the window.

Dozens of international students expressed concern over proposed tuition fee hikes at a May 2015 town hall organized by the student unions. Photo by Justin Brake.

International students frequently take on several jobs to afford necessities—costs which are also going up due to the pandemic—while also not being able to use the summer jobs program. So they’re not able to make money, save to pay off their debt or get job experiences, she added.

Many potential students will look at the amount of debt they would graduate with and forgo post-secondary education. One UK study, Fear of Debt and Higher Education Participation, found that students from lower income backgrounds, single parents, and racialized communities were more averse to taking on student debt.

Debt has also been found to have negative impacts on a person’s mental health.

For many, student loan repayment kicks in right after they graduate, so it impacts what jobs they take and where, all to help cover those costs. And as a result impacts other major life decisions like buying a house, or delaying getting married and having children.

When asked about the concern of many students starting off their professional careers with more debt, Minister Tom Osborne told The Independent in an email: “it is important to note that through the Newfoundland and Labrador Debt Reduction Grant Program, any student receiving provincial student loans is eligible for total forgiveness of that loan at graduation. This is an automatic process done after the student has graduated.”

Dismissing Student Debt

For others, the end of the tuition freeze at MUNL isn’t a big deal.

“It’s been a very good 20 years for students of Newfoundland and Labrador. And now they’re being pulled back to the Canadian average,” Alex Usher, Higher Education Strategy Associates president and editor-in-chief of Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor, told The Independent. 

Usher was also previously hired by Memorial to be on its Strategic Planning Facilitation Team to put together a five-year strategic plan, ranging from 2021 to 2026. According to an ATIPP, Usher was paid a consulting fee of $34,500, split between 2020 and 2021.

While he says it’ll be a shock to students—“it’s a big jump; it won’t be pleasant”—he dismissed the idea that access to university would be significantly impacted, citing a similar case when Quebec ended its 20 year long tuition freeze in the early 1990s, followed by a doubling of tuition fees. He said there was no effect on enrollment.

“It’s all covered by student loans anyway,” he said of the additional tuition, explaining if you have a decent student aid system, the big changes in tuition don’t change things. In Australia, there was a doubling of tuition fees last year in some fields of study, but Usher argued it seems to have had zero impacts. The UK tripled tuition fee in 2012, going from £3000 to £9000 and he argued it also had zero impact.

“Basically it’s like saying, we’ve got this Mercedes that we’re selling. We used to be selling it for $5000, now we’re selling it for $10,000. You’re still going to buy it because it’s a great deal,” said Usher.

He also dismissed the idea that a larger debt load negatively impacts graduates from pursuing certain careers, delaying milestones like marriage, buying a home, or delaying having children. He cited the Canada student loans program, which is where most of the loans come from.

“Nobody pays back a cent under the Liberal promise of the last election, nobody pays back a cent until they earn $50,000… Up til [$62,500], you’ve got a debt of about $20, $25,000 for the next little bit [and] you only pay 20 cents for every dollar in income,” Usher explained. “There’s no interest on the loan. You pay nothing for five years if you have a kid. These are among the most generous loans in the world.”

Students protesting on Water Street in downtown St. John’s, 2015. Photo by Jon Parsons.

Usher reiterated there’s zero evidence the tuition hike, with a generous loan system, changes anything.

“If there’s no rise in tuition fees, you’re looking at significant cutbacks. And that has access impacts too if you cut programs.”

He also pointed out NL is now facing a very different economic landscape than it did in the 1990s, when the tuition freeze was implemented. Moreover, he said he agreed with the recommendation that came out of the PERT, explaining the point made was: do you want significant tax hikes or do you want to balance tax hikes with some kind of service cuts?

“We used to have a Cadillac and now we want a Honda Accord,” Usher said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a government saying that. Sometimes you can afford the Cadillac and sometimes you can’t.”

There was one thing about MUNL’s situation that did stand out to Usher as unique and that was the way the tuition fee increase was being handled. Rather than have all students—both in-coming and current students—pay the increase, it’s being grandfathered in with a phased approach for the current students.

“That’s actually really important because nowhere else in Canada has this ever happened. Where they’ve protected existing students from tuition increases. That is new.”

When asked if this phased approach could be a dividing tactic by the university to pacify current students who might be more willing to protest, Usher was dismissive.

“If you want to see a conspiracy go ahead. There’s no question this policy will reduce the opposition to the increase. Is that why they adopted that position?” Usher added there’s a good moral argument behind it though. It wouldn’t be fair to surprise students with it when they’d already agreed to pay a certain amount for their degree.

Fighting the Fees and the Case Against Tuition

Grenfell Campus Student Union president and former Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador campaign coordinator Mary Feltham said the CFS doesn’t endorse tuition increases and has its own national campaign to oppose it called Fight the Fees campaign. There is also a provincial movement called Education Is a Right!

“We see the value in having free and affordable education to enhance our economy and to help our province flourish and to ensure that the health of all of our community members and the future of our students, the future of the youth becomes something that is positive,” Feltham told The Independent. “Rather than something that is a burden with debt and trying to fix all of the mistakes that some of the current leaders have been making for us.”

Mary Feltham. Photo: Tom Cochrane.

As well, she cited other countries that don’t charge students for post secondary education, like Norway. So there is another way to treat education.

Back in June, students gathered in front of the downtown Colonial Building for an anti-austerity protest, where people called for the provincial government to do its part to maintain the tuition freeze.

The protest was organized by the Canadian Federation of Students’ St. John’s chapter, and also brought together groups like Black Lives Matter and the Indigenous Activist Collective.

“Accessible education has been something that this province has long been proud of,” Kat McLaughin, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students’ St. John’s chapter, told the crowd who had gathered at the rally. “It’s something that attracts people to our province and it’s something that encourages our community members to stay here, to live here, and to raise their families here.”

“For me, I specifically came here for the tuition rates. I come from a low-income background, as a first-generation student, and my only opportunity to access post-secondary was through MUN—even factoring in the high living cost, the cost for travel, and losing the ability to stay at home.”

To voice their displeasure, Grenfell Campus Student Union led a protest back in late March to coincide during a visit by President Timmons.

Former MUNSU’s Executive Director of External Affairs, Communications, and Research

Hilary P. Hennessey recalled that MUNSU was disheartened to learn the tuition freeze was being axed and they’ve advocated in keeping in and even going further reducing tuition. She said they do want the funding support brought back.

“This is very serious, this creates major implications going forward. We will not give up the fight to education, as we believe it is a right. [It’s] something that everyone in this province as well as outside this province, need to have access to,” Hennessey told The Independent.

MUNSU is also still hearing from people who are concerned, such as parents and people from marginalized groups. Many international students will no longer see MUNL as an affordable option and will choose to go elsewhere, she added.

“MUNL really loses its appeal when it’s not the cheapest university in Atlantic Canada. People from international provinces or international countries will see better options elsewhere.”

The University Centre at Memorial University St. John’s campus. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten.

When asked if the decision to ease current students into the tuition increase while having the cost immediately go up for incoming students was a tactic to divide current students and future students, Hennessey said can see where the insight is coming from. Future students don’t have a union to lobby for their interests until they join the university.

“A lot of students who are going to face the tuition increase and face repercussions of them increasing tuition do not know where to go for support,” Hennessy said. “They’re not members of the MUN student union at this time and they won’t be until they’re enrolled as undergraduate students.”

She also said MUNSU is focusing its attention on the provincial government when it comes to exerting influence and hopefully appealing the decision to back away from supporting the tuition freeze.

“We really want the provincial government to understand the implications that will arise from this decision. As well we also want them to know how important it is to fund post-secondary education. We’re actively creating ways to get members who are impacted involved.”

There is a petition going around they will send to the provincial government to show the support the tuition freeze has.

More than 20 years ago, the provincial government—then also led by the Liberals—brought in the tuition freeze. Now they are eliminating it. Hennessy isn’t sure what changed in those years, but can hazard a guess.

“If I was to reflect on everything that has happened in the last few years, I would definitely say there’s a lack of compassion,” she said. “There’s a lack of understanding. And there’s a lack of value in students within this province and how they are the future of this province. And our country, really.”

“Because these are the people who will be working those jobs that these people are currently in, in years to come,” Hennessy concluded. “If you want our economy to thrive, you need to have people who are going to stay and work within it. You need to give vulnerable populations, marginalized members an opportunity to get an education.”

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

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